Mumbai-based and Indore-born painter Shailee Mehta first impressed us with her deeply-enriching dreamlike paintings in her Slade degree showcase. Characters, whether human or animal, take on obscure shapes, postures, colours, and sizes. Scenes blend into each other as if balancing between the conscious and unconscious. It’s an impressive portfolio, to say the least. “It has been a longstanding relationship with painting,” Shailee says of her beginnings. “I only took up painting formally during my foundation year and ever since then, it has been subject to a continuous change as my artistic practice has evolved over the past few years,” she tells It’s Nice That. Shailee is young, so it’s no surprise that she still finds herself in the folds of an artistic evolution. Nonetheless, her work reads as if made by an artist with years of experience already under the belt.
“The flatness of the painting surface has always intrigued me because it enables me to create simultaneous narratives in one still frame,” she says. “There’s also so much history to the act of painting itself and I am interested in subverting the patriarchal tropes, like that of the romanticised muse or the fatigued woman.” In desexualising the body whilst acknowledging its vulnerability, Shailee’s paintings generate a profound agency for her female subjects that is rooted squarely in the female gaze.
Figurations of the feminine are common occurrences across Shailee’s portfolio. “It is an extension of my interest in drawing and mark-making,” she says of this decision. “Even though I see drawing as a practice in itself rather than a precursor to a painting, it helps me find movement and fluidity in my paintings.” By drawing out these figurations of the feminine, Shailee allows her painting skills to blend across the page in smooth fashion, using colour to distinguish shapes and bodies. “I am also very interested in the liminal and like to chart out spaces that aren’t entirely domestic or wild,” Shailee adds, referencing how she situates her feminine subjects often within a limbo dreamscape. “This helps me delve into the occupation of the female body in various modes of being.”
So what, then, exactly inspires these liminal states of feminine being? How does Shailee find inspiration to conjure up a reinvigorated agency whilst situating her characters in a static location? “I am inspired by the awkwardness of the mundane, moments of intimacy, desire, idleness and solitude,” Shailee explains. “I draw most of my imagery from autobiographical events, especially, where the body responds to these things in an intuitive manner.” Shailee’s practice, therefore, involves a “mythologising of the image,” she tells us. The painting essentially becomes a glimpse of a larger story, “evocative of an otherness” that Shailee wishes to address in her feminine figures. Stories are laid and woven intricately into all of her work – it’s hard to find a single piece that doesn’t richly unfold a possible odyssey or narrative.
On the practice of crafting such intricate paintings, Shailee points out two paintings in particular: Among The Pigeons and My Mother Told Me Never To Cut My Nails At Night. “Both proved to be important anchoring points in my practice because they limn my interest in storytelling and expand it into the realm of the surreal,” she tells us. “In Among, the tiger within a domestic setting speaks to a larger conversation of undesirability or the unfathomable in the context of womanhood.” It’s what Shailee sees as an investigation into the interior of the body, “as a figure enters the scene through the door but so does the viewer who is directly addressed by the tiger’s gaze.” As for My Mother, Shailee drew on a markedly different idea. “It takes from the widely known Indian superstition of not cutting nails after dusk and is a dystopian depiction of the possible consequences if one does,” she explains. “With the domestic on the verge of destruction, the image escalates in its reading from the left to right and creates a sharp contrast between the nonchalance of the figure on the left to the anxiety embodied by the figure on the right.” It’s exactly this proclivity to give enriched worlds to all her paintings that makes Shailee an incredibly rewarding painter as a viewer of the work.
“When it comes to my work, I hope to eventually expand my own presence within the images I make into mediums such as performative pieces or lens-based media,” she tells us of what’s next for her. “I want to work towards a community-led space that invites other artists and creatives to generate a dialogue and open up the otherwise exclusive avenues of spectatorship within the arts.” Whilst educational programming and artist-led workshops are on the agenda, there is no doubt Shailee will continue to be a promising young artist after her graduation.
Shailee Mehta: Convalescence (Copyright © Shailee Mehta, 2021)