Ritual and repetition | Art News, Autumn 2005

The Distance, 2004, acrylic gouache on pre-primed cotton canvas

In Prakash Patel’s December exhibition at Christopher Moore Gallery in Wellington, his abstract suite of paintings shimmered and shone with a quiet, contemplative energy.

The Wanganui-based artist’s recent paintings have a mysterious quality because of the way they seamlessly combine opposites – organic natural forms: a tree, a waterfall, an eye, pin-prick stars in a night sky – with the mechanical structure of the modernist grid. The grids act as camouflage, in turn revealing and concealing pattern and form, and the titles of the work often give hints to the viewer

For example, in the painting Forest-tree, the vertical form of a tree trunk emerges from a field of horizontal
and vertical dots and refers to the saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees”. Viewed up close, these works are an abstract field of dots or squares but from further back they resolve into intricate patterns and forms. Likewise, in Fall, one can read the cascading forms of a waterfall articulated within a field of dots. Despite some of the paintings’ mechanical, highly ordered appearance, they celebrate nature and the mystery of existence as well as exploring the formal language of abstraction.

Patel, who graduated with a Diploma in Visual Arts and Design from Hawkes Bay Polytechnic in 1993, has always been excited by the possibilities of paint and his work is essentially process driven. Existing alongside these large dot works, shown at Christopher Moore Gallery and Auckland’s Oedipus Rex, are a series of small paintings on hardboard. Sometimes as many as 280 panels are combined to make a single site-specific work, such as Satellite at The Globe Gallery, Napier, in 2002. In the panels, Patel exploits the spontaneous gesture, making swathes and splashes of paint, to evoke emotion and energy, much as the artist Max Gimblett does.

By contrast, the dot paintings are slow and painstaking to construct. In them Patel uses a mathematical system, loading the brush with paint and then executing a line of vertical or horizontal dots until the brush is dry and the paint fades out. Then he begins the process again, counting the number of dots each time. The rippling dots create an irresistible sense of energy and movement and convey the sheer joy of what paint can do. The mathematical structure is not fixed but evolves as Patel works on each canvas.

He lays his canvases out on the studio floor in the old Wanganui Woolshed rented from potter Ross Mitchell- Anyon – a friend and mentor who shares with Patel a love of risk-taking and experimentation in his art.

Working on several paintings at a time, Patel is often in the dark, with no preconceived idea of composition – he is not one for drawing or taking photographs. The paintings have an introverted, mystical feeling as if the artist has dug deep to communicate a sense of the pleasures and dangers of being alive and making paintings.

The work always emerges from a black field and Patel says his paintings are literally pulled out of a void. It’s no surprise to hear his art practice eventuated as a panacea to difficult circumstances In his case it was therapy during a period of lost identity caused by the painful experience of growing up as an Indian in conservative 1970s Wanganui. Art provided a way to resolve the conflict between his family’s Gujarati background and the antipodean environment he grew up autumn 2005 / 49 in. The dot paintings, which have been described as an homage to unsung Indian fabric-makers who labour long hours to create shimmering, iridescent swathes of cloth used for saris, clearly reflect Patel’s different cultural strands. Each meticulous dot corresponds with the fabricmaker’s stitch and the metallic paints evoke the gold and silver threads woven into a sari.

“I didn’t go out of my way to paint things that relate to being Indian but I think it just happens naturally anyway. It’s not intentional,” he says.

In 1924 his grandfather emigrated from Gujarat to Auckland where he started a fruit business. He then bought buildings in Wanganui and moved there. Patel says few Europeans visited the house in Castlecliff when he was growing up and his mother, who moved to New Zealand when she was 19, is not a fluent English speaker and found the relocation difficult. Patel’s father, who emigrated as a ten-year-old, “speaks English like a Kiwi”.

“I think there is a connection between my work and my mother and India,” says New Zealand-born Patel.

“When I went to India the first time, it was a shock but it helped me understand where my mother is from. I didn’t understand her when I was growing up.

“When I was a child I felt almost ashamed to have a mother who wore a dress that was so bright – she stood out too much. And the last thing I wanted to do was stand out as being Indian. In later years you learn to look at yourself in a more positive light.”

Patel has visited India twice – once when he was nine and more recently as an adult. He remembers experiencing Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, during which people on the street threw coloured powder at the bus he was travelling on.

“The first time I visited India it had a profound impression on me because of how full-on it is. The smells and sounds and colours are intoxicating; it tests everything about you. I love the way that when you are there, you can’t stop it, you have to go with it.”

The patterns in Patel’s paintings have an unmistakable Eastern feel, evoking ritual and repetitive small acts, which take on the nature of prayer and offer the possibility of transformation.

“In this series I have explored the process of repetition and ways in which the paintings become meditative and hypnotic,” he says.

“I want to create works that soak up your gaze, that make you fall into them. That’s the feeling I get looking at the night sky or the grass with lots of little flowers in it – it looks like the galaxy, like stars.”

The fact that Patel’s works combine a love of rich detail and decoration with the muscular and more ascetic rigours of the modernist grid makes them enigmatic and visually dazzling. They juggle opposites – the mechanical and the handmade, nature and science, decoration and minimalism, asceticism and indulgence, darkness and light, to great effect.

by Virginia Were