Inside the Empty Box - A Retrospective of Prabhakar Barwe

08 Feb 2019


Curatorial Text by Jesal Thacker, 2019

The title Inside the Empty Box is derived from a series created by Prabhakar Barwe in the 1990's. As a metaphor, the title suggests an enquiry into subliminal realms that trigger the methods of making. This becomes Barwe's first retrospective, twenty-four years after his demise, aiming to decipher the artist's mind through his art and intricate untold diary notations. I was introduced to Barwe's art practice during an assignment in 1998, when I was a student of Sir. J. J. School of Art, Mumbai. Intrigued by his preoccupation with seemingly mundane objects like safety-pins, hangers, leaves, fruits, watches and boxes, I initiated an independent study, which soon became a lifelong pursuit into the artist's peculiar style of transforming objects into forms which are objectified again on the canvas with renewed definitions.                     

Objects continue to have unique connotations in Western and Eastern visual cultures. In the West, an object is a subject of still life – one must study it's physical structure through the play of light. The object must be rendered exactly as seen by the artist. On the other hand, in the East, an object becomes an entity for self- realization, with the aim to awaken an intuitive light inside the artist and a viewer. There is no compulsion upon realistic rendering, the object is manifested as experienced by an artist. Yet there still exists an aesthetic continuity amongst both these ideological streams, which invariably constructs the history of art – one that cannot exist with solely static sensibilities.

Artists are shaped by the idioms persisted in their cultures; but they then question and rephrase these constructs with constant enquiries. To evolve becomes the underlying principle of all creation. Objects, too, have been through this cycle comprised of a matrix of memories and consciousness. Objects carry innumerable impressions (fictional & non-fictional); from being an artistic muse in Van Gogh's A vase with Fifteen Sunflowers(1889), to being a meditative instrument in Muqi Fachang's Six Persimmons (13th Century), or reinventing itself as a found-object in Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), to ultimately strive towards a futuristic potential in Rene Margritte's Clairvoyance (1936).

In the Tantric tradition, an object can become a catalyst for an evolving consciousness – representing the collective aesthetic sensibility of the period. Art becomes a part of this process. Prabhakar Barwe's ceaseless engagement with forms and their continuous formations (object-form, form-form, form-space), witnessed through his oeuvre and iconic book 'Kora Canvas', makes him a descendent of this lineage. He carefully accesses and recreates a perception that balances the outer with the inner terrain, a logic infused with sense, memory and intuition.          

Every painting is indirectly an autobiographical narration with its composition as an abstracted form of reality. But what truly distinguishes Barwe from his contemporaries is his conscious elimination of the human figure, which is replaced with visual perceptions that play with the human mind. The form of the figure slowly abstracts itself while its ordinary surroundings are reformed. Here too, he doesn't distort the outer materiality of the objects, he retains their formal structure and only recomposes their relational significance. The physicality of the object is not abstracted completely; instead, a cognitive meaning is rephrased and rearranged – creating multiple perceptions simultaneously.

Although Barwe revered artists such as Vasudeo Gaitonde and Mohan Samant, he refrained from complete abstraction and figuration. Ordinary objects in their renewed contexts became his endeavor, creating a peculiar language of visual imagery yet to be probed and historicized – which forms the manifesto of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.                                                 

The box of the title has a dual connotation. First comes the literal meaning – of a box as a space that holds archives, memories and significant objects, left untouched for years. Secondly, the box symbolizes the mind of the artist, a cognitive realm storing the intangible components that form his thoughts and perceptions. Inside the Empty Box thus excavates the archives of Barwe whilst simultaneously unravelling his visual language – a process that requires each viewer to enter the recess of an empty mind.

Emptiness here doesn't imply an absence of meaning; rather it marks the presence of a space pregnant with a plenum of intuitive abstracted sensations – an ideology that resonates with Zen philosophy. Barwe adapted this sense of emptying the mind of its 'natural form', enabling a perception of the abstract surrounded by an empty space. An obvious recognition of mundane objects draws the viewer inside. The objects then begin to float and reform, dissolving their linear perspective into a flat empty expanse that triggers a viewer to contrive multiple perceptions of a single object. This empty space thus becomes an invitation; the viewer is no longer external, but enters the void within the canvas. Objects are transformed into space-form logic as paintings are perceived within the quantum of an empty box.

