A sculptor best known for using a wide range of natural and manufactured materials, Valsan Kolleri’s work revolves around environmentalist and ritualistic themes.
Born in Pattiam, Kerala, Kolleri studied sculpture and printmaking at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai (1971–76). After completing his education, Kolleri studied printmaking under RB Bhaskaran. During 1976–79, Kolleri received his masters in Fine Art from the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda (now Vadodara), where he later became a faculty member. From 1985–86, Kolleri studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux Arts, Paris, and in 1986, worked as artist-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris.
During his time at the Government College, Kolleri developed an interest in austere and minimalist sculptures, specifically representing architectural and domestic spaces. Over time, he began including more organic and abstract forms in his work. By the 1980s, his work began incorporating Indian artistic elements, such as religious objects and natural motifs. Kolleri’s sculptural compositions and portraits from the late 1980s used methods from printmaking, notably two-dimensional techniques such as cross-hatching and striation. His diptych Kankaa, for instance, depicts a two-dimensional portrait of a man on one half and on the other, natural plant-like forms abstracted with shading and strong, dark lines resembling graphic illustration.
Throughout his career, Kolleri has used a wide range of materials including leather, wood, metal, hair, nests, bones and scrap material. As a sculptor, he began making casts of plaster and concrete to build totemic assemblages, straddling the polarity between the urban and what is typically seen as “primitive”. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he produced significant bodies of work in bronze, pushing forward his project of sculptural assemblages. The works largely incorporated found materials procured from junkyards across Chennai, such as brass pots, machine parts, throwaway beams and lintels, door and window frames, worn-out furniture and mirrors. Clasped together, these displays aimed to evoke the imaginative and otherworldly essence of these newly-produced objects. In his 1994 exhibition at the Centenary Exhibition Hall at the Madras Museum, the gently undulating circular space of the hall was utilised to produce a sense of close circularity. Sculptures of wrought-together debris were arranged in a manner that was suggestive of remnants of a past, rather than simply an exhibit displaying newly-made art.
Kolleri has also moved across forms. He experimented with geometric abstraction through the late 1980s and early 1990s, specifically in the study of the human body and its movement. By the late 1990s, he began creating portraits as well as large-scale sculptural projects for public spaces. For his sculpture in the recreational space at Subhash Bose Park, Kochi, Kolleri created a skeletal pyramid using stucco to build smaller units around a central structure that visitors could engage with.
In 1992, with his health deteriorating, Kolleri’s work underwent a shift, and he began creating artworks concerned with impermanence. This was marked by an expanded focus on environmental issues. He started using organic materials and motifs drawn from naturalist and ritualistic resources, and abandoned photographic documentation of his work. His site-specific works reflected both urgency and immediacy through their ephemeral character. One such work added a ladder to a banyan tree as a call for reunification between the hanging roots and the tree, and also of humans with nature.
Kolleri was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Award (1983–84) and the 6th Bharat Bhavan Biennale of Indian Contemporary Art Grant Prize (1996). His work has been shown in several notable exhibitions, including the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Kerala National Exhibitions of 1979, 1981 and 1983. He has also shown his work at Sakshi Gallery, Chennai (1986); the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad (2003); Project Gallery, Dublin (2004); Talwar Gallery, New York (2007); and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012). Kolleri also established the Shilpapaddiam Centre for Sculpture in Pattiam.
At the time of writing, Kolleri lives and works between Vadodara and Pattiam.
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