Featured in
Issue 229

Mahesh Baliga Paints to Remember

The artist’s first solo exhibition at David Zwirner, London, absorbs us into single, intimate moments

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 23 MAY 22

While Mahesh Baliga’s paintings often linger on the quotidian – hotel reception desks, drowsy zoo animals, frozen desserts – they nevertheless feel like visions from a dream, at once vivid and oddly elusive. One reason for this is the Indian artist’s use of casein tempera, a quick-drying pigment derived from milk protein, which lends his work a matte, faintly otherworldly glow. Another is that he paints not from life, or reference images, but from his own memories. Temporal distance, of course, has a way of distorting reality. As Marcel Proust observed in his novel In Search of Lost Time (1913-27): ‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were’. 

Mahesh Baliga
Mahesh Baliga, Poet with ink on his pocket, 2022, casein on board. Courtesy: © Mahesh Baliga, Project 88 and David Zwirner

At Baliga’s first solo show at David Zwirner, London, a series of his small (or as he refers to them, ‘lap-sized’) paintings hang in two parallel, offset lines, like the teeth of an open zipper. Here, the white spaces between each work suggest lacunae in what the artist describes in an accompanying text as ‘the stream of never forgetting’, which ‘rushes [at me] in the loneliness of my studio’, and from which he attempts to ‘collect [images] and keep them safe’. There’s no obvious chronology or hierarchy at work in this arrangement of paintings. Baliga allows his memory to fix on the most fleeting of sense impressions – a plastic tub stuffed with crumpled rupee notes (Collection, 2022), a shirtfront stained by a leaking pen (Poet with ink on his pocket, 2022), strings of winking bulbs hung in a Modernist apartment block in celebration of an ancient festival (Diwali Lights, 2022) – which he transforms into something precious, almost numinous. 

Mahesh Baliga
Mahesh Baliga, Reception, 2022, casein on board. Courtesy: © Mahesh Baliga, Project 88 and David Zwirner

Like the canvases of Johannes Vermeer and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, many of Baliga’s works turn on stillness, an intense inertia that absorbs us into a single, intimate moment. In Aveek cutting nails (2022), we see a balding middle-aged man sitting on the edge of a bed. A nearby stack of books indicates that his is a life of the mind, but the artist shows him attending to the humbling needs of the body, trimming the toenails of his awkwardly-raised left foot. Prayer (2022) depicts Baliga’s late mother standing in a gloomy sage and cherry-red room, her profile silhouetted against the saffron light streaming in through a window, her hands pressed together in an appeal to an invisible divinity. We’ll never know the contents of her silent prayer, nor if it elicited a response, although perhaps there’s a bleak clue in a pendant painting, Mother (2021), in which the artist creates a delicate harmony between the dove grey tones of her hair, the terracotta bandages that wind around her left arm, and the cornflower blue of her hospital gown. 

Mahesh Baliga
Mahesh Baliga, Flowering Self, 2022, casein on board. Courtesy: © Mahesh Baliga, Project 88 and David Zwirner

In Stuck (2022), the violence of mortality and loss becomes shockingly explicit. On the banks of an incarnadined watering hole lay the bodies of four dead and flayed rhinoceroses. Two living rhinos nose at the corpses, while a third stares into the distance, frozen with grief. The artist has said that ‘the animals […] in my paintings may tell human stories’. If this applies to Stuck, we might wonder what awful narrative these mournful ruminants relate. Help (2022) is far more hopeful. Here, a stocky, tough-looking guy cradles a baby squirrel in his arms, feeding it from a bottle with the rapt and solemn wonder of a new father. It’s a work about how aid might come from the most unexpected of corners and how acts of care transform those who give them as much as their recipients. Perhaps this is the key to Baliga’s project. To attend to memory, to nurture and grow it, is to make a self. 

Main image: Mahesh Baliga, Eye Hospital, 2022, casein on board. Courtesy: © Mahesh Baliga, Project 88 and David Zwirner

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.