The artist Agnes Martin once wrote: "The best things in life happen to you when you're alone."
How does one introduce a sculptor who moved from the chemistry of minerals and clay to bronzes and built his own oeuvre out of the magic of comforting solitude? G Reghu's lingua franca and aesthetics have been moulded by two defining encounters: his early contact with Elizabeth and Laurie Baker with their Gandhian philosophy of working with indigenous materials and the abstract guru J Swaminathan at the Bharat Bhavan who, in his persona of a 'tribal' artist, voiced the cause of the dispossessed and the call to develop an empathy.
Vitality of Grammar
G Reghu's show Sentient Beings at Art Heritage in Delhi is about how comforting and favourable solitude is for creating art that is based on the language of originality. It speaks about the magic of alchemy when an artist creates and explores and experiments with the compositional ethos and steers away from production. It speaks about the strength and vitality of grammar and the satiety an artist gets when he creates to satisfy his own aesthetic urges.
At the Shridharani running for a month this exhibition of men, women, children, and a few cows sitting placidly on the floors is about the language of expression that distils and emits an array of associations that are born in the web of time and space and experience.
"My works in clay have always been created out of the many reckonings that happen in a wood-fired kiln above 1200 degrees Centigrade," says Reghu. "When I work with clay it has such precious and giving properties, I feel it is the beauty of its birth into different expressionist characters that takes on its domain and features – 80 per cent of what you see in clay is its own property. My hand in these creations is only 20 per cent. Yes, for me, expression is the most important facet of a human being. It cuts across barriers, it knows no divisions, it has a universal appeal."
Reghu's show is about inner voices and glances and hidden embers in probing looks that speak to us about the amalgam of angst within. Reghu has been a guru himself at Bharat Bhavan having trained and guided ceramic artists into finding their own journeys. These works echo the words of Wendell Berry who stated: "One's inner voices become audible [and] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives."
R Reghu goes one step beyond to give us works that are born of fertile solitude. This journey is about the ceramic tradition of sculpture – it has a hallmark of fluidity. The surface of Reghu's work in its muted organic earth colours has a matte finish. The work is shaped by an artist who is intimate with the tactile processes of using his hands: patting mud walls, throwing the clay on the potter's wheel: or even dexterously kneading dough and handling food. The medium and method reflect familiarity with a rural lifestyle. Using the processes of hollow-modelling, slabbing, folding, coiling and pinching, he creates a cast of characters doing different things. There is harmony in these works.
Reghu creates a racial type that mingles with Dravidian and African facial features – bulging eyes, thick lips, cabbage ears – evocative of an ancient civilization and its wisdom. His 'people' exude features of civilisations that stem back and forth through the vignettes of the past and the present.
"I have always preferred rural themes, they have originated from places that I have visited, like Wynadu in Kerala and Bastar which both lie in the tribal belt. Sometimes I use locally available clay, and the colour is natural. Glaze has a glossy tone, which I feel is not as good as the natural colour you get after you burn it in a wood kiln. There's a technical way to handle natural colour, and it involves burning the clay and letting the smoke and ash act upon it. My works have long been the result of that ash and gradient of firing and that is why you can see the smoke adding its own texture to the works," explains Reghu.
"I have remained away from the commercial scene, I create for myself, I have grown to love the romance of firing the kilns -- yes its like creating ancient structures, born from the womb, fed with fire, and the challenges of altering and controlling the fire, and the sense of doing something as old as time. I have always loved the incidental and the accidental when the clay figures emerge unexpectedly smoky from the ashes like archaeological finds; images from history. Clay has infinite properties, whereas in bronze its all technique."
In his bronzes which are just as stunning Reghu portrays a mapping that harks back to archaic looking surfaces; that cock an eye on the modernity of the subject and the ancient processes that have come before – everything seems to connect present moments with timelines of history.
A particularly captivating set are the heads, while their rounded features are similar it is their mouths that draw your gaze. The philosophical undertones of such unprepared moments are what makes each head a masterpiece. It is in the handling of the composition that Reghu elevates his heads from an ordinary mundane slice of time, to one that embodies the ethos of the human spirit.
While some heads are evocative his bronze heads are minimal and deeply archetypal – somehow there is an insignia of timelessness in their rootedness and the beauty of their gravitas is that they are free of the shackles of society, culture and space. Reghu's heads and humans could belong to any race anywhere, they also imply the universal inevitability of the power of human existence that defines our very being.
The women and children are haunting comrades growing in the paths of existential angst. These works are gripping not merely because of the choice of such subjects but because of its simplicity and undistracted sense of focus. Reghu employs boundless expressionistic devices in modelling and moulding that deconstruct his forms and bring his subject to the edges of avant-garde abstraction. Reghu is particularly drawn to humble rural dwellers and exploits their expressive potential as subjects for portraiture. These nomadic characters represent freedom and naïveté, and are for Reghu a relic of sorts as he contemplates them as his choreography of characters born in the play of clay.
Each of his portraits is marked by an emotional immediacy that is unique both within his oeuvre and the spectrum of modern art.
By no means are these sculptural entities beautiful but they are filled with an animation that entices, they live every breath of movement that is desired by the hands of their creator and even the grotesque becomes amiable, even lovable... the mud finish colours glow with a richness and reflect a resplendent repertoire, almost as if the artist, laying aside his sculptural tools for a moment, were relaxing in the light of the sun and letting its energy-driven rays flood into the core of his works.