NFN Kalyan, an oil painter and sculptor based in LA, talks mythology and philosophy

NFN Kalyan talks to STIR about his Indian American upbringing and his fascination with music, comic books and religious inquiry.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Feb 04, 2020

The relationship between a maker and its practice is not always a straightforward one. Not every artist is born with a skill and not every skilled painter is born an artist. Some start at the age of five, some at 50. Some have a cat and mouse relationship with it until the dance ends in the artist giving himself fully into the creative practice. For No-First-Name Kalyan, this dance went on throughout his childhood and even through art school, before he really sunk his teeth into his identity as an artist.

The Kaliyuga (hexaptic), a hexaptych by NFN Kalyan, one of his first major attempts at visual sampling | NFN Kalyan | STIRworld
The Kaliyuga (hexaptic), a hexaptych by NFN Kalyan, one of his first major attempts at visual sampling Image Credit: NFN Kalyan

For Kalyan, mastering photorealism was one of his earliest conquests, something he achieved as a young student in school. "My hero before the age of 10 was probably Chuck Close," he says referring to the renowned American photorealist. His Indian-American heritage pulled him toward a wide range of cultural influences as a young child, and Kalyan found comics and graphic novels to be an endless source of both entertainment and inspiration. From Marvel comics to Amar Chitra Kathas, he followed comics closely and picked these up as soon as they were released.

"I became interested in the visual narrative because of these. I bought Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics when I was 11, and absorbed the ideas in it. Amar Chitra Katha comics were some of my favourites as well. I still have hundreds," says the artist, explaining how comics guided and influenced his artistic style. He goes on to say, “Today, my influences are less in visual arts and more in the world in general. I am interested in philosophical approaches to creation, and watch hundreds of movies and listen to thousands of hours of music to understand creative construction and approaches to that construction”.

As a practitioner, Kalyan pays careful attention to the emotional and philosophical processes that other creators go through while making films, music or art. He is sensitive to the interplay between both logic and intuition, within his own practice as well as in others’, and is conscious and experimental in his own process.

Contemplation by NFN Kalyan, a part of the Kalki Series, samples artworks by Dali, Murakami and others | NFN Kalyan | STIRworld
Contemplation by NFN Kalyan, a part of the Kalki Series, samples artworks by Dali, Murakami and others Image Credit: NFN Kalyan

Kalyan’s work juxtaposes a multitude of cultural and religious imagery in a bid to engage his viewers with social, political, environmental and cultural ideologies. He elaborates further, detailing his diasporic upbringing, “I have little interest in religion but I have great interest in the questions that a religion addresses. My father is a PhD in mathematics from India. His father was Brahmin and his mother was Sayyida. My mother is a PhD in philosophy from the (United) States and she grew up with a Christian background, though I believe my maternal grandmother was an atheist”.

Kalyan’s paintings reference an existing artistic vocabulary, borrowing motifs from other paintings, making his work instantly recognisable and intriguing at the same time. He calls this technique ‘visual sampling’, something he credits his keen interest in music for. “I made a great deal of music in my life using sampling and it translated to my art before I had given it much thought. It was just what happened”, he says. Kalyan works on large format linen canvases, with oil as his medium of preference. This allows him to create breathtaking compositions with an incredible level of detail, which is both traditionalist in its aesthetic yet very contemporary in its outlook. NFN Kalyan’s fantastical photorealist style makes his artworks appealing to the imaginative viewer, inviting one to contemplate our layered histories and dystopic futures.

‘Baptism’, a bronze and iron sculpture by NFN Kalyan where he uses his father’s hands to cast the form  | NFN Kalyan | STIRworld
Baptism, a bronze and iron sculpture by NFN Kalyan where he uses his father’s hands to cast the form Image Credit: NFN Kalyan

Kalyan talks about how he was home-schooled as a child for many years, a time during which the relevance of environmental concerns was impressed on him. His perspective on it, however, is far from the parroted narrative. Kalyan points out the inherent lack of love and compassion we have for the Earth and each other, dismissing mankind’s attempts at 'electric cars and solar panels' as solving a portion of the problem without targeting the symptoms itself. He says, “My art is not to draw attention to environmental concerns. My art is a plea to the viewer to be honest with themselves... about anything. About life, selfishness, their heart… Anything really. It is a plea to think. I believe that once that happens, we cannot help but move in a positive direction.” This thought process led him to the concept of Kaliyug, a teaching in ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. Kalyan’s fascination with Kaliyug, which suggests that we are currently living in the worst epoch of human existence - a time where our salvation comes through a person named ‘Kalki’ who restores love in the hearts of humans, has propelled him to create a series of works inspired by Kalki. Kalyan tells stories with his artwork, a process which is both conscious and intuitive. While his work has an overt influence from the Western school of aesthetics, his abundant use of colour and recurring mythological references create a blend representative of his Indian roots.

Chuck by NFN Kalyan, one of Kalyan’s etched starphire glass sculptural artworks | NFN Kalyan | STIRworld
Chuck by NFN Kalyan, one of Kalyan’s etched starphire glass sculptural artworks Image Credit: NFN Kalyan

In many ways, Kalyan’s work is a trove of dichotomies. East and West, mythology and reality, history and future. However, there is incredible consistency in the thought and conceptual structuring behind his sculptural work and his oil paintings alike. While he was initially drawn toward sculpture as a medium, Kalyan has veered away from it in the recent years, favouring a more traditional oil on linen approach to his practice instead with his recent series of glass sculptures being one of the few exceptions.

This year, NFN Kalyan had a solo show in Los Angeles at IV Gallery and has another later in the year in London. 2020 is also the year Kalyan has dedicated to the creation of his next ‘magnum opus’, a 36-foot wide painting. Kalyan is definitely an artist to keep an eye on, a promising talent who is gaining momentum on online and offline art spaces as we speak. NFN Kalyan is a testament to the complex relationship between an artist and his practice. He says, “I went to school and majored in art but I believe my teachers will corroborate that I did nothing while I was there, besides goof around and make stupid things so I could laugh.” Despite this winding path, Kalyan stands today as a visual artist with a decisive practice, a clear aesthetic trajectory with a fan following that waits with bated breath for his next marvellous visual feat.

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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