“I believe that in painting, everything should come out of a complete need. Color should only be used when totally necessary.”
Mehlli Gobhai, born in Mumbai in 1931, completed his undergraduate education at St. Xavier's College. He then trained as an artist at the Royal College of Art in London, and the Art Students League and the Pratt Graphic Center in New York. For twenty years after his studies, he lived and worked out of New York. His first major show titled Marking Black was exhibited at the Bronx Museum, where he showed 5 canvases alongside artists like Richard Serra, Sean Scully and Larry Bell. Gobhai returned to Mumbai in the late 1980s.
|Untitled-14,mixed media on paper, 51.5 x 66 inches, 2010|
Image Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road
In his studio, in Mumbai, are found objects from his farm in Gholvad, dried coconuts to dolphin skull. “In my work, like nature, there is a compulsion towards the ‘axis mundi’. It is like the spinal cord – something derived from nature. The human body is an architectural feat. Through my anatomy study and my work, it has brought me the closest I have come to a sense of truth and a grand design.” says Gobhai whilst describing his work, using the term ‘organic geometry’, for its shimmering vibrancy. “The sense of aging and transformation of an organic form, and morphing it into something new appeals to me.” Even across a room, Gobhai’s geometric abstractions seem to emit a sub-audible hum. Their energy is so high that their physical boundaries appear permeable; they easily charge a space substantially larger than the four constructed canvases that they are painted on and the fourteen works on paper that completely fill the large rooms of Chemould Prescott Road.
As with most abstract painting, it may be fairly easy to describe what the paintings look like – repetitive geometric patterns rendered in an essentially earth-toned palette – yet nearly impossible to describe the aesthetic of their visceral impact. What exactly does a radiating starburst or proto hound-tooth pattern mean anyway? No matter the intricacy, how does one discuss a painting of a shape?
Untitled-2 mixed media on constructed canvas, 60 x 60 inches, 2010
Image Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road
In looking for a conceptual foothold, where no overt narrative presents itself, how natural, how tempting to contemplate the physical origin of the artworks. Indeed, close inspection of Gobhai’s paintings makes for an intriguing exploration. Gobhai’s abstractions are not intentionally obfuscated nor are they apparent descriptive imperative. Absent, more overt rational as these, there might be a reasonable and strong inclination on the viewer’s part to assume that Gobhai’s painting exits solely as an outlet for his need to apply paint in the most painstaking way possible. It is at this point; one might begin to wonder if the artist is engaged in obsessive-compulsive behavior that, only incidentally, results in an artwork. No doubt that for the layman, Gobhai’s process must seem physically redundant and numbingly time consuming; for most people it is close to impossible to imagine sitting down and laying application, removal and addition of layers of acrylic, charcoal, graphite, zinc, aluminum powder and pastel one after the other, that add up to make a single painting.
Although, it might be tempting to deconstruct Gobhai’s process and even, on a certain level, gain insights into the work by doing so, it is imperative not to lose sight of the seductiveness of the object itself. If we become obsessed with the process over the impact, then it is easy to be overwhelmed by the marks without keeping a fix as Gobhai does on their functionality. With attention to the intricacies of material, construction and placement, Mehlli Gobhai’s constructed canvases form an intriguing symbolic system. Gobhai mixes monochromatic and minimal styles with expressive use of color and form. His work is permeated by a powerful sense of the uncanny; he infuses textures and images with a dramatic, atmospheric charge.
Evoking a magical and emotive experience of time, place, and action, Gobhai both romances and unsettles the viewer with a sense of both revelation and mystery. He arranges elements in ways that privilege texture and tactility. With a theatrical flair reminiscent of Duchamp, he explores the social and personal implications of mixing abstraction and figuration.
(Abhijeet Gondkar is an independent writer and curator based in Mumbai. The above excerpts are from review of Mehlli Gobhai’s solo show at Chemould Prescott Road in 2011)
"DON'T ASK ME ABOUT COLOUR" - Mehlli Gobhai, A Retrospective
Curated by Nancy Adajania & Ranjit Hoskote
6 March – 25 April, 2020
National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai