The Indian-born artist Prabhavathi Meppayil creates nuanced, rigorous paintings that reveal their structural and chromatic complexities only upon close examination and after long observation. The daughter of a goldsmith, Meppayil builds on legacies of modernism, Minimalism, and abstraction to create works that are (often literally) underpinned by elements of traditional artisanship and craft: the subtle stripes in a white gesso are in fact copper wires structurally breaking through the paint, in a gesture as assured as it is gentle. In addition to painter’s tools more familiar to a western audience, Meppayil uses traditional goldsmith’s tools, particular the thinnam, to create subtle, minutely crafted, and infinitely variable dimensions of surface and texture. These workmanlike elements imbue the grids, lines, and monochrome evenness of her lime gesso works with a particularly human—and humanizing—warmth.
Meppayil’s first solo exhibition in the United States is currently on view at Pace Gallery in Chelsea (through December 23); this body of work reflects her ongoing engagement with repetition, structure, global modernisms, and the passing of time. From Bangalore, Meppayil spoke with Laila Pedro about her teachers, her process, and the legacy of indigenous art making.
Laila Pedro (Rail): Your work touches on, incorporates, and repurposes several lineages— modernism, abstraction, Minimalism. How did you first become exposed to Minimalist art? Are there intellectual or philosophical concerns raised by modernism and abstraction that you find compelling, or are they primarily aesthetic problems you resolve through your work?
Prabhavathi Meppayil: My introduction to an understanding of a formal economy of means was initially through the work of Indian artists such as Sheela Gowda and Nasreen Mohamedi’s rigorous, intransigent abstraction. The Minimalist art of America in the 1960s and ’70s was also important in this regard. I find the parallel histories of modernism, its complexities and possibilities, compelling. It is an interesting space to be in.
Rail: Your work explores the intersections between traditional, workmanlike crafts—particularly your father’s life work as a goldsmith—and the traditions and gestures of modernism. In so doing, it produces a powerful synthesis, something greater than the sum of its parts. Do you see this as a geographic gesture, or a statement of a particular cultural self-perception, as well as an aesthetic one?
Meppayil: I think my intuitive ways of responding to what is around me, and conceptual concerns about art language, could be seen more as a response to modernist thought, given the similar concerns and what is happening in the larger context.
Rail: In that respect, what does modernism signify to you? Did your studies and development in Bangalore inform its meaning in particular ways? How is the meaning of broad-strokes “western” modernism affected or transformed by the juxtaposition with traditional craftsmanship?
Meppayil: It is difficult to answer this question. Perhaps the complexity of interpreting the concept in the present sociopolitical context is a compelling reason for an artist to engage with it. Studying under R.M. Hadapad, an uncompromising artist, I was marked by his experimental approach to the language of art that challenged accepted notions, as I was by the example of an exceptional artist and pedagogue like K.G. Subramanyan and by the work of Ramkinkar Baij, a pioneer figure in modern Indian art. Their practice was rooted in indigenous traditions of art making, and it is this legacy, complemented by my interest in the economy of means and ends characteristic of Minimal art, that has shaped my understanding of a certain way of approaching the complex entity called modernism.
Rail: The passing of time appears to be an important concern in your work. Do you also see time affecting the work itself? Because you work so much with white, I am thinking particularly of how Robert Ryman’s canvases are very different depending on what time of day you view them.
Meppayil: Temporality is an important part of my work. The material transforms with passage of time, the embedded copper wire will eventually disappear due to oxidation, and this would change the work itself. And the thinnam work has a rhythm of time inherent in its making, time as sign.
Rail: In the vein of time, but on the other side of the question: Do you feel that your work requires a substantive time commitment on the part of the viewer? In the works currently on view at Pace, for example, I feel that, after the initial sensation of simple elegance and beauty, they are immensely rewarding if you spend a bulk of time with them— that is where the subtleties, harmonies, and tensions emerge.
Meppayil: I think visual sensation is an entry point. Seen attentively, the subtle nuances of the work start unravelling. I also feel there is a performative aspect to viewing. One has to move back and forth to experience the work, particularly the thinnam work. And visually follow the disappearing and emerging lines in the gesso surface, like veins beneath the skin. The viewer completes the work.
Rail: I had a similar sensation at the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim (October 7, 2016 – January 11, 2017): the work required a greater focus and attention than we are accustomed to expending typically. Simply to get it to reveal itself, in its myriad subtleties, required time. (I’m thinking here specifically of Peter Schjeldahl’s comment on that show, that “you may feel your perceptual ability to register minute differences of tone and texture steadily refined, and your heart ambushed by rushes of emotion.”) Do you feel that Martin is an influence—in the importance of the grid, for example? Do you feel that this time requirement is intentional on your part, necessary for the work to be effective?
Meppayil: It is wonderful of you to evoke Agnes Martin in relation to my work! She is an exceptional artist and an exemplary figure for artists engaged with a certain language of abstraction. Perhaps a shared concern with a poetics of the grid establishes a link between us, but this is not for me to say. I saw geometric form in the artisanal process: a beautiful straight line in stretched gold or copper wire, material as line and color.
Rail: Is there a recording aspect in the relationship to time—an element of bearing witness to the past and to keeping a living record of traditional crafts? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to those crafts?
Meppayil: Here again, it is my intuitive response to my immediate surroundings that has led to a space where traditional techniques and what might be called Minimalist techniques overlap. If it contributes to keeping alive a record or testimony of traditional craft, so much the better. I think for an artisan, the practice, the process, is a way of life. It is the memory of the hand, the gesture, the making.
Rail: Can you give some details about how the works were made? Deceptively subtle, these are in fact minutely textured, nearly sculptural surfaces. Can you speak about the goldsmith’s tools that you use? How you generate those impressions and textures?
Meppayil: The thinnam tool is used for creating patterns on metal (usually gold) ornaments. It was interesting to discover that some of the motifs of the tools were of basic geometric forms. Gentle tapping on the tool with a light hammer creates indent marks on the surface. The panel filled with tool marks is also an abstraction of the tapping sound of the tool.
Rail: My impression looking at the works up close was that, while the imprint of the tool remains visible in paintings, your own hand does not. Do you feel that you intend for your hand or body to be notable or present in the work?
Meppayil: Although the mark-making process is mechanical, it is personal, too. The implement or tool could be seen as an extension of the hand. But the fact that the mark made by the tool is not “subjective,” or overtly expressive, that the hand is not “visible” in the work, brings in an interesting ambiguity about the perennial question of authorship. It isn’t always intentional; sometimes you comprehend certain aspects of the work only when it is completed.
Rail: I am curious about the role of discipline in your work. Not only the discipline in making them, but in choosing a very restrained palette and very particular techniques. Is discipline something that you think about a lot? Is it connected for you with a practice of repetition?
Meppayil: My practice is defined by material and process. The material has its own life and it dictates the process. I think the repetitive process of making has no ending or beginning.