In his first solo exhibition, Vinod Balak draws on what he describes as the “naive schema and European classical aesthetic norms” as the hallmark of the “Kerala school of art”. Balak chooses to quote well-known western masterpieces as well as Indian iconography and artistic convention and puts them on the same register of subversiveness. What I mean to suggest here is that Balak assumes the stance located within a self consciously articulated ‘provincial modernism’, even as he views both Indian and western artistic canons with distance and critique. As a young Malayali artist trained at Thrissur and Hyderabad he joins the artistic mainstream in the footsteps of his forebears. In the last three decades, artists from Kerala have assumed a vanguard position in establishing a formal vernacular style as well as a sharp institutional and social critique, one that is defined by Marxism as much as by the badge of regional identity.
Overlaying references to sectarian symbols and authority, and the male and female principle, are Balak’s own readings of sexual and social relations. These tend to be layered and complex, and the tone and content of each of his paintings can shift quite sharply. In his native Malapuram, a Keralan coastal town with a predominantly Muslim population, the pig and the dog are unclean or ‘haram’. Yet the broader cultural discourse is influenced by Kerala’s large interface with the west, through gulf labour, and the familiarization with western values where these animals are accepted through domestication, fairy tales, cartoons and popular associations.
The works in themselves bear out description, for such is their intense narrative engagement. However as the principal actors in Balak’s highly defined and formally laid out compositions the animal forms are enacting a dialogue with what Balak likes to describe as a “fetish” but which could also be read as a quotation that seeks to reposition the notions of value and beauty in art.
In Balak’s world-view animals masquerade in human domains, bearing the marks and the contradictions of cultural transition. Enacting the roles of their human masters, they inhabit automated bodies, and flesh tones reminiscent of Sivakasi poster colours – flamboyant and unreal.