prabhavathi meppayil Untitled-CU3-2011-Detail-2.tif

Prabhavathi Meppayil, untitled-cu3-2011, 2011 (detail). Photography by Francesco Galli © Prabhavathi Meppayil


Being with the work and in the work

An Interview with Prabhavathi Meppayil

By Wells Fray-Smith
Thursday, May 12, 2022

This interview took place on October 9, 2020, with follow-up conversations in early 2021. It is included in the publication Prabhavathi Meppayil, published by Pace Publishing, alongside texts by Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann, Rosalind Krauss, and Mami Kataoka.

Wells Fray-Smith: I want to start with your beginnings as an artist— you studied painting at the Ken School of Art in Bangalore, India, during the early 1990s. The school had a reputation for being open, democratic, and embracing modernism. Can you speak a bit about your education and what affect it had on you?

Prabhavathi Meppayil: My association with Ken School of Art began when I was ten years old and I tagged along with my sister, who was a hobby student there. I was fascinated by the ambience of the school and the teacher Rudrappa Mallappa Hadapad’s drawing and painting demonstrations, especially the portraits. This bewilderment stayed with me, and Hadapad was an uncompromising artist with an experimental approach to art that challenged a lot of accepted notions. This shaped my understanding of a certain way of approaching modernism. He used to tell his students that “art elevates you, encountering an artwork transforms you as a person,” and this influenced my understanding of art and its significance in life. It also holds true personally at a moment when the world is in a dark place due to the pandemic. When you are questioning the very significance of life, perhaps art helps in the healing process.

WFS: Your work has a graphic quality with a strong emphasis on line, detailed mark-making, and the use of the thinnam, but your early work was figurative—you drew figures and animals on gesso. In 2010, you began working on abstract, wall-mounted panels embedded with copper wire or small indentations. What prompted this shift from figuration to abstraction?

PM: I began experimenting and exploring possibilities with materials in the late 1990s. During this time, I came across traditional wall-painting techniques and gesso panels. Wall painting is one of the earliest mediums of painting, and it’s very disciplined and process oriented. It has a long history in the Indian art context; for example, the extraordinary fresco paintings of the Ajanta Caves (c. 1st century BCE–6th century CE) located in the north-central Maharashtra state and the Sittanavasal Cave (2nd century BCE) in the southeast Tamil Nadu state. I was intrigued by the process of making the gesso panel and the technique of painting or drawing on the panel as a way to revisit the history of painting.

My figurative paintings were subjective and punctuated with mark-making using thinnam tools, the tool used by goldsmiths to make delicate patterns on bangles. The object-like quality of the panel inspired me to push the boundaries further—to explore how a finely made gesso panel, with its subdued glossy-white surface, was more than just a surface for painting, but an object in itself. From then, I emphasized the physical aspect of the gesso panel, the process, and the materials to explore the conceptual concerns of the art language and the everyday.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, untitled series-3, 2010 (detail). Photograph by Stephen White © Prabhavathi Meppayil

WFS: You experiment with two types of panel: one with copper wire embedded in the gesso and the other with subtle indentations made by a thinnam tool. The panels often follow the logic of the grid and seem meticulously planned. What role does chance play in your process of making a panel?

PM: There is always a chance factor in my work. The construction of lines in the copper-wire panel may look similar to another panel, but they are always different. And in the thinnam panels, each mark depends on the tap of the tool to make the indentation in the gesso. The process of preparing the panel is disciplined, but the outcome is dependent on the material and process—from applying the gesso layers to how the wires are stretched and the intensity of the sanding process. I think of sanding as blind painting because my face is covered with so much protective gear; so much so that I cannot completely control what comes through. In their own way, the copper wires unravel through the layers of sanded gesso; I cannot control it. Materials have a life of their own, and the element of serendipity makes the materials compelling to engage with.

WFS: Could you describe the process of making a panel from start to finish?

PM: It is a labor-intensive process that starts with a wooden panel. Like painting, the unbleached cloth is stretched over the wooden panel and then coated with gesso by hand. Layers and layers of thin gesso are applied, which makes the panel strong. For the copper-wire works, I apply twenty coats and then embed the wire, and then I add another ten to fifteen coats. The thinnam panel needs more layers, at least thirty. I always make a couple of panels at a time, in part because of the quantity of the gesso needed for each. With Bangalore weather, I can maybe do two or three coats of gesso per day.

After about six days of layering, when the base is really dry, I start to embed the copper wire. Stretching the wire is very, very tricky. The material has a life of its own, and I have to listen to it. I repeat the process of layering gesso until the copper wire is concealed, and once the gesso has dried, I sand the surface with a sanding machine and then finally by hand.

For the thinnam panel, I start on a sanded panel and work horizontally. Initially when I started the thinnam work, I was guided by the sound. It really makes a noise as you hit the tool. I saw the marks as the absence of sound—the remnants after you have used the tool, removed it, and the sound is gone. I remember my father, who was a goldsmith, tapping the tool on gold bangles. ... There is a certain rhythm to it. Most of my work is completely dictated by material and medium. The whole process of making the panel is performative but also meditative because of the total involvement, the kind of attention, the kind of focus in the work. It is the process of being with the work and in the work.

WFS: So, you can read the thinnam panel like a score— each mark is a visual residue of the sound?

PM: Yes, and as children we were fascinated by the sound of the tools tapping, and my father would let us try them. For me, the indents on the panel are evocative of this rhythm, and they are a loss, a collection of loss. I listen to the sounds of everyday life. Where I live, in the goldsmith’s hub in the old part of Bangalore, you keep hearing the tapping sound of gold and other metals. Even now, can you hear that? [A consistent tapping sound in different pitches can be heard.] There is a sort of rhythm in it, isn’t there? To quote the American composer John Cage, “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

WFS: When you are making the panel, do you plan the composition and arrangement of the marks in advance? Or is it a rhythm that you follow to decide the position of the next mark?

PM: The thinnam tool is traditionally meant to be used vertically from top to bottom, but on the panel, I started making marks horizontally, either from left to right or vice versa, almost like a script. I follow the rhythm, and there is a certain guideline as I move horizontally with the tap. Placing the marks one next to the other needs focus. You have to be in it, in the moment of making. Thinnam work has a rhythm of time inherent in its making.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, tw/one (detail), 2016 © Prabhavathi Meppayil, Photo by Andrea Rossetti

WFS: It seems that the human being is so embedded in your work. Your work is often discussed in relation to Minimalism or the aesthetics of the grid, but I’m interested in the human as a trope—how the body is present in the work but never pictorialized, and how the body animates the architectural spaces of your installations.

PM: The human aspect is not apparent or consciously visible in my work, and I have not spoken about it much. My work is often read as being about the artist, the practice, and the craft because I come from a family of goldsmiths and because that history is there, but it’s not as simple as that. I am critically engaging with the language of the work through the context of my lived experience. This is where the histories of artisanal practice, or personal narratives, come into the picture and overlap with the visible geometric vocabulary. In the grid installations sb/eighteen (2018) and tw/one (2016), for example, the grid is made from found objects (molds), and most of the molds were from my father’s collection. They had been used for many years in the artisanal process, and now obsolete, they are devoid of their original purpose. When the molds are reiterated as art objects, it is difficult to solely read them as Minimalist, simple forms because they come with individual histories that I want to engage with. Unlike the industrial objects of the 1970s, these molds are handmade and used by individuals; there is a human touch. The socio-cultural history and context of the objects add layers to the complexity of the language.

In the installation Melting Pot (2009) that I did in Bangalore, I made marks with the thinnam tool on rubble that I had collected around my place. I situated this pile of rubble in the interior of a modern building. It was a comment on the movement of people from one place to the other, and migration and the changing landscape of the city.

WFS: I am struck by your numerical titles of tw/one and sb/eighteen. Can you say more about how you title your work?

PM: I did not want the titles of my works to be representational or to preempt interpretations, and therefore, I came up with a naming system. Each work is named by a number (in letters) affixed to an abbreviated version of the show’s name or the place or the year. Works for an exhibition in London were titled as l/ninety five, and the Berlin show works as BerlinSeptember/Six, and so on. Sometimes the titles are markers of time and markers of a process; the concrete sculpture titling (for example, eighteen one zero-0525, 2019) is the volume of the geometric form and the time of casting the concrete mold.

