Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2018) pursued the objective of formal structure with a singular focus during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Renouncing his festive polychrome compositions of the mid-1970s, he adopted an austere palette of black, white and brown, occasionally relieved by saturated greens, terracotta and poster reds, ecru, and burgundy. In the spirit of an architect or surveyor, he used the plumb string, mapping his canvases by reference to the clarity of its line and the arc of its swing. Figures, vestigially present in his paintings of the mid-1970s, receded, leaving behind only their sharp, geometricized outlines. The imageless image, built from horizontal, vertical, diagonal and tilted lines, took centre stage. Fields of darkness contended with shards of illumination, as he moved towards an evocation of axial linearity.
By 1979, Gobhai’s works assumed the form of energy diagrams, marked by scalar weights and vector forces. The quadrilaterals in these paintings are often shaped according to the golden section, a universal mathematical and geometrical ratio found in nature, architecture and music – in spiral venation, the pyramids, and the compositions of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Fittingly, the route to these paintings was laid through preparatory cut-outs, collages and drawings reduced to the taut interplay of line and curve.
Experimentally, during this period, Gobhai used oils and acrylics as well as casein inks, dry pastels, aluminium powder, and conté. During this period, recognition came to him in the form of two major museum exhibitions in which he was invited to participate: ‘Marking Black’, curated by Madeleine Burnside (Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1980) and ‘Hard Line: Drawing as a Primary Medium’ (Islip Art Museum, New York, 1984).
Ranjit Hoskote & Nancy Adajania
(Curators, Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, Chemould Prescott Road, 2021)