Abir Karmakar’s “transgressive eroticism,” as Kamala Kapoor calls it, is certainly obviously provocative; but much more subtly - aesthetically - provocative, at least to my eye, is Karmakar’s reliance on tradition, not only the tradition of oil painting, as Sovom Som notes, but of spatial construction, more particularly, manneristic perspective with its ironical elegance. It is not so much the seductive nakedness of the body that is startling in Karmakar’s In the Old Fashioned Way 1, 2006, an elaborate, tour de force narrative of his nakedness - there’s after all nothing new about nakedness, whether of the female or male body, however offensive it might be to prudish types - but rather the “lowly” position Karmakar puts us in. We are far below - indeed, at Karmakar’s feet - and looking up, which magnifies his presence. It is as though we are rendering homage to him, and he deigns to acknowledge our presence, as his peculiarly casual yet arrogant glance at us - an intense, sharp-eyed yet noncommittal acknowledgement of our inferior existence - suggests. The tension between the artist’s eye and the spectator’s eye - which in my opinion is the inner content of every one of the self-portraits in both versions of In the Old Fashioned Way - is informed by the steep manneristic perspective that unites them.
The artist looking out of the picture and catching the eye of the spectator is a standard Renaissance device for drawing him or her into the picture. But however deeply we are drawn into it - however thrillingly close we come to Karmakar’s body, however much we seem able to physically touch it, however sexually exciting it is to both the male and female viewer (suggesting Karmakar’s bisexuality, however unconscious it may be) - it remains out of reach, at a tantalising distance, and thus peculiarly chaste. Karmakar may engage the spectator with his glance, suggesting a certain curiosity, but he has turned away from the mirror that frames his presence. The spectator is simply another mirror - a more indirect, distracting mirror that invariably “pictures” him from an odd angle, and thus has a distorted idea of his appearance: the distorted vision implicit in the hyper-intellectualistic perspective.
Or is Karmakar simply looking to see who is looking at his painting, hopefully in admiration of his sensuous handling, adding its lustre to his sensuous flesh? One may recall that de Kooning said that oil painting was invented to articulate it; oil paint is a medium as sensuously subtle as flesh - perhaps the most difficult substance to represent because it is our own vulnerable substance. Indeed, in exposing his flesh to us Karmakar makes himself vulnerable to us, even as his glance disarms us by distracting us from it. He is a male Venus exhibiting his body’s charms, even as his glance interrupts our perusal of them, suggesting a sort of ironical intellectual modesty. His glance invites us to reflect on what he is exhibiting, rather than just lasciviously wallow in our desire for it.
The title In the Old Fashioned Way, that is a traditional way, is ironical in more ways than one, for not only is painting with oil old fashioned at a time when most painters use acrylic, but the assertion of the male gaze seems defiantly regressive at a time when it has been attacked as sexist by progressive feminists. Karmakar’s self-portraits ingeniously subvert both feminist and masculinist positions and expectations. Masculinists don’t like to think of the male body as seductively feminine and beautiful, and thus weak and passive, and feminists don’t like the sexually bossy and intrusive male gaze. And of course by making paintings the old fashioned way Karmakar flies in the face of the “death of painting” advocates and modernists in general. Thus his works critically rebuke both avant-garde and political correctness. Karmakar’s title suggests that the traditional has become fresh and new and the modernist has become stale and old: traditional art has become a resource now that modern art has become exhausted. Dare one say that for Karmakar traditional art has become avant-garde art? Karmakar’s old fashioned representational painting of the figure turns the tables on modern abstract painting, implying that it tells us nothing about the human condition.
Ironically, the vivid sensuousness of Karmakar’s handling makes it clear that, after all, he is making a painting. He wants us to appreciate his picture as a painting, as fine art - to admire his use of highlights, the nuances of his painterly touch, his mastery of the interplay of light and shadow. Then we can “handle” his body in our imagination, absorb ourselves in its sensuality, enjoy vicarious sexual intercourse with it, as though Karmakar’s intimidating glance - forcefully revealing his state of mind, as a foil to his shameless exhibition of his body - doesn’t matter. The artfulness of Karmakar’s painting makes his voluptuous body all the more frustrating; it is forever out of reach in the ingenious picture, however in vivid reach of our eyes. Karmakar’s enticing body is untouchable in more ways than one, however eagerly our eyes grasp it, and explore its seductive curves.
Karmakar’s body, then, frustrates our desire in the act of arousing it: Karmakar is a tease, more particularly what the British psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn calls an “exciting object” - an object that promises pleasure but doesn’t deliver. His glance registers our desire while his genitals remain coyly hidden behind his legs - they are obscured by the opulent and old fashioned couch in In the Old Fashioned Way 5 - suggesting that he is not as sexually forthcoming as his blatant nakedness and confrontational pose imply he is. His apparent modesty - he doesn’t, after all, disclose all - suggests a certain detachment from his own body. He may use the “mystery” of sexuality to lure the spectator and then reject him or her, but he also uses it to suggest the “mystery” of art. His body has a complicated function: it not only takes the measure of our desire and serves to measure the distance between our upward glance and his downward glance, but reveals the limits of his narcissism while making it explicit. His eyes, after all, meet ours, while his genitals are out of sight.