WFS: Since the last book nine seventeen in 2014, your work has developed quite considerably. You’re still making panels, but they have begun to take on new shapes, with new forms and in new repetitions, and you have moved into an increasingly sculptural and architectural direction, using three dimensions as the stage to encounter your work, as in Melting Pot. How do you define yourself and your work—as a painter, a sculptor, an installation artist—and why?

PM: This is difficult to answer. I started off as a painter, but then I moved on. Basically, I enjoy the process of making. But I think my engagement with space started much before 2014. One of the site-specific installations, rw/seventeen (pp. 124–125), which I did at Galleryske in Bangalore in 2013, was a reflected version of the ceiling. I stretched copper wire on the wall with the slanted parallel lines following the lines on the roof. It was about the coming together of two different spaces: the imaginary space, subtly hinted at by the drawing of the lines/wires, and the actual architectural space.


Installation view: Prabhavathi Meppayil, Recent Works, Pace Gallery, London (26 April–25 May 2019).

The work titled dp/sixteen/part one (2015–16) (p. 103) for the Dhaka Art Summit in 2016 continued the main idea of creating movement between floor and ceiling, the outside and inside. The coffered ceiling in the site seemed as though it could be a series of empty cubes arranged in a grid on the ceiling. I thought it would be interesting to recreate the coffered ceiling on the floor, to create tension/movement between the floor and ceiling. In some ways the idea was to virtually bring the floor and ceiling to float on the same plane. I recreated the ceiling by making a grid of cubes on the floor. Needless to say, this work was located in the city where one of the most significant architectural buildings of our time, the National Assembly Hall by Louis Kahn, existed.

WFS: This conversation has highlighted that your work destabilizes fixed categories; for example, it’s not just two dimensional or three dimensional. I see that position—of categories being fluid—visibly in the work, as well. There’s an experience of perceiving emptiness in the panels before getting close and realizing they are full of marks; you have a meticulous process, but you welcome chance; there is repetition between panels but also difference; and conceptually, they move between modernism and Minimalism with strong human narratives. It’s very difficult to categorize what you do and how the work operates.

PM: I think the ambiguity of the gesso panel itself and the lack of clarity on its position is interesting. It is neither a painting nor an object. Same with the installation sb/eighteen or the concrete cubes. It is neither this nor that. I think the ambiguity or neutrality opens up the possibilities and also multiplies its readings. For instance, the installation se/one half (2017–18), where a series of copper wire panels were placed on plinths horizontally, appears to be floating on the floor beneath the skylight. The panels trace the changing light of the day, with shadow patterns falling on the work. Here, the gesso panel is viewed in a different orientation, which subtly subverts the way you perceive the work.


Prabhavathi Meppayil, l/hundred fifty eight, 2019 © Prabhavathi Meppayil

Scale also plays an important role in the panels and how they are perceived. I find different scales have different resonances with viewers, different contributions to the visual experience. When you’re in front of a small panel you might have a particular visual sensation because of what is in your visual field; you have an intimate experience of the work, and you can view the line from edge to edge. Whereas in the large panels, like the untitled-cu1 series (2011–12) or n/ninety two (2016), the experience is very different. The lines play hide and seek, coming in and out of vision. I think it is very interesting to show the smaller and larger work together for this reason. I like the performative aspect to viewing.

WFS: What about the shaped panels you have been making? They use the logic of the grid, but suddenly break with its form. You’ve added curved sides, quite literally bending modernism’s rules of linearity. What led you to shaped canvases?

PM: Instead of arbitrarily deciding the shape of the panels, I let the tool determine the shape; the panel is the shape of the thinnam tool. It was interesting to notice that the geometric form in thinnam tools is not a pure form, as you see in the narrative of abstraction. It is slippery. In a single thinnam tool, you can find multiple geometric forms. The shaped panels are a reflection of the same. l/hundred fifty eight (2019) and forty five nineteen (2019) are enlarged versions of the multiple geometric forms in the thinnam tool. These forms or patterns have been around for many years, as I said earlier. With its individual cultural history, it is difficult to fit these into a linear narrative of modernism.

Wells Fray-Smith is Assistant Curator: Special Projects at Whitechapel Gallery.

  • Essays — Being with the work and in the work: An Interview with Prabhavathi Meppayil, May 12, 2022