It has always been fascinating to see how ingeniously artists deal with narratives, especially their own. With 'Interiors', Abir Karmakar's second solo show of realistic oil paintings, his complex stories continue to evoke an inward looking world replete with imagined situations and layers of psychosomatic content. Only this time all extraneous characters have been weeded out; it's as if the focus now deepens and concentrates.
Zeroing in on the constantly evolving perceptions of sexual norms, each work gives the effect of a different and intimate chapter in a compilation of something akin to a personal journal. The means, visual and iconic, rely on pictorial qualities of scale, gesture and placement of figure, as well as on a technical proficiency with brush and paint. The fusion of colour and light - direct, diffused or reflected - produces an after-glow seldom seen in contemporary painting these days.
The artist however, is clearly drawn to the primacy of idea; the vehicle of realism and specifics of technique, though honed to a craft-like skill, are secondary. Looking at the expansive exercise of his technical virtuosity and his 'old master' facture evolving from the academic traditions learnt at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, his first art school, one imagines that among Karmakar's exemplars must have been the European artists of the Baroque. Later, the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, with its avant-garde systems in place, became his alma mater, teaching him to spread his wings and fly free.
In a world saturated by mass media, the option today of creating art from the template of a photograph or its many clones, may be impossible to resist. Mediatic imperatives in the works of many younger Indian artists have become a staple. We see the figures in Karmakar’s paintings, possibly scanned, caught as if at the still point of a quick Polaroid, each one classically resonant in its full figure view and arrangement, yet contemporary in its props, garments and youthful description. The model - the artist himself in evening dress, spaghetti strapped T-shirt, jeans, lounge suit or stark naked - plays off the static context even as he infuses an element of emotional intensity into the frozen moment.
What is significant is that he uses such images as a point of departure, mixing them with the troubled waters of personal experience, creating polymorphous innovations that remain striking in their expressive subjectivity. Works like these can speak of content as well as individuality, of subject matter and subjecthood. But as in Karmakar's case, when the represented individual is invariably the artist himself and his double, the project becomes more complex. At heart is the often androgynous self-image, its many repetitions suggestive of psychological dilemmas: something of narcissistic self-fascination perhaps, crossed with the fragmentation of sexual identity.
The cultural/quotidian phenomena on show are irretrievably linked to the central theme: sexuality and its several shades and sub-texts. The works with their illuminated scenes, peopled with photographic images that are conspicuous for being self-portraits of the artist in different costumes and situations, tempt one to ferret out meanings. At once the everyday situations and subjects wrench themselves out of ordinariness and acquire a portentous quality, as in the work where two young men - the artist's twinned images - are captured in an incidental arrangement on either side of a single bed. Inhabitants of an antithetical world, they appear to be joined by a common bond of private desires and anxiety, yet inalienably estranged.
A silent, in-turning tension stretches between the two figures. But this, the exhibition's least 'revealing' piece, doesn't need an anecdotal context to make its point. Instead a symbolic reference decodes the artist's inner dialectic with
the quotational device of a painting within a painting. The fragile domestic environment seems threatened from within as the eye takes in 'Future Pilots', 1938*, on the upper left wall, featuring three men - two naked and one in trunks - gazing out to sea, their backs to the viewer. Patent in this reproduction of a painting by Alexander Deineka+, the early 20th century Russian Socialist painter, known to play in his work with the unspoken possibilities inherent in homo-erotica, is a reference to the familiarity and eroticism present in certain situations of male bonding.
Watching the show it becomes impossible not to project one's subjectivity onto the 'action', even as one wanders whether anything that we read beyond the surface is saying more about ourselves than the image. At the same time the challenges presented by all the cross- gendering taking place tend to invite multiple readings, as do the erotic underpinnings that prevail.
The bathroom scene with its unresolved situations and the weight of questions hanging in the air is a case in point. The light in this painting is as if filtered through an amber prism, affecting the colors that are distinct, yet muted and somewhat tenebrous. Featured are a couple: a man in a dark, formal suit, brooding and withdrawn, is seen standing with his back to an anxious and vulnerable looking woman perched on the toilet seat, her evening dress all bunched up around her. A simultaneous sense of intimacy and separation cleaves the air as Karmakar's cross-cultural settings build a somewhat psychic indoor landscape - marked with a tentative mood and narrative - that could be situated anywhere in the world .
The well stocked bathroom serves as a stage where the theatre of gender stereotypes is being de-constructed. Within this framework, the possibilities of transgressive eroticism become a kind of acknowledgment, its frustrated realization finding direct expression in the somewhat ambiguous situation portrayed. As in all his works, each with its distinctive fictional and emotional elements, the possibility of alternate identities not only dwelling in one person, but as something fluid, interchangeable and unpredictable, limns the erotic substrata of the painting, extending the edgy mise-en-scene of the tableaux.
These are portraits of a young man - and his doppelganger - who appears open and unguarded but whose subject matter is still not out of the closet. There is a consuming disquiet to the artist's observations of ordinary human behavior that has to be first hand, an emotional frisson and eroticism to his choice and placement of everyday objects that sets a personal narrative in motion. It takes a certain courage to give the protagonist one's own face. The painter's anxiety- ridden realism is daring. It is also a truthful attempt to come to terms with an excruciating autobiography of resonant emotional power, of emblematic isolation and loneliness; each image, situated between materiality and sensuality, breathes its aloneness.
The painter's constantexploration of his own image at an individual level, evolves from the psycho-dynamics of his personal reality. At the same time his depictions of the self are projected through his dialectical imagination. What stays with us after the show, are not so much Karmakar's multivalent images and their fictions, as much as the emanations of a life lived on the perpetual edge of alienation and desire, of the sense of a continuing search in terms of narratives and processes, of the enduring nature of the artist's deepening introspections, all part of the work's very personal and palpable dimension that adds to it's substantiality as idea and metaphor.
Notes*+ While details of the painting 'Future Pilots', 1938, came from Karmakar, the identification of its artist Alexander Deineka, came from Robert Storr, critic and curator, who happened to drop by at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, at the same time as myself.