We invite you to step Inside the Empty Box to experience Prabhakar Barwe's creative cognition. This exhibition is designed to suit the entire process of walking in, out and around spaces that activate one's own intuition. Creative spaces that form extensions of Barwe's paintings and experiments will engage each of you to participate, create and take back a piece of Barwe's thoughts. Spell your own Alphabets of Nature, Flying Postcards, Tortoise and the Mirror and Fruit & Conversation are the activities that will bring out an artist within each viewer.

The artworks are primarily chronologically orchestrated on every level, each representing a distinct phase of Barwe's practice. Beginning from the ground level, which forms the base of this exhibition, one encounters Barwe's early works from Sir J.J. School of Art and their transition into Tantric formations. The crux of this space is a documented timeline, which chronicles the artist's life, accompanied by a reading corner with our collated archives.

This studio-like atmosphere organically converses with the energetic display on Level 2 – exhibiting eight strong works from 1962 to 1968, from the period when Barwe worked at the Weavers' Service Centre (WSC). Accompanied with blocks made by the artist during his years at the WSC and a textile work is on display, depicting Barwe's  engrossment and turn from design into Tantra, and ultimately into his own Swatantra, reflected through his work Ethereal Transitions. Level 3 and 4 evoke cognitive shifts in the mind of the artist; these paintings with subtle tones remain vibrant in their compositions. This section comprises Barwe's oeuvre from 1977 to 1988, wherein a flux of indigenous forms is transformed into a cognitive flux inside mundane objects. The form has changed, yet the flux feels eternal. Level 3 also comprises of rare archival material in the presence of iconic paintings such as Alphabets of Nature, Between Leaf and Snail and Real Unreal, created by the artist during his time at Yaddo, an artists' colony in New York.

The retrospective concludes at the dome – the architectural summit of the structure – which becomes an allegory to Barwe's work, Many Identities of the Self. Paintings from the late 1980s to his last unfinished canvas are displayed here, conceptually hinting towards an objective identity. The works here include The Clock, The Staircase and The Gramophone amongst others, which personify the artists's affinity towards elements illustrated in singular formations, rather than his earlier collective compositions. It almost seems as though he identified himself inside each of the distilled elements in this section. All of Barwe's 52 diaries inhabit this space, with a selection of 10 diaries as exhibition copies for you to explore.

An intriguing aspect of Barwe's practice is the title of each work; they are characteristic of the Japanese Koans, which riddle a viewer into investigating their meanings. We have intentionally labelled only the titles of each work along with their dates in the exhibition display. The remaining details can be found on the map of each floor.

I hope you enjoy your journey Inside the Empty Box.


'Chitra Vastu Vichaar, a book of Barwe’s writings in Marathi, will be launched on 22nd February, 2019. This book begins with Barwe’s discourse on a universal creative process, but ultimately concludes with his innermost thoughts on art, and his life as an artist. It also contains an exclusive yet comprehensive selection of excerpts and drawings from the diaries Barwe maintained throughout his life. This book offers an insight into the artist’s creative psyche, published in its original handwritten form. It becomes the first primary resource into his life, published 24 years after his death in 1995.

Talking Shadows, is an exciting symposium by artists’ spread out over three days (1st to 3rd March, 2019). For an artist, the form of an artwork and the space it inhabits (or creates) becomes a visual language in itself – one that defies the confines of words, to discover new ones. Or even unearth histories that lay hidden. On these lines, this symposium seeks to imbibe viewers with intimate insights into the creative process of an artist. Seven leading contemporary artists will give lectures on their practice, which will be followed by conversations with the audience. Each artist will focus on a single piece, or a series, to make the dialogue more focused on the subject.



Inside the Empty Box - A Retrospective of Prabhakar Barwe