While Mahesh Baliga’s paintings often linger on the quotidian – hotel reception desks, drowsy zoo animals, frozen desserts – they nevertheless feel like visions from a dream, at once vivid and oddly elusive. One reason for this is the Indian artist’s use of casein tempera, a quick-drying pigment derived from milk protein, which lends his work a matte, faintly otherworldly glow. Another is that he paints not from life, or reference images, but from his own memories. Temporal distance, of course, has a way of distorting reality. As Marcel Proust observed in his novel In Search of Lost Time (1913-27): ‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were’.
At Baliga’s first solo show at David Zwirner, London, a series of his small (or as he refers to them, ‘lap-sized’) paintings hang in two parallel, offset lines, like the teeth of an open zipper. Here, the white spaces between each work suggest lacunae in what the artist describes in an accompanying text as ‘the stream of never forgetting’, which ‘rushes [at me] in the loneliness of my studio’, and from which he attempts to ‘collect [images] and keep them safe’. There’s no obvious chronology or hierarchy at work in this arrangement of paintings. Baliga allows his memory to fix on the most fleeting of sense impressions – a plastic tub stuffed with crumpled rupee notes (Collection, 2022), a shirtfront stained by a leaking pen (Poet with ink on his pocket, 2022), strings of winking bulbs hung in a Modernist apartment block in celebration of an ancient festival (Diwali Lights, 2022) – which he transforms into something precious, almost numinous.
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