With ceramic iconoclastic figurines, brightly spray-painted walls, and items from the Melbourne University’s Cultural Collections, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendean’s exhibition ‘In the Beginning’ is lewd and exuberant. Continuing to draw on Asian and Western iconography and an outsider aesthetic, Ramesh transforms the gallery space into a carnevalesque environment that seeks to unsettle conventions with humour, mythology and artmaking.
Although influenced by Hindu and Christian emblems, Ramesh’s figures are very much their own beings. Bulbous, with disproportionate limbs and features, they are finished with an assortment of colorful glazes, dribbles of gold luster, and adorned with materials such as human hair, shells and beads, subverting the smooth and refined sensibility of traditional ceramics. In her excellent catalogue essay, curator Jacqueline Doughty refers to the Mickail Baktin’s theory of the carnevalesque which contextualised the artistic strategy he coined ‘grotesque realism’. According to Baktin the carnival of the European Middle Ages momentarily suspended social and moral norms, and the powerful were mocked through humour and play. Art making can take on a similar role, critiquing conventions through parody and exaggeration. Destruction and rejuvenation in creation myths, which are referred to in the exhibition’s title, also affords a similar possibility. Ramesh’s figures, with their grimacing faces, take on the role of a contemporary court jester ridiculing the idea of correct form. Clay, with its states of fleshy malleability and solidity, is a material ripe for representing the abject distorted body, which goes against the standard norms of gender and sexuality.
Crude figures also populate the brightly coloured gallery walls in the form of spray painted graffiti. A gay man with complicated gender lounges in the pose of Édouard Manet’s Olympia, (1863), staring back at the viewer with goofy cartoon eyes. He is bearded and bosomed with legs brazenly apart displaying his large penis. While the black maidservant in Manet’s Olympia offers a bouquet, here, a small floral still life oil painting (Philip Wilson Steer, Flowers in a glass vase, 1892) from the university’s collection sits to the top right, it’s historic propriety and small scale creating a humorous counterpoint. While Olympia confronted the audience with female sexuality, Ramesh’s figure presents an indistinct vision of gender.
The inclusion of works from the University’s collection such as Indian ink drawings of the Goddess Kali and classical Greek ceramics demonstrate Ramesh’s influences, as well as acting as a subtle museological critique. When placed by Ramesh’s crude aesthetic the prestige of the museum objects is sucked out. Pedestals that support his sculptures are at times covered with cardboard occasionally marked with spray paint. A conventional museum vatrine contains a work by Ramesh of unfired clay that evokes a cross between a human form and an earthy lump, and receives a discotheque glow from coloured gel lights.
Garish and baroque, this exhibition exudes a distinct artistic language. Cultural references are turned inside out with bawdy play, making way for ambiguity and the generative possibilities of laughter.
Published in Art Guide Australia, February/March 2017