What does the language of art look like? What are the shapes of its alphabets? Delhi-based artist Arpita Singh spent almost a decade exploring this idea, producing experimental abstract compositions only by using the formal elements of line and a minimum amount of colour. The collection of 35 of these drawings, produced between the years of 1973 and 1982, are on display for the first time at the Talwar Gallery in New York (May 6 - Aug 12, 2017). During Singh’s 60-year ongoing career, she has been known for her vibrant colours and figurative motifs of trees, flowers, guns, cars, and animals. A modernist who pays heed to traditional Indian art forms such as miniature painting and folk art, it is surprising in some ways to see her work pared down to such a degree. However, if examined closer, this period was part of her journey as an artist, if not an integral moment in her career. In viewing the abstract and figurative paintings in the context of and in conversation with each other, Singh’s preoccupation with line, repetition, and rhythm translate themselves, as words often do, from one kind of language to another.
Each piece in the show seems to be a playful foray in a different direction. Using watercolour, charcoal, ink, pastel, and poster paint, Singh creates lines of different thickness and length, clustering them together in aggressive shards or allowing them to be delicate and curved on the paper. The overall effect changes with every drawing, some resembling architectural plans, or sculptural pieces, while others seem more nebulous, like cosmic maps or frenzied woven textiles.
The aged paper in Untitled (March 1976) is filled with stark, thin black lines that converge at a point a little lower than the center of the page. Making do without any curves, Singh allows the lines to extend and cross over each other, creating denser and lighter patches, pyramid-like formations that lead to the central point, which is so crowded with lines that it is almost completely black. Another piece from the same year, Untitled (1976), has shorter, thicker lines slanting across the page like rain, the broken lines not unlike Kantha embroidery, while Untitled (1981) consists of a flurry of dots, like a snowstorm or an animal print. In that particular piece, Singh’s fingerprints are visible, smudging paint across the paper.
In these works, Singh shows an impulsiveness and openness to explore what different lines can do, but at the same time there is a kind of dark energy and force of intent that comes through along with her child-like inventiveness. To simply shrug these off as studio experiments and not artworks in their own right would be ill-considered. Instead the drawings allow us the opportunity to understand Singh’s oeuvre as a whole.
The title of the show, Tying down time, is telling in this regard - an attempt to mark and celebrate a particular, under-discussed period in Singh’s career. In the early 1970’s, after her time at the Weaver’s Service Centre working as a designer, she found herself needing to reassess her relation to art outside of the still life paintings she was making. That she had the freedom and ability to express herself abstractly enabled her to return to the basic language of art. This was pivotal for her later work, where the textured backgrounds, repetitive lines, and the abstract play an important role in her paintings. The drawings she made in that year were preserved by her husband, Paramjit Singh, so they can now be viewed, three decades later.
The compositions themselves are presented on paper that bears the marks of time, with stains, creases, and small tears. Thus the material itself carries a kind of aura about it, one that professes both its history and its timelessness. We can only view these works in the context of what has come after them, i.e. the work they led Singh to create after the fact, pasts and futures rupturing at once. The last work in Tying down time, Untitled (1982) shows the figure of a swan, a table, and an open window in the foreground, the only figurative piece in the collection, as if Singh knew she was ready, having learnt the language of the line.
Among the paintings by Surendran Nair on display at the Aicon Gallery until August 5, 2017, is a portrait of a young girl. Her dark pink skin stands out against the simple blue-grey background, one hand at her neck while the other delicately holds out her skirt, revealing feet coloured a striking mustard yellow. From her waist, a single wing extends diagonally across her body, her head centered, eyes piercing back at the viewer. Titled Dabchick-Grebe (2016), the figure refers to a small European bird, whose name in Ancient Greek means “to sink under”. This particular feeling of submergence seems to encapsulate the experience of Nair’s first solo show in New York, Cuckoonebulopolis: (Flora and) Fauna, a collection of paintings and drawings in addition to 12 digital prints by the Baroda-based artist. Referencing myth, folklore, classical literature, rituals, and cultural practices, as well as the present moment’s history and politics, the show explores the ambiguity of reality and how easily it can slip into something otherworldly.
Specifically, Nair drew inspiration from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophane’s The Birds, a comedy in which birds are convinced to form a utopian world for themselves. Thus the city of Cloud Cuckoo Land or Cuckoonebulopolis is established between heaven and earth so that the birds can control the dealings between the humans and the Gods. Unconcerned with utopias themselves, but rather with the potential of utopias to provide a critique of the present, Nair uses the play as the backdrop for a body of work that he has continued to add to since early 2000. Portraying human figures in beaked masks and feathered costumes, Nair transforms them not quite into the birds they are named after, but into a metaphor, the meaning of which the viewers must decipher for themselves. In an interview with The Times of India, Nair himself states, “It is difficult to talk about some of my works, for they tend to suppress the verbal, if I may say so. […] These works, I suppose, function at a level that is similar to say liquid; something that seeps into you.”
Where the verbal fails to express the puzzling amalgam of icons and their possible meanings, the theatrical makes itself felt in his work. Nair’s undeniable affinity for dramatic practices and traditions such as Kathakali, makes itself evident through the portrayal of his brightly coloured human figures. The large-scale paintings such as Pheasant and Gobbler (2016-17) bear resemblances to the classical Sanskrit dance-drama in their painted faces and bird-like outfits, while Two Owls (2017) shows a seated male and female figure, each making what seems to be a mudra or hand gesture knownas‘mudravakyam’. The lone figures in the other paintings, from the graceful male-bodied form in Wheatear (2016) to the young woman in Painted Stork (2017), balancing on one foot with her arms delicately curved behind her, are at once both calm and ready for flight. Nair is interested in exploring the moment before an actor steps into a role, capturing that energy of electric possibility. The hoopoes, kites, mallards, and sparrows portrayed in Cuckoonebulopolis hum with this potential to fly, their bodies poised yet their facial expressions convey a tranquility that lends the work a kind of loftiness, a utopian ideal.
Whereas the bird-figures in Cuckoonebulopolis are firmly planted on the ground, against their stark grey backgrounds, Nair’s digital prints offer a nebulous world of floating beings. The Alibis of the Cognates (2015) series comprise of a collage of figures from Nair’s previous works, further abstracting the already intricate set of iconographic references that he employs. The results are odd sort of jigsaws, where meanings loop back in on themselves, encouraging viewers to stop looking for coded messages and start paying attention to form, colour, and the feelings that these incite. Nair does not necessarily stray from his focus on human figures in this series, but uses them to mediate between the unreality of the worlds he produces. A female dancer, only costumed from the waist down, crawls on her hands and knees as tulsi plants grow between her fingers and a single grey cloud hovers on a string above her in Alibis of the Cognates - XI (2015) while a levitating sadhu wearing intricate face paint sits above offerings of fruit, usually kept before statues of Gods, and a single purple rooster in Alibis of the Cognates - II (2015). The viewer is plunged into worlds of mythic proportions, where disbelief is temporarily suspended and a dialogue begins between the viewer and the artwork. Nair’s Cuckoonebulopolis: (Flora and) Fauna allows the human form to be strange again, renders it alien and connects it through history and across cultures until it is something uncannily familiar, tugging at the blurry distinction between the real and the Cloud Cuckