For the Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote a salty review on Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar’s recent exhibition at the Tate Modern. He argued that Khakhar was a pastiche neo-figurative painter whose work was stuck in decades past, and that due to this perceived lack of talent, liberal Tate curators were probably only interested in him because he’s gay and from a non-Western nation. Painting, apparently, must universally conform to Jones’s laughably retrograde standards or else the attention given to any non-white, straight cis male artist is due not to talent, but liberal street cred. Someone please put Jones out to pasture where he can bro out and drink whisky with the ghost of Clement Greenberg.
Thankfully, grand dame of Indian art history Geeta Kapur followed Jones’s white male trainwreck with and extremely satisfying response. Part of Jones’s review is in partial below (full version via the Guardian), and Kapur’s response below that.
What makes this an odd exhibition for Tate Modern to put on is that Khakhar so strongly resembles the kind of British painter it would never let through its doors. He made his name in the 1960s as India’s first pop artist, and by the 80s had developed into a postmodernist storyteller whose big narrative paintings have a jaunty exuberant humour. This is a similar trajectory to the likes of RB Kitaj, Joe Tilson and Tom Phillips – artists who dominated the London scene before the Turner prize and Tate Modern blew away such cobwebs. Khakhar’s paintings made me think particularly of the Scottish artist Stephen Campbell, whose narrative pictures are similarly big and boring.
Why are we supposed to be interested in this old-fashioned, second-rate artist whose paintings are stuck in a timewarp of 1980s neo-figurative cliche? The answers appear to be political rather than aesthetic. Khakhar portrayed his own gay identity at a time when this was still brave. All right. Yet his depictions of arses and cocks don’t seem at all shocking or provocative, probably because his renditions of human flesh are so drab and vague. If you don’t believe in the reality of a painted body, who cares if it is naked? The exhibition’s title, You Can’t Please All, makes Bhupen Khakhar sound like a transgressive, dangerous artist, but the Robert Mapplethorpe of Mumbai he ain’t. More like the Beryl Cook.
The only reason to give Khakhar a soft ride would surely be some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity: that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important than the merits of his art. Whatever the thinking behind it, this show is a waste of space.
Here’s Kapur’s response:
We should read Jonathan Jones’ review in The Guardian of Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective at the Tate Modern as an expected irritant – he (still) writes like a provincial Englishman. He rejects, in a weak manner, figurative-narrative painting and, just as weakly, defends more ‘painterly’ painting. Using discarded art historical categories, he repeats (by rote) well-enshrined modernist criteria and yet claims partisanship with advanced art that should, he says, be the remit of the Tate Modern. He is vicious about what he dislikes but equivocal, at least in this review, about what he endorses. And he throws in a reference to some exciting young artists in India without the knowledge or the guts to name them.
Jones heaps scorn on Khakhar for being a good-for-nothing stray – that is, for being a painter without pedigree, pedigree being a trait (still?) cherished by the English, when their own identity holds little conviction. Khakhar, he says, is naïve and at worst cheap, and his portrayal of sexuality is jaded. The critic obviously lacks interpretative agility. Khakhar’s work demands that we register at once the layered colour surfaces of his paintings, the provocative eccentricity of his figuration and the painterly intimations of disease and mortality both excessive and tender. The critic’s eyes are dull, his judgment embarrassing (imagine invoking Beryl Cook, OBE) and his language vulgar – he relies on alliterative adjectives that are mostly expletives. The discourse on art has gone much further than the reviewer’s ‘lingo’. How does The Guardian entertain a critic incapable of stating the terms of his critique or his preferred art historical premise, leave alone criteria shaped by a world-scale understanding of diverse practices?
Take a step further and there is, under the guise of being more ‘hip’ than the Tate Modern’s curators, a sneaky conservatism in the review. Just as he suspects political reasons – a defunct liberalism – to be the excuse for mounting the Khakhar exhibition, we can clearly read political discomfiture at the admission of heterogeneous cultures and criteria into Britain’s ‘temple’ of international modern art.
Check out Kapur’s full response on The Wire here.
**Image: You Can’t Please All, by Bhupen Khakhar, also the title of the ongoing retrospective of his works at the Tate Modern, London. Credit: The Conversation