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Issue 229

Jake Grewal and Lionel Wendt Share a Fleeting Feeling

A joint exhibition at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, opens a cross-generational discourse, connecting the two artist’s interests in light and momentary experience

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 19 MAY 22

Two figures recur in a series of oil-on-canvas paintings by Jake Grewal, who lives and works in London. The pair – lovers, perhaps, or frisky adolescents edging toward knowledge of their own desires – are naked and slip in and out of blurred, sentimental flashes of light. They climb trees, dip into streams, scamper through a dream-like romantic landscape; they are in a dappled glade. In Fearful Truths // I Wished to Hear Meaning Under Breath (2021), one inches toward the other, balancing on a slim, curving branch. Around them, a vivid canopy of mossy, algal greens is animated by electric bursts of sunlight. ‘I play with light as much as I do with the figure,’ Grewal said during an interview with New Contemporaries in 2021. In the paintings, shafts of light glide smoothly over bodies, spilling over logs, rushing between sheets of water and slinking to the tips of almond-shaped vine leaves.

Jake Grewal
Jake Grewal, Shifting Waters, 2021, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

In Dusk // Laid to Rest (2021-22) the two figures stand in contrapposto against a darkening sky, shaded in soft violets and steel blues. Between them, a slender beam of yellow shines, a falling sun, the brightest part of the painting. Something seems to be held in that line of light. Intimacy – of friendship or love, or a place where both exist in tandem – builds a world, into which its participants are pulled. The details here are sustained by a soft yet frenzied delight: colours shift, there is a new glow in places previously dark. The inner worlds of the figures emerge in these details, in the paintings that pull us in.

Lionel Wendt
Lionel Wendt, Untitled (Nude Male Torso), c.1930-44, gelatin silver print, 24 × 16 cm. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Jhaveri Contemporary pairs Grewal’s paintings with a suite of moodily erotic silver gelatin prints by Lionel Wendt, a Sri Lankan photographer from the early-20th century. In Wendt’s steady portraiture, we follow light as it catches the corners of a hip or the curve of a shoulder. Untitled (Nude Male Torso) (c.1930–1944) is a close crop of a folded body: elbows resting at hard angles, legs crossed in elegant repose. The person is naked except for two barely-there, sylphlike pieces of jewellery: a long necklace that slopes down the chest and a slender chain that wrinkles into the waist. Wendt was a surrealist, employing darkroom techniques to construct his images: transparencies and overlays, reversals of the image gradated by an intense and long exposure, and photomontage all help to give his work its ethereal quality. In an essay accompanying the show, Shiv Kotecha says that this ‘speaks to his method, which had less to do with the camera than the distortion of the photographic negatives’.

Jake Grewal
Jake Grewal, Hunted Sunset, 2021-22, Charcoal on paper, 1.2 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

In his work, Wendt also deploys a certain distortion of the body: twisted limbs are draped in sheer muslin and silk, tense muscles creasing in slight patterns. In Male Nude-Full Figure (c. 1935), a man stands with his bodyweight eased onto one leg; he is lit from below and the shadows move upward, wrapping him in a metallic sheen. Wendt’s images have a painting-like character; conversely, Grewal’s charcoal-on-paper, Hunted Sunset (2021-22), is illuminated with a diffuse, burnished light akin to a long photographic exposure. Both artists seem to be stalking small moments of human vulnerability that appear mirrored by their technique and process. ‘Someone has seen something,’ said Wendt, as quoted by Kotecha, and the desire ‘to fix a feeling’ drives his impulse to make images. The formal qualities of Grewal and Wendt’s works encourage intimate readings of their subjects, each caught in a gentle moment, in a state of flux. The fixing of the feeling reveals itself to be a false promise. Still, its impetus can animate what remains most true of feelings themselves: difficult to capture, but gorgeous precisely for their fleeting nature.

Jake Grewal and Lionel Wendt ‘Shifting Water’ is at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, until May 21

Main image: Lionel Wendt, Male nude with black vetti, c.1935, gelatin silver print, 23 × 17 cm. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.