It was during the eight months that he spent in Mumbai in 2008, working in a television production, that Schon Mendes realised he was interested in storytelling of a different kind. The young man from Goa, who had always been interested in people and their stories, had received his BA degree in Mass Communication and Video Production, before moving to Mumbai, where he had thought he would be pursuing his dream career. After a few months in the city, he became convinced that what he really wanted to do was paint. It was something he had done all his life, but only as a hobby. That year, however, Mendes felt that painting was more than a pastime and he moved to Vadodara where, under the guidance of artists Rekha Rodwittiya and Surendran Nair, he studied painting at the Collective Studio.
That Mendes made the right choice is clear, particularly after viewing his solo show, “Cameos of a City” at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery. The 29-year-old artist brings his love for storytelling to vivid, detailed life on canvas, especially in the nine large works that form the main body of the exhibition and which depict the chaos and complexities of urban life in modern India.
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“I’m fascinated by the City, as an idea,” says Mendes, “the hustle and bustle, the ways in which people’s lives are connected — these things inspire me.” One of his favourite exercises — dating back to when he was still a novice — is to go out on the street and sketch life, regardless of whether he would use the sketch in a work. “It’s a good way to pull back and just observe. You can see things you may not otherwise have noticed and make connections you wouldn’t otherwise have made,” he says.
What looks like chaos on the canvas at first glance, becomes coherent when one follows the visual cues presented by the artist, whether it’s a long, sheet of paper unfurling out of a typewriter, a train track or road that passes through the composition or a solitary figure in the foreground who seems completely detached from all the action around him. This is Mendes the storyteller at work, deftly transitioning between the mundane scenes of city life and feverish dreams filled with fantastic beasts, historical figures and improbable scenes. There is a work in which Emperor Jehangir confronts a dragon, and another where the miniature artist Nainsukh has a telephonic conversation with Polish-French artist Balthus.
In these overlaps of different worlds, he hints at the various ways in which we imagine the city. A city is, after all, a place driven by an almost demonic energy, where people are constantly on the move, as they multi-task through the hours. Cities have other, more mystical associations too — they are places where, given the right circumstances, anyone’s dreams might come true and where, in the wrong circumstances, reality could quickly distort into nightmare. By allowing the banal and the dreamlike to sit comfortably together on his canvas, the artist is showing us how the many ideas of the city can exist on the same plane.
This lofty theme doesn’t preclude a certain teasing, playfulness from Mendes’ works, which are full of references drawn from various sources. Much of the appeal of these paintings comes from the fact that one could stand before each canvas for minutes at a time and scrutinise each detail to trace the reference, almost as if one were playing a game or solving a puzzle.
There are autobiographical details, such as a scene set in a church frequented by Mendes’ family or piano in a living room, which hints at his early training as a musician. Pop culture gets a nod too, with Spiderman making an appearance alongside the Nazgul from the Lord of the Rings. Mendes has struck a particularly rich vein in art history, using his works to pay homage to great artists and styles. He makes his artistic inheritance evident in the compositions, drawing on the flat aerial perspective used in many Indian miniature painting styles, as well as the detailed landscapes from the 16th century Flemish tradition.
There are direct references to individual artists as well — David Hockney’s swimming pool, a depiction of the Last Supper featuring Rembrandt, Balthus’ cat and Joan Miro’s clocks. “Art history, for me, is very real,” says Mendes, “I was taught that artists should look at all of art history as their own history. So, I look on all the great artists that came before me as my own ancestors.”
Cameos of a City is on view at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, till October 8