This may well be the moment to dwell on the interplay between two key gestures in Nai’s oeuvre, two forms of attention to material, experience and the world that have a direct and formative bearing on this artist’s poetics: the scratch and the fold. If the scratch incarnates the more austere, minimalist, drawing-oriented aspect of Nai’s work, the fold embodies its more opulent, baroque, properly sculptural aspect. The scratch gave Nai’s early work its distinctive character, baffling viewers who could not decide whether they were looking at a woodcut, a piece of embroidery or a painting; here, the scratch operated as a measure of removal and load-lightening, of incising pattern. Later, the scratch ignited a series of drawings that Nai executed on wood; he would draw a design on paper, project it onto a board surface, and paint it. The scratch has come to be enshrined as the prime gesture in the murals that the artist has been working on in recent years – with stencil-cuts projected on a wall and interpreted in acrylic – as well as in Nai’s dry pastel drawings, their layers of pigment teased into patterns of light and dark, declivity and projection, through the use of the fingers and the nails.
By contrast, the fold is the measure of a layered, abundant materiality: it marks the multiplication of surface, announces the eroticism of crimp, ripple, pleat and knot. Nai first encountered the fold’s spatial and textural possibilities while working with jute; it has since informed his choice of newspapers, moulded into arrays of pellets set up as battlements, as well as his use of balled and bundled clothes in his work. A leitmotif of the Baroque, the fold allows the artist to assemble an infinity of masses and movements, gathering them into a miniature space or releasing them beyond their frame, thus overcoming the demarcated boundaries between bounded earth and boundless heaven, art object and architectural space, viewed object and viewing consciousness. The fold imparts to Nai’s work its gorgeous palpability, holding the austerity of the scratch in dialogue.
During the last couple of years, Nai has embarked on a new adventure: a conceptually informed practice based on photography, which emerged from his documentation of the details of urban architecture and topography on his journeys across Bombay and has evolved into an independent exploration. The artist’s eye has always been drawn to the whimsicalities of concrete, the ruin-like outlines of walls and canals, the marks of the informal habitation and sudden expulsion of communities at the edge of the metropolis. He has used his photographs of some of these as the basis for photo-collages, often quadrupled by rotation, so that the immediate visual stimulus recedes, leaving the field open for re-interpretation.
Especially striking, in this body of work, are Nai’s evocations of billboards photographed during the slump that followed the global economic meltdown of 2008. Advertising had taken a hit, and many billboards in metropolitan Bombay had been stripped of their usual appeals to the consumer’s imagination; for extended durations, one could see the strutwork and scaffolding that lay behind the familiar aspirational and fantasy ephemera of boom time. Employing a rudimentary technology of visual reproduction, that of the transfer print, the artist has planned a series of venue-specific works that transfer some of the billboard images onto a wall, as a temporary mural.
Ranjit Hoskote, 2015
Born 1980, in Gujarat, India
Diploma in Drawing and Painting, L S Raheja School of Art, Mumbai
Lives and works in Mumbai