Hardeep Pandhal's work is centrally concerned with the unsettling and transformative force of phenomena such as migration, historical violence, and cultural assimilation. While these concerns are rooted in his own experience as a British citizen of Punjabi descent, the visual vocabulary of his artworks invokes forms and figures from a range of entertainment industries: video games, cartoons, comics, and popular films. Pandhal's work investigates the dark underside of the surface sheen and glitter offered up by the fantasy worlds of these forms of entertainment, raising questions about the forms of violence that underlie collective mass-mediated fantasies. In the drawing, Swarm of Sacrifice, a mountain village is inundated with a tinge of red, in the earth as well as the sky. No sacrificial violence is visible in any literal sense, perhaps because the scene depicts the aftermath, in which the victims' blood is already assimilated and integrated into the landscape. The only swarm we see is the collection of variously sized architectural structures, emerging from red earth. Blood and soil indeed. The mountain village takes on a hellish cast reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, with its deformed humanoid forms and scalar discrepancies ranged across the visual field in such a way that the scene is harmonised even as it invites the viewer to inspect its strange details. Given his investigation of the horrors at the heart of fantasy, Pandhal's work returns us to the ambivalence of classic fairy tales, in which magic makes it possible for wishes to come true, but such escapism is attended by fairy tale wisdom that wishes also have consequences. Thus, we see in Trial of The Spit Shine a phantasmagoric rendering of a whole chain of social relations and social hierarchies—including 'pain merchants', and contorted or dismembered figures—involved in polishing shoes. The visual idiom in this drawing resembles the work of children's book author, Dr. Seuss, signalling that there is a pedagogy involved in this scene, yet the drawing refuses to offer a clear-cut moral lesson.
Mass-media products like video games and comics are considered to be 'minor' forms, much like fairy tales, and Pandhal's use of their formal and narrative motifs gestures to the presence of the masses, of collective social formations and shared crises. Take, for example, Pandhal's narrative conceit of the 'Pintooverse', which names a fantastical life-world in which 'neurotic magic' makes possible the existence of a whole population of diverse humanoid beings, from whom a hero would emerge. This conventional narrative conceit becomes an opportunity for meditating on the problem of difference among populations. Pandhal has explained that Mr. Pintoo was the name his father would offer as his own when interfacing with white British people, perhaps imagining it would be easier for British people to pronounce 'Pintoo' than 'Pandhal'. So, the variously shaped 'Pintoos', cartoon-like characters that the artist tells us it would be futile to classify, are emblems for assimilation and mistranslation. As such they also mark the appearance of a radically new form of life and being. Pandhal takes inspiration from Indian performer and writer, Devendra P. Varma, a nephew of Jawaharlal Nehru (the 'father' of India), who lead a picaresque life and was acquainted with well-known celebrities in the horror genre (Vincent Price and Christopher Lee), Mahatma Gandhi, and others. The word 'Pintoo' has multiple significations in these pieces, as patronym, as indicating Pandhal's own name, and also referring to the chameleon-like existence of Devendra P. Varma, whose book, The Gothic Flame, argued that Western representations of the vampire and other such gothic figures emerged out of a colonial history. Thus 'Pintoo' marks that new form of life that emerges from a process of misapprehension, projection, and fantasy. In Pandhal's hands these processes are not merely the result of individual psychical operations but emerge from specific political-economic and cultural histories.
This generation of new life-forms, figures, and environments is a recurrent theme in Pandhal's work. The video piece, The Spell of Silence, begins with quotations from religious texts Bhagavad-Gita and Katho-Upanishad, concerning the transformations the soul undergoes across physical and spiritual realms, and Pandhal's rapping in the video lets the rhyme develop new patterns and relationships. As with Pandhal's visual forms, the spoken words are never self-same or self-evident. In the drawings, paintings, and multi-media installations, the melting forms seem forever on the cusp of transmogrification, transposition, and translation. In the paintings this becomes a way of exploring abstraction: Levelling Up (Mancherjee Bhownaggree) and Perpetual Demotion might not be formally abstract, but they depict abstractions, processes that are invisible but nevertheless can be represented. These paintings reorient abstraction even as they cling to the formal idioms of minor forms such as street art and comics. Insofar as Pandhal's forms are always caught in media res, the prefix 'trans-' (meaning 'across' or 'changing') holds a key to his work, which itself ranges across a diverse set of mediums: drawings, video, installations, and paintings.
For Art Basel, Pandhal has developed his work, for the first time, in the medium of painting, and at a much larger scale that is also new for his work. In this new medium the usually flat figures of cartoon fantasy, mystical lore, and nightmares appear in a far more layered and almost three-dimensional visual field, with found objects attached to the canvas and figures peeking out from behind a flat painted plane. In Spell Concentration 1 and 2, it is unclear whether the figures are optical illusions precipitated by the fragments and frames of the painterly layers, or entities that range across these layers. These presences might be on the cusp of materialisation or, as in Spell Concentration 3, emerge from the visual field glaringly intact. Gone are the narrative conceits that Pandhal explores in drawings and some video works; mobilizing the contemplative capacities of painting, Pandhal's large-scale works are immersive, and they confront the spectator with different forms of an experience with the sublime—as spatial fragmentation and as an encounter with a preternatural being. In the spirit of Sigmar Polke, in Pandhal's paintings minor and mass-mediated forms trespass on the authority traditionally imputed to painting, expanding its field, and rethinking its forms of abstraction.
Press release courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary. Text: Zahid R. Chaudhary, 2023 Associate Professor, Princeton University.
4058 Basel, Switzerland
Our show takes place at the Swiss exhibition site Messe Basel, featuring a hall designed by international architects Herzog & de Meuron of Basel.