In his first art show, adman Freddy Birdy prefers the mild mortifications of everyday wit, finds TRISHA GUPTA
THE FIRST THING you see when you enter Freddy Birdy’s first show of paintings is an enormous white canvas with a glossyhaired brunette suspended sexily upsidedown, as if she’s being poured out of the giant Heinz ketchup bottle in the top right corner. Her scarlet lingerie echoes the McDonald’s red of the cartons in the other corner, from which bunches of fries sprout like slightly surreal flowers. The label reads, “Your proximity to a McDonald’s is far greater than your proximity to love.” In another painting, Superman rises in his famous underwear-worn-over-tights, against a background of Rupa briefs in Indian comic book colours.
At one level, these images are exactly what you might expect from a man who’s worked with several well-known advertising agencies (Grey Worldwide, Mudra and McCann Erickson) and orchestrated award-winning campaigns for brands like Thums Up, Vimal, Polo mints, Samsung and Taj Hotels: the interest in surface, the use of iconic images, the playful insertion of text, the shiny brightness of it all. But Birdy is reluctant to be seen as drawing on an advertising aesthetic: “Advertising images are more falsely-real, if you know what I mean: shiny hair, juicy burgers, happy families. Art is as disturbing as you want it to be.”
Neither is he happy with the boundaries around art — probably why he chafes at questions about his ‘text-paintings’: the tongue-incheek A Perfect Life, a dartboard with “Blowjobs” crowding the periphery and “Art” at the centre, or The Vocabulary of Fidelity, a gentle story-canvas. “I find that text has not only its own visual grammar, as a mass of words, but when read, it’s even more beautiful. You can form your own paintings. I don’t think that art has to ‘look’ like art: it should intrigue you, beguile you, thrill you, disturb you, entertain you. Art is anywhere you seek ,” he insists. “The way a housewife rolls out perfect rotis, isn’t that an art?”
This desire to establish the personal and the domestic domains as legitimate spaces for art is echoed in Contact Arora Properties, an enlarged version of a floor plan for an apartment (presumably Birdy’s own), with appropriate personal resolutions scribbled in. In one room, the artist’s scrawl declares, “I will drink more water.” And follows it up immediately with, “And vodka tonics.” A square marked “Bathroom” reads, “I will shower with a friend/I will save water”. It’s not always clear whether these sentiments are linked, but the juxtaposition opens up a space for laughter, which is integral to Birdy’s notion of what good art can do. “I think that Indian art has been serious for far too long. Why should great art be intense and brooding?” Birdy is determined to take everything — including himself — down a peg or two, but always with humour. If “There was a time when nobody ate sushi” provides pithy one-liners by which to navigate our era, Chain Painting is an extremely funny take on the fears and pretensions of the Indian art world. While he aspires, like his favourite Andy Warhol, to be the carefree but revealing chronicler of an era, for many people his work will stop short of such an achievement, evoking instead the aphoristic wit associated with the best advertising. Except here, as Birdy points out with characteristic candour, “It’s not promoting anything, except possibly the artist himself.”
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