An oil painting features a studio populated with books, and a desk groaning under clutter. On the side, a flight of stairs stands in the shadows. In the next painting, you see a blank canvas in a room, with a closed almirah in the backdrop. The top of the cupboard is lined with figurines. Then there are works featuring half opened doors, offering a glimpse of rooms that lie beyond, and shimmering glass orbs that reflect the rooms they lie within. These photo realist works, which form part of the show ‘Retinal Pleasure’, don’t just perfectly mirror the surroundings but carry whiffs of unfinished stories. Walking through the exhibition is like reading a book. Only this time, you don’t turn a page but move from oil work to oil work to uncover the narratives.
Shibu Natesan’s new solo at The Guild, Alibaug, showcases a range of artistic genres, beyond the plein air (outdoor) paintings that he is famous for. So, you will see still life, inspired by kitsch and other objects that the artist collects during his extensive travels, as well as a selection of rare self-portraits “The ongoing show mostly features works from the last five years. Devotion (bhakti) is a common characteristic running through all the still life paintings on display,” says Natesan, who was born in Kerala and is based out of London now. “At the same time, all my paintings have that quality of ‘admiration’ in context to the subject matter.” This is evident in the portraits of M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (1910-1959), who was known for Tamil films such as Haridas, which ran for three years at Broadway Theatre in Chennai. Natesan hails him as Tamil cinema’s first superstar, and enjoys listening to his songs immensely.
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Almost all of the artist’s works—be it still life or landscapes—emerge from his travels. He picks up objects here and there, knowing they might come handy while painting. Each of those knick-knacks speak to him, be it capsule strips, an HMT Sona watch with a black dial, glass marbles or porcelain kitsch sculptures from Tamil Nadu. Natesan ends up finding beauty in the unexpected. So, you will find an oil painting, ‘Snack Packs’ (2022), featuring crumpled packets, while stacks of fabric have been rendered beautifully, with every crease and stray thread in place, in ‘Satin and Velvet’ (2021). There is a quirky work, ‘Vision Blocked’ (2023), which shows a bird standing in front of an open umbrella. Such scenes showcase an astute observant mind, which can find stories anywhere—“Anything that you feel is beautiful, well-structured, well harmonious, that has God’s presence,” is how he describes it.
The self-portraits, on showcase at ‘Retinal Pleasure’, too carry layers of narratives. It is not just a simple depiction of the artist, as he sees himself, but they feature churnings of the mind and the soul. Natesan finds that the act of painting acquires even more intensity, while creating a self-portrait. “In self-portraits, one is always thinking, ‘this is me? This is how I am?,” he states in the exhibition catalogue.
The show features some of his latest landscapes too, inspired by travels to Rajasthan Kerala, and more. “Whatever we see is an extension of my mind. Landscapes are mindscapes,” he says. A significant number of paintings were created during the lockdowns triggered by the covid-19 pandemic.
“My family didn’t think it was safe staying in London. So, we ended up moving to the family home in Snowdonia, Wales, for six months. The area is surrounded by a beautiful mountain range. I painted the garden, mountain and beaches on a daily basis,” he elaborates. Natesan ended up forging a deeply spiritual experience with the surroundings. “Plein air painting is kind of documenting my time in this world. People document their lives with photography, I am documenting with paint. And it feels like an unknown happiness comes to you, everything talks to you,” he states in the catalogue.
Retinal Pleasure can be viewed at The Guild, Alibaug, till 31 August, 10 am to 6.30 pm