Surendran Nair: Neti, Neti

When 11 Nov 2010 - 23 Dec 2010
Where Frey Norris gallery
456 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States
Enquiry 415 346 7812

Dirghajihvi : An actor performing the parabasis of an imaginary play – Doctrine of the Forest (Cuckoonebulopolis), 2009.  Oil on canvas.  Courtesy of the artist and Frey Norris Gallery CA

November 11, 2010 – December 23, 2010

Opening Reception: November 11, 2010, 6:00 to 8:00 pm

Press Release:

Delighting in the condition of paradox, these paintings assume various forms: they come at us as puzzling riddles and private jokes, mumbled asides and deafening proclamations, knife-edged critiques and tender parodies, baroque satires and impish elegies…Nair regards painting as no less interactive a medium than the installation or the digital interface: a coded yet inviting communication around which artist and viewer choreograph a productive dialogue. – Ranjit Hoskote

The title of the exhibition Neti, Neti refers to the Brahad Aranyaka Upanishad, and is Nair’s first solo show in the United States. It will include new paintings from “Elysium,” as well the “Doctrine of the Forest”, two sections that belong to the series Cuckoonebulopolis; all inventive “Itinerant Mythologies,” the title of a recent monograph. Nair’s myths may be drawn or extrapolated from Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Islamic sources, some rooted in political observations or archetypes of drama, particularly Artistophanes’ The Birds. This play takes place around a bird-founded utopia situated between heaven and earth, wherein the birds are charged with the communications between those above and below. The artist describes his sources and inventions as “corollary mythologies,” and they take the forms of a visual idiom uniquely his own. The paintings provide windows into an endless web of narratives, as if a grand and complex epic is unfolding in the mind of the artist and such painting-portholes with their playful riddling titles are our only access, snippets of plot and characters. Evident in the iconography, the characterization of his brightly painted actors, is Nair’s lifelong affinity for the all night theatrical traditions of Kathakali, a form descended from classical Sanskrit drama played out in Kerala, where Nair was raised. Interpretive possibilities assert themselves in delicate balances that all seem provisional, while wrestling with conflicting symbolisms almost synonymous with dogmas. Words and language also play critical roles; long titles that suggest ambiguous stories and humorous onomatopoeia. These situate the artist in what he calls “the in between space” where the distinction between the visual and the verbal is not taken to be all that important, if not absolutely blurred.”

Neti, Neti, Nair’s first solo exhibition in an American gallery includes 11 paintings on canvas and paper, with the centerpiece doubling as the title of the show. As the artist explains, Neti, Neti “literally means: not this not this or, not this not that; or, neither this nor that. Yagjavalkya, the Upanishadic philosopher employed this particular approach of apophasis to describe the nature of the absolute, the Brahman, or God, the Supreme Being, when he was asked to do so by his students.” This brightly colored painting portrays an actor with a false blue arm hanging from a neck contraption. Nair further explains, “I was thinking of the figure of a Vidushaka here, who, in the Sanskrit theatre of Kerala plays different roles, like the stage manager or the sutradhar(the one who holds the strings), the initiator of the play, the hero’s friend or ‘side-kick’, comic relief etc. etc. Shakespeare’s fool in King Lear to some extant could be considered somewhat as a comparable.” A tiny masked man, based on a Greek sculpture of a comic-actor looms in the background supporting a flaming trident. Lovers (ShriParvatheeveekshanapriyan and Kaushiki Puramjanam) at Playful Leisure (2010) is an intricate and complex painting situated in a theatrical ritualized space, both figures nude, the close-eyed man lying on his back, his uplifted leg supporting a cat, his reclining head resting on a figure of a bull, a fanged picture window and a many-armed deity adorn the scene where a deer approaches; the woman of the pair, bright red tongue protruding steps across the man above him, reminiscent of Kali, a ferocious Hindu deity associated with time and change, often depicted wearing a necklace of severed heads.

Surendran Nair’s art has been seminal to discourses of visual art in the subcontinent and beyond, and inspired generations of younger artists in India. He has exhibited recently as part of The Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India, with American stops at the Queens Museum of Art in New York and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California. Other recent exhibitions have featured his work in Taiwan, the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, Germany and Norway.

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