Mumbai

Gagan Singh, Untitled, 2010, ink on paper, 21 1/2 × 29 1/2".

Gagan Singh, Untitled, 2010, ink on paper, 21 1/2 × 29 1/2".

Gagan Singh

Chatterjee & Lal

Gagan Singh, Untitled, 2010, ink on paper, 21 1/2 × 29 1/2".

If you hadn’t guessed from his name, Gagan Singh is Sikh. And as you may know from Bollywood, the Sikh alpha male is a widely parodied stereotype in India, not least among Sikhs themselves. More than a few of the works (all Untitled) in Singh’s debut solo show, “Line Bombs,” exploit this familiar joke. Most numerous were a series of diminutive pen drawings from 2014, somewhere between David Shrigley and Dilbert, that depict a bigheaded, turbaned Singh boasting about things that are hardly worth mentioning—his love of butter chicken, his dumpy Maruti car, the greatness of his upstanding boyhood. Singh’s napkin-doodle draftsmanship makes his alter ego seem all the more pathetic. A short animated video from 2014 shows the same character cleaning, standing, and strolling. I felt as if I were watching an old screen saver from the early days of the PC, or one of those irritating “office assistants,” even before I learned that the artist runs a telecom service in Nehru Place, a computer bazaar in Delhi.

More muscular were four drawings from 2011 featuring Singh as a holy warrior battling phantom forces. Fantastic armor and weaponry are drawn in hairy thickets of strokes, while faces and heads have been rendered through photocopy transfer. Layering Singh’s distracted pen play with the hypernaturalism of Mogul miniatures and the world of manipulated photographs explored by art historian Christopher Pinney, these pieces have an engaging corporeal presence otherwise absent from the artist’s lightweight, whimsical oeuvre.

Complementing such images of spoofed masculinity, “Line Bombs” featured penises galore. Its centerpiece, a 2014 drawing measuring more than five by four feet, was covered sparsely with strange figures engaged in, among other dirty things, sex with walls, masturbation on table corners, and a conga line of rear penetration, all loosely united by spumes of white ink. Smaller, related drawings from 2010 arrayed their figures along a horizontal axis. Some of these presented rogues’ galleries of funny-headed men with giant decorated dicks. They looked like a cross between the Village People and Darth Vader’s bounty hunters. Others were crowded with fornicating animal-headed humans and human-headed beasts evocative of the erotic friezes at Khajuraho. I take these works to be a good-natured joke about sexuality and animal worship in Hinduism, magnified through a comical caricature of European colonialism’s diabolical image of the religion. While Singh’s earlier erotic drawings from 2010 suggest Aubrey Beardsley, his subsequent use of washes and proliferating penises in a religious context call to mind Bhupen Khakhar’s watercolors.

A recent trip to Kolkata inspired Singh’s cheeky riffs on Durga, that city’s favored goddess. These small drawings from 2014 include a Durga-type figure characteristically trouncing male demons, but now with piss trickling from between her legs. Another shows her bent over, with a shark-toothed Pac-Man doing her from behind. In two others, a similarly multiarmed female fondles a circle of men and women. Silly by most standards, this can be explosive stuff in India. For a religion that counts an erect phallus (the lingam) among its central icons, Hinduism in its current political incarnation is unreasonably touchy about sexualized renditions of its gods, particularly female ones. It was partly for this reason that everything in “Line Bombs” was left untitled, and the most blasphemous images were hung in a less conspicuous spot. The gallery was also protected by the otherwise depressing fact that local media, let alone random passersby, almost never set foot in Mumbai’s contemporary-art galleries. I suspect that suited Singh, whose work seems childishly carefree about playing with fire, just fine.

Ryan Holmberg