Body, mind and soul

Topics Weekend Reads | art

Through fortuitous happenstance, I’ve spent the last few days visiting artist friends in their studios, which is always a greatly satisfying experience. Some painters are reserved about sharing their studio spaces with even close friends — it is where they get down and dirty and bare their souls, after all — while others actually prefer to set up meetings in the comfortable surround of paint, turpentine and chaos. Of course, increasingly, studios, especially for contemporary artists, are also about masses of metals and engineering machinery, films, screens and other thingamajigs, as they hope to finish massive installations that seem to be the order of the day.

It was this facet of their practice, I think, that most struck me on these outings. For most people, art is seen as a genteel pursuit requiring nothing more arduous than holding a brush of paint before a canvas tilted on an easel to facilitate the act of painting. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most artists I have known over the years rarely paint on easels, preferring to work over horizontal surfaces as they painfully fill in details over banquet-sized tables, or on the floor. This is as true of small canvases as it is of increasingly humongous paintings being commissioned by businesses or collectors with large homes and farmhouses. Painting over these large surfaces requires not just an understanding of perspective but also an athlete’s suppleness. Many, who spend long hours stretched over their canvases, complain of chronic back ailments. They need strength in their arms to reach up, or around, till muscles groan with fatigue. Painting several layers one over another to achieve depth is akin to a sportsperson’s preparation for a decathlon. No wonder artists are increasingly conscious of their health — many do yoga, most exercise, some even go running with weights tied to their ankles. Many require physiotherapy.

Most artists today can afford to hire assistants to help stretch canvases, or grind natural pigments, but even sharing in the process is demanding — success, after all, is rarely achieved before the onset of middle age. This is further compounded in the case of contemporary artists who often deal with heavy metallic and other materials. Some may require cranes to assemble, or haul, and at the end of the day the artist is involved with every aspect of the art making process, which calls for physical exertion and, therefore, endurance.

Artists love the challenge of scale. I have seen them work on canvases — triptychs — stretched 18 feet across a wall. Just the other day, I witnessed an artist completing a canvas 15 feet in height that required him to paint while balanced on ladders. The centre of a painting usually garners most attention, so how do you reach that point in a work that may be, say, 18 x 10 feet? I have known artists to set up movable racks over a scaffolding-like frame so they are suspended over the canvas they are painting. Not quite the handiwork of someone suffering from poor health.

Studios are lonely places. Working in isolation, artists must also combine physical stamina with mental strength. The only platforms where they meet and discuss issues, concerns and their own work are at openings, or at art camps — not ideal places for serious dialogue. This leaves them vulnerable to suggestions of failure or laggardness. To persevere despite the odds, to surrender to pain but also to triumph over it, requires a resilience that few of us can summon on a daily basis. To reduce artists to an effeminate cliché is, therefore, the worst disservice we can do them, for they can surprise most office-wallahs with an agility of mind and body alien to so many of us.  
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated

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