Arts: Hegel would have approved

The sculptor Dhruva Mistry is returning to India, after 15 years. But not before leaving behind him a powerful Eastern challenge to the British avant-garde. By David Cohen
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The Independent Culture
Dhruva Mistry has always worn his Indian identity on his sleeve. His vision overflows with mythical beasts, voluptuous women and iconography. Even the eclecticism of his sculptural language, which fuses Indian and European elements, received and invented forms, is, in a way, rather Indian too. The survey of work from the last six years that opened at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) on Saturday draws together an array of styles and preoccupations, ranging from classical reclining deities to arcane stick- figure abstractions, and from fulsome forms sculpted "in the round" to pictorial modelled reliefs. But all these works bear the unmistakable stamp of their author. There is, to borrow a slogan from the old India Congress Party, "Unity in Diversity".

It is 15 years since a British Council scholarship first brought Dhruva Mistry to London to do an MA at the Royal College of Art. Now he seems a permanent fixture in the British artworld, reckoned by some to be one of our leading sculptors. The youngest Royal Academician to be elected since Turner, he has landed several prestigious public commissions, most notably the radical redesign of Victoria Square, Birmingham. A fountain, presided over by a bronze river goddess, togther with two Regarding Guardians (gargantuan sphinx-like stone carvings fusing Egyptian, Indian and Picassoid elements) and an architectural Object, create an ensemble to rival Trafalgar Square in distinctiveness and magnificence.

It was never Mistry's intention to stay in Britain for good, and now his long announced plans to return to his native Baroda are in earnest. Only the recent birth of his first child is delaying his departure. The YSP exhibition, together with a show of wooden masks at Meghraj Gallery in London (their inaugural show), have therefore taken on the unexpected role of swansong for his British period. With such a considerable following in this country, however, it seems unlikely that we will lose track of his development.

The quality that struck commentators as most glaringly Indian about his first British show in 1985 at the Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge, where he had been artist-in-residence, was his "exotic" palette: carved wooden and plaster human-headed birds were painted in brilliant, even garish blues and oranges. This perception was inaccurate, at least as far as Mistry was concerned. He only began pigmenting work when, in a personal response to England, he felt the need to compensate for the grey, overcast light. Colour is toned down in the recent work surveyed at the YSP. Bronze patinas are restrained, although the eye is treated to gleaming gold leaf in his series of plaster reliefs. Whether this means his eyes have become acclimatised or that he is tired of being tarred with the brush of exoticism is open to debate.

The largest piece on show in Yorkshire is Spatial Diagram, a double-life- size stick-figure displayed in the open air. Most of the exhibition, however, is of smaller pieces, hung in the Bothy Gallery, the most recent of the Park's two indoor spaces. There are other "spatial diagrams", including examples that incorporate personalising elements - a barley twist, for example, denoting hair to relate them to the languorously erotic standing Tree Spirits of the late 1980s. Limbs and torsos are achieved in pared down volumes, faceted like cucumbers or courgettes. Often the trunk continues to the base of the composition, and the head is simply the tapering away of the central element, but thanks to Mistry's magical touch, a delicacy that never gives way to feyness, the whole is imbued with a truly sculptural voluptuousness.

A much more unruly imagination emerges in the ongoing series of Dialectal Images. These are cheeky inventions, quirky, rough-edged and freely drawn from found elements and unexpected juxtapositions. The title he has given to the series is typical of his propensity for teeth-gnashing puns, like his Regarding Guardians. Dialectal manages to conflate "dialect" - raw, ungrammatical language at a primitive, formative level - and "dialectics" - the mode of philosophical inquiry that pits a proposition against its opposite. Mistry delights in confusing internal and external, body and face, playing with ambiguities of concave and convex. This theme is taken up in a boisterous group of masks that Mistry has fashioned from carved wooden plates from the North West Frontier, with such minimal interventions as adding little trinkets picked up in an Indian market to serve as eyes.

The real stars at the YSP, however, are the recent series of gold-leafed plaster reliefs that go under the title Bad Infinite: Delight of the Reason. Two of the four sets displayed at his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy Friends Room last year are included here. Each set consists of eight panels of 30sq cm which depict the Rasas, the categories of aesthetic experience defined by Hindu philosophers. Among several definitions, rasa can mean something like flavour or taste, and, like these English words, it can be used in the general and the specific. Thus poetry is defined by one aesthetician as "a sentence the soul of which is rasa", while there are also individual, named Rasas to cover such categories or genres as the erotic, the comic, the heroic, the odious. In depicting each Rasa as an individualised symbolic figure, Mistry has claimed a new subject for himself, although drawing a lot on received images and iconography. The fact that each of these allegorical characters is female relates the whole enterprise as much to Western as to Indian art: we think of Durer's Melancholia, or statues of such abstract concepts as Liberty or Industry.

Mistry's prototype for his series of Rasas was the entry he made to a selective competition to front the new British Library at St Pancras. He imagined the organisers secretly hoped for busts of the great English poets, and that, in his own way, he could encapsulate the whole range of inspiration and experience through the Rasas. The committee actually took the safe option of awarding the commission to Antony Gormley, who will provide one of his ubiquitous self-bodycasts for this prestigious site, but - at the insistence of the Library's architect, Sir Colin St John Wilson - a space has been found for a smaller set of Mistry's figures at the back of the building.

The title, Bad Infinite, comes from Hegel, via the pages of the polemical essay Has Modernism Failed? by the American critic, Suzi Gablik: "Does postmodernism offer even greater scope for freedom, or is it merely the effect of what Hegel called the bad infinite - which claims to comprehend everything but is, in reality, a false complexity that merely covers up a lack of meaning?" Mistry takes the latter view, and offers the Rasas as an antidote to the false illusions of the institutionalised avantgardism he has watched develop with horror. He is particularly irked by the way in which extremists on the current art scene are able to grab attention for themselves with shock tactics, confronting the viewer with doses of unmediated abjection - sliced-up cows, video nasties etc. By depicting each Rasa in the same format, under the same luminous gold veil, Mistry wants to say that even such odiousness as the goddess Khali drinking the blood of her victims can be absorbed within an aesthetic continuum. And can be depicted with a riveting sense of design and sculptural accentuation of detail, one might add. Mistry manages to make compellingly beautiful and involved compositions while engaging with the philosophical complexity of the aesthetic enterprise.

For art-lovers weary of the sort of arid strategy-obsessed art that wins prizes and competitions and grabs the media headlines - for art which is, to use the Sanskrit term, Nirasa, devoid of delight - Mistry's reliefs are just that, a relief, like the cavalry that arrives at the end of a western. Only here it is an Indian who is chasing away cowboys.

n To 17 Nov. YSP, West Bretton, Wakefield, W Yorks (01924 830302) 11- 4pm daily, free

n `Druva Mistry Unmasked'. To 18 Oct, Meghraj Gallery, Jockeys Fields, London, WC1 (info: 0171-831 6881) free