Self-taught artist Gieve Patel has had a multi-faceted career, not only as a painter but as a general physician, poet, and playwright. His works focus on the ways in which rural and urban experiences interact with each other in the post-colonial experience, capturing everyday moments and individuals in a humanising light.Read More
For nearly half a century, Gieve Patel has explored the nature of the human condition through paintings and drawings. He held his first solo exhibition in Mumbai in 1966. Balancing abstraction with figuration, Patel draws inspiration from both natural and urban landscapes, influenced by the quietude and tranquillity of nature, as well as the bustling life found in cities.
Patel depicts people and scenes with textural brushstrokes and swathes of colour. His close-up 'head' paintings allow the people he observes to be given 'individual breathing space,' while his more complex scenes show a closer engagement with daily life. Patel began painting multiple figures after he saw 14th-century painter Pietro Lorenzetti's Crucifixion during a visit to Italy in the mid-1980s.
Patel tackles social realities by capturing the emotions of common people partaking in everyday activities. He brings a poetic sensitivity to these individuals, such as in his 1981 painting Early Morning Local, bathing them in warm colours and paying close attention to the shadows and contours of the human form. His works reflect his keen observation of specific interactions, movements, and behaviours.
His acrylic and oil paintings of people, most often of those belonging to marginalised groups, show them as resilient survivors. The paintings act as snapshots of a specific, emotionally charged moment, yet still exist as separate from the viewer, emphasising Patel's role as the observer.
His interest in old age and death is related to his attempts to understand the human condition, as well as his work as a physician and his frequent interaction with bodies. 'There is indescribable pleasure in transforming pain and wretchedness into fantastic play, as though one was thereby gaining so much control over those forces, and jettisoning fear,' he says.
Patel's depiction of death are violent and graphic, as shown in Crushed Head (1984) and Hanged Man (1985). Yet he moves beyond exploitative and sensational elements by delving into the emotional life of his subjects. Tying this in with his work as a poet and teacher, he explains, 'One of the things I discuss with the students is whether or not this is a beautiful poem. Many say that the subject is not beautiful but the way it is handled is.'
It was at the age of 50 that Patel began looking at his boyhood experiences as a source of inspiration for his work. He recalls growing up in a small village in southern Gujarat, where there were many wells. He was drawn to the reflections on the surface of the water, and how the light captured objects both inside and outside of the well.
He first exhibited works based off these experiences in the exhibition Looking into a Well at Gallery Chemould in 1996. Since then, he has consistently explored the water well and the quiet contemplation associated with it. 'It involved allowing oneself to recall the exquisite beauty of it all, but also the humble ordinariness,' he says. 'And then, how to translate that visual moment onto a two-dimensional canvas.'
His paintings become a self-conscious recording of the experience of perception. He transforms the subject of the physical well into a visual display of his own inner experience and search for meaning. In his paintings of wells, his style markedly shifts to a more abstract, lyrical tone. He moves away from the human figure to embrace more inward-looking themes.
Gieve Patel has participated in numerous exhibitions in India and abroad, including at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi; the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Bose Pacia, New York; and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai.
Patel has received numerous fellowships and awards. In 1984, he received the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., followed by the Rockefeller Fellowship, University of Chicago in 1992. In 2003, he was the C.R. Parekh Writer-in-Residence, Norman Foundation Grant at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gabrielle Leung | Ocula | 2021