Interview with T.V. Santhosh
New York, Oct. 2009: Sophia Powers had the pleasure of meeting with T.V. Santhosh in New York, where he traveled for the recent opening of his show “Blood in Spit” at the Jack Shainman Gallery.
T.V. Santhosh, Bitter Lessons II, 2009, Oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
Sophia Powers: Let’s start by talking a little bit about your show that just opened at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. I know that both your B.A. and your M.F.A. were in sculpture, but this recent show is dominated by paintings. Can you talk about your work in these two media, and perhaps reflect on the shift of emphasis from sculpture to painting that we’ve seen in your work as of late?
T.V. Santhosh: Well, my shows continue to feature sculptures so I’m not sure you could say that I’ve shifted away from sculpting. But, yes, there was a gap of couple of years when I concentrated much on painting, and in the process, painting took a new direction and sculpture got bit sidelined. In 2005, when I returned to sculpture, I had to go back in time to connect with the language I had left behind. As a result, it opened up new possibilities in terms of linguistic praxis, in a larger context, both sculptures and painting deals with the same issues. It opened up possibility of a dialogue between them by still retaining their differences and similarities. Painting explored the political implications of news report images of very current global happenings and sculpture from history and mythology. What connects between painting and sculpture is the investigation into the history of violence and terror as it evolved trough several phases. The specific issues changed, but the way you look at the world did not. I have been questioning the so-called notions of ‘progress and its side effects’ evolving around the complex idea of ‘enemy and 'nationhood’. So, certain images kept reoccurring in my works, such as the nuclear explosion, which comes up in different ways in different pieces.
SP: Did your work change at all in response to the Mumbai terror attacks last year?
TVS: No, because my works were already about that. There were some works that I did before the attacks but gave them titles only after, like “Do You See What I see,” and “Secret Passage into a Terror-Infested Landmark.” A lot of people thought I did these works after the attacks, but that wasn’t true.
SP: You must have felt almost prophetic.
TVS: Well, I wish I could be so, but you see, these sorts of things keep happening every now and then all over the world.
T.V. Santhosh, Untitled, 2009 Watercolor on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
SP: Would you say there is any element of hope in your work?
TVS: Definitely. For example, there is one painting called “The Advent of a Savior,” that has an image of a pregnant woman taken from a news report about Afghanistan. To me, she almost looked like Mary with her typical veil covering her face, undergoing a sonography test, and the title suggest a possible hope that her child could be a savior. And it connects to a collective imagination of world saving heroes—someone who can be potentially capable of changing this world from its worries and pain.
SP: Did you always want to be an artist?
TVS: Yes, since the very beginning. My elder brother was an applied artist, and growing up with him I always knew that I wanted to be an artist as well. Also I would like to put it this way that perhaps, I’m not intelligent enough to do any other job.
SP: Was there ever a time when you had to take up other work to make a living?
TVS: Yes, I had my piece of struggle. At one stage I had to do some odd jobs, but now I’m doing o.k. After college, though, I wasn’t really sure how to approach galleries, how to show my work…but then things just turned out and I didn’t have to worry that much.
SP: Yeah—congratulations on your recent auction results! (One of his paintings sold for nearly $300,000 in a Christie’s sale in June.)
TVS: Thanks. You certainly get a level of credibility from success at the auction, but it also feels good when you know someone out there has great regard for your works. But apart from that, as an artist, dealing with these kinds of issues can actually pose quite a challenge.
SP: You mentioned that yesterday you visited the MoMA. What were some of your favorite works there?
TVS: There are so many! It’s difficult to say…of course, there’s “Starry Night,” and then so many good pieces by Joseph Boyes. And Max Beckman’s triptych. But these were all pieces that I had seen last time when I came for Armory show as well.
T.V. Santhosh, Living With a Wound II, 2009, Mixed media; Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
SP: Were these the same artist’s you looked up to when you were a student?
TVS: Then I was more into Magritte, de Chirico,… Vermeer. In every phase of art history there is someone. But then, there is not much direct influence from any of these artists in my work, but there are many others.