It is the dialectic between Karmakar’s glance and ours, oscillating between his glance and his body, and between his exposed body and hidden genitals, suggesting a certain inhibition that makes Karmakar’s self-portraits provocative. A good self-portrait is always a portrait of the spectator as well as the artist, and Karmakar’s self-portraits are very good because they make explicit the emotional drama implicit in their relationship. Each wants the recognition of the other, and Karmakar and his spectator gain it through the intensity oftheir desire for each other, and the difficulty - virtual impossibility - of satisfyingthedesirearousedbythe presence of the other.
In putting the device of di sotto in su to new use Karmakar shows us that traditional art was more innovative than it has been given credit for by modernist artists. Carrying it to an extreme, Karmakar personalises di sotto in su in a way that has rarely been done before. He uses it to create an illusion of subjective rather than objective space, which is the purpose it served for Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi, 1474, a Renaissance masterpiece, and, more ambitiously, in Corregio’s baroque fresco for the dome of Parma Cathedral, 1526-30, and Andrea Pozzo’s mannerist ceiling fresco for the nave of Sant’ Ignazio, Rome, 1685-94. Karmakar uses di sotto in su to create a space in which artist and spectator can emotionally interact rather than an objective space which the spectator nominally shares (although in both spaces the spectator is “dwarfed” by the work of art).
I have dwelled at length on Karmakar’s In the Old Fashioned Way 1 because it is a masterpiece. Like his series of Interiors, 2006, they too are interiors, but now only one person - the artist - inhabits them. The other person is now the spectator - outside, yet emotionally inside. It is a brilliant move to displace the other person to the outside of the picture, for it creates a more complex voyeuristic - and “conceptual”- relationship between viewer and viewed than we see in Interiors I, III, and V. The Interiors are preparatory for In the Old Fashioned Way in terms of the relational tensions, but less daring in their construction, for they are self-enclosed scenes, that is, the spectator is not implicated in them. (The Peeping Tom has a predatory look - violence is also implicit in Karmakar’s self-portraits - suggesting the sadistic component in voyeurism.)
Strange as it may seem to say so, Karmakar’s glance at the spectator is peculiarly self-effacing, however much it is as confrontational and exhibitionistic as his naked body. Karmakar may be searching for a doppelganger, thus affirming his narcissism - the clothed and naked figures in Interior VI are mirror images of each other, whatever the differences in their facial features and postures - but he seems determined to displace his sense of his “otherness” onto the spectator. It is the unconscious basis for their relationship.
Karmakar’s supposedly “androgynous” appearance is not the issue of his paintings, but rather the difficulty of establishing a personal relationship - indeed, of finding a so-called “significant other”, a person who cares for one and whom one cares for, and thus becomes existentially meaningful. This is clearly the problem addressed in the Interiors. I suggest that the implied sexual relationship between the figures, whatever their gender, is supposed to be a shortcut to a personal relationship. (The implied perversity of the sexual relationship - the bending figure in Interiors IV is positioned to perform fellatio, and the seated figure staring at the buttocks of the standing figure in Interiors V seems interested in sodomy - make it clear that the pseudo-intimacy of raw sexuality rather than the reciprocity of love, with its respect for the integrity and “difference” of the other, is involved. ¹
But the sexual relationship fails to become a personal one - a sharing of selves rather than only a mating of bodies. Karmakar’s narcissism in In the Old Fashioned Way is thus a fall back position, a way of making the best of his inner isolation, of turning his loneliness and yearning for the other - ultimately the spectator, his phantom lover - into autonomous aloneness. The individuals in the Interiors - clearly a metaphor for psychic or inner space - seek momentary sexual satisfaction rather than the lasting love necessary for the self to come into its own. In short, Karmakar’s problem is one of love not sexuality; his sexually seductive body in In the Old Fashioned Way and the sexually charged scenes of the Interiors hide his unmet need for love - to be loved for himself by a person he can love for himself or herself. “Are you that person?” his glance seems to ask the spectator looking at In the Old Fashioned Way. Love is taboo in Karmakar’s pictures. Their almost explicit sexuality masks its absence .
But of course androgynous narcissism is an ironical way of establishing a loving relationship with oneself - of intercourse between the masculine and feminine sides of one’s psyche (bisexuality is biologically innate according to Freud, grounded in unconscious identification with one’s parents according to object relationists). There is uncertainty in Karmakar’s glance in In the Old Fashioned Way self-portraits, for he does not know whether the spectator will see him as a person rather a sexual object, even as he presents himself as a very sexual object. That’s the challenge his desirable body presents the spectator (the larger issue is whether sexuality can be separated from selfhood). Do Karmakar’s naked self-portraits whet our appetite for sexual experience or do they make us wonder: who is this person brazenly flaunting his body in our faces?
 In eschewing the “difference” of “Indianness” and acknowledging the “western” character of his “art language”, and using “westernised indoor settings” in his realistic pictures, Karmarkar makes it clear that he is concerned with universal human issues rather than particular socio-cultural issues, for example, post-colonial Indian issues. If he “Indianised” his scenes - whatever that might mean (is there such a thing as a standard Indian indoor setting, or for that matter a standard Indian style?) - his pictures would lose their psycho-existential depth. Like it or not, western art language has become the international art language - just as English has become the cosmopolitan language of international communication - for whatever historical reasons. All other art languages have come to look provincial in comparison.
This essay was commissioned for Abir Karmakar’s exhibition ‘In the Old Fashioned Way’ at Aicon Gallery in November 2007. It appears here courtesy of the gallery.