Visual Arts » 2D

Split the Difference

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Gautam Rao has a split personality. On one hand he is a painter, producing geometric explorations of gradients in acrylic on canvas. Yet, he is also a digital artist with a design-leaning ouvre including comical portraits, posters and original fonts. Each half informs the other, and both will be on display in his upcoming exhibition Color Coded: painting/design at the Raymond James Stutz Art Gallery.

Born in Washington D.C. to parents of Indian descent, Rao moved to India at age 9 and lived there for five years. He had to learn Hindi and the state language. “It opened up a part of my identity that I must have always had,” he says of the experience. While pursuing his BFA at Boston University, Rao focused on painting. In the MFA program at University of Pennsylvania, he focused on large-scale darkroom photography, ceasing to be exclusively a painter and setting the stage for his current multidisciplinary approach. He is currently Associate Professor of Art at Butler University and is happy to call Indianapolis home. “Living in Indianapolis, you start to really appreciate the resources around us,” he espouses -- such as the Lebowski Fest in nearby Louisville, Kentucky, “this incredible gem that’s so nearby.”

Rao's split artistic personality has resulted in a diverse body of work, from mathematically arranged grid paintings to playful kinetic sculptures with looping text. - CHARLES FOX / GAUTAM RAO
  • Charles Fox / Gautam Rao
  • Rao's split artistic personality has resulted in a diverse body of work, from mathematically arranged grid paintings to playful kinetic sculptures with looping text.

Rao was a figurative painter until three years ago, when he began his current series of colorful acrylic grid paintings. Some of the grid paintings feature as many as 10,000 small squares, with each individual square rendered in a unique color. His process is intuitive: “I let my hands do the thinking and I just follow that. I just have a sense of what the next color should be. It’s almost a pleasure to let your subconscious do it and not to have to think about it,” he explains.

Rao’s new paintings are “softer and more beach-like” as compared to his earlier grid explorations exhibited at Gallery 924 last year, which are more dynamic due to greater contrast and darker colors in his estimation. Despite recent forays into digital design, “painting still has its pull” for Rao; he paints nearly every day. “I get my best ideas for my design work when I’m painting,” he explains. ”Some people get an idea and then they paint, but I paint to get ideas.” The mathematical approach to making art is new to him, as he has always considered himself right-brained, emotional and illogical. His father was an engineer and lately Rao finds himself tapping into that mindset more and more.

Beginning in 2011, Rao shifted from figurative painting to more grid-like organization, as in this 2013 piece, Winter Afternoons.  - GAUTAM RAO
  • Gautam Rao
  • Beginning in 2011, Rao shifted from figurative painting to more grid-like organization, as in this 2013 piece, Winter Afternoons.

Rao recently learned to use type design software and showcases his original fonts in themed, alphabetical posters, a series which began with Sherlock Holmes and has now expanded to include The Big Lebowski, desserts, condiments, Indian food, and the sport cricket. Patterns are a central theme in his art -- both in his grid paintings and also when exploring shapes to inspire his original fonts. His process involves creating a spreadsheet for each poster with many potential selections for each letter of the alphabet – an example of his right-brained approach to a traditionally left-brained activity. Other examples of his typographic art are his original Hindi Thelma and Louise poster for the Indianapolis International Film Festival and his laser cut kinetic lettering work, exhibited recently in Art from the Heartland at the Indianapolis Art Center and Typeforce 5 Chicago.

Rao's digital design pieces include the series Indian Men Alphabetically, left and right, and a redesign of the Thelma and Louise film poster created for the Bigger Picture Show. - GAUTAM RAO
  • Gautam Rao
  • Rao's digital design pieces include the series Indian Men Alphabetically, left and right, and a redesign of the Thelma and Louise film poster created for the Bigger Picture Show.

Indian Men Alphabetically, a new digital series debuting in the upcoming exhibition, lampoons the stereotype of Indians as overly serious. The font Rao created for the project is playful, and although the subjects have serious expressions on their faces they are cartoony and whimsical. Even the title, Rao notes, is “a little off the wall … and that tongue in cheek (aspect) is important.” He intends to create Indian Women Alphabetically next and hopes to eventually turn the series into a book. “I think Indian names really have a power to them,” he says. “There are prayers in India that are only the names of gods. Indians have this fascination with names.”

The differences between Rao’s analog and digital art and design keep his practice moving forward. “I think there is this kind of tension between intuition and structure,” he explains. “That’s helping to inform the work; that’s what the show is about. There are times when the digital stuff will get too much; I’ll be overwhelmed; I’ll paint or vice versa.” The Raymond James Stutz Gallery often features two artists’ work simultaneously in the space where Rao’ solo exhibit will take place, encompassing a year’s worth of both painting and digital work. Rao says he is “almost thinking of it as a two-person show with one person.”

Gautam Rao teaches at Butler University. - CHARLES FOX
  • Charles Fox
  • Gautam Rao teaches at Butler University.

Recently married, the support Rao receives for his art from his wife pushes him even further. He is not afraid to fail or make “bad art” anymore and finds himself at a point where he is creating art daily. “The more I work, the more peculiar the work gets,” he muses. “That’s what’s exciting to me: I want the work to be really peculiar and distinctive, and I think I’m getting there.”

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