SP: How about Indian Artists—who are the artists you look up to the most?
TVS: There are just so many! Of course, I like Sudershan (Shetty), Subodh (Gupta), and Riyas (Komu), and I’m very hopeful that many of these Indian artists, including many of the artists whom I have not mentioned here, really have enough potential to bring Indian contemporary art into international art scene, and would be proud of it. I am quite open and always try to understand the context within which an artist is working. Take Vermeer and Mandarin, for example, so different, but Herbert Read could make an insightful comparative study between them. Every artist deals with a different side of the same ultimate reality to arrive at their own interpretations. As a person you will be multi-facetted; your life will contain diverse experiences—so you cannot fragment yourself completely or narrow down your perspective to just one entity alone. Every good artist uncovers a totally different layer of reality. That is the beauty of it.
SP: What’s your working process like? Is it very routine or sporadic? Do you work on just one piece at a time, or return to the same works over and over? Do you listen to anything while you work?
TVS: I work consistently—not with specific timings each day, but I do try to be very disciplined. I work on one piece at a time. Once I start a work, it must be finished. So that keeps me on track. At times I take lot of time in just choosing the image, I may have to go through a series of clarification on why the particular image, what the image might mean to people, and what are all the implications? Perhaps you are not happy with a single image alone, so you can cut and combine until you have a strong statement. All these images are news media generated, just about everything we get directly from the newspaper, which fundamentally manipulates and reconstruct our understanding of the world around us. The first thing you do in the day is look at a newspaper, and every day there is a new bomb blast—some more people dead. So all I want to do is make a sort of investigation into the idea of ‘who is the real enemy’ and these everyday acts of violence and question why they are forever happening.
T.V. Santhosh, Untitled, 2009, Watercolor on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
SP: I know that Kerala has a reputation for being highly literate and socially conscious. Do you feel that your particular focus on violence and the media has anything to do with growing up in the state that you did? Do you identify as a Keralan artist particularly, or is this identity irrelevant to how you see yourself and your work?
TVS: As far as my works are concerned, there is no specific connection with Kerala in terms of cultural nostalgia. But I did live in Kerala for 20 years, and still is well connected, so there was clearly a lot that formed about my understanding of the world around me during that time. Of course, it did matter that Kerala was such a culturally motivated place. I grew up imbibing the intense cultural atmosphere of eighties, watching world-class movies, hooked to Tarkovsky and Bergman. It is true that Kerala has a very high literacy rate, and that people are very engaged with their surroundings—reading the newspapers every day, and talking and arguing about world issues. You know the most watched program in television wasn’t the serials but the news hour! But yes, Kerala has its problems as well.
SP: I know after you left Kerala you went to do your B.F.A. from Santiniketan, and then your M.F.A. from Baroda. Can you tell me a bit about your experience at both of these schools and what you took away from each place?
TVS: Well they were very, very different places—Santiniketan is deeply rooted in tradition while Baroda is just the opposite. Santiniketan produced some of the best artists in India—Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee. Discourses about reassessing Indian modernity were very much alive during my time. They tried to place idea of ‘Contextual Modernism’ of ‘Bengal school’ movement against ‘Bombay Progressives.’ My teachers at Santiniketan inspired me to take from tradition, but I think, as far as my work was concerned, I went on my own way. The talk on Postmodernism was very much on, but not much in practice, to certain extent, Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ seemed to be very influential. ’Baroda Narratives’ bridged the gap between these two schools. There were followers of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar and K. G. Subramanian in both schools. But when I reached Baroda, in the middle of nineties, the scene had changed so much. It’s true that Santiniketan used to be so much about tradition that there is the danger of being oversaturated. But now, I don’t think Santiniketan is the same as it used to be. Though I had to struggle economically, I think I had great time in both the places.
ArtSlant would like to thank T.V. Santhosh and Jack Shainman Gallery for their assistance in making this interview possible.