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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

From Milwaukee to India

The secret life of Waswo X. Waswo

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If you are a fan of the art produced by former Milwaukeean Waswo X. Waswo, there is much to glean at www.waswoxwaswo.blogspot.com. Aptly titled "Notes from Afar," it details his major exhibit ("A Studio in Rajasthan"), which opened in mid-January at the Palette Art Gallery in New Delhi, India. I had to content myself with a catalog of the various works in the show, but a recent e-mail revealed that he sold "The Secret Life of Waswo X.Waswo," a boxed set of 10 miniature paintings, to a rich Indian collector who parted with $15,000. The invitation-only preview bubbled with A-list types, including Sabeer Bhatia (the founder of Hotmail), powerful art collectors, members of the French cultural attaché and assorted ambassadors. It was a melting pot of the exotic.

I've tracked Waswo's career for years, most recently in 2007 when he exhibited sepia-toned photographs at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art. In the same time span, Grava Gallery showcased his accomplishments with a smaller but no less intriguing exhibit of elegant photographs, collaborations with India's skilled artisans who shaped the studio backdrops.

The road to fame does not come without a few potholes. The "politically correct" in India felt, and perhaps still feel, that because Waswo is not Indian by birth, the subjects in his photographs are humble victims of Waswo's imaginings. I disagree. One does not make art unless one imagines. Additionally, his work cannot be faulted as sloppy, ill-conceived or inconsistent. He's a perfectionist.

"The work is my own…and it is also not my own," he writes in the aforementioned catalog, which is a work of art in itself. The various collaborators (among them a photo hand-colorist and a self-taught miniaturist painter) intertwine Waswo's visions with their own talents. The miniatures are sensational, and Waswo, dressed in a creamy white suit and white hat banded in black, reigns as the central figure caught up in an erotic fairy tale in which he is both actor and director. As a "Chaplin-esque" character, a hybrid of the humorous and the tragic, he wears round eyeglasses, perhaps better to observe the India he has adopted.

I See Myself as Laxmiis a parody of the famous image by Ravi Varma, and Laxmi is no slouch as the Hindu goddess of wealth. The artist, openly gay, is obviously having fun in this one, though it could be said that he is also tipping his hat to those of far lesser means who populate his hand-colored photographs: The Ladder Man (2007), The SwordSharpener and The Road Crew (2008), a trio of women armed with tools of their trade, ready to do gritty battle for their daily bread.

It's worth mentioning that the New Delhi exhibition included an installation by Waswo. Set outside the gallery, but viewable through a large expanse of glass, it consisted of round clay pots painted black and shaped to resemble a "mutka pyramid." Encircled with tiny candles, it symbolized Rajasthan (the mutkas), and the black color applied to the pots indicated the "sometimes dark underbelly" in many of the miniatures and photographs.

"Living here for an extended period of time, and being an American, I feel I am sometimes seen as a bottomless pit of money by some of the locals," Waswo writes from India, "and one of the requests I frequently get is, 'Can you give me $2,000 for my sister's marriage?'" (He also admits to missing American cheeseburgers.)

So what's next for this former UW-Milwaukee student? His Italian dealer has put together a group of investors who are buying a large number of his photos and hoping to circulate them in Europe over the next two years. Will success spoil Waswo X. Waswo? I think not.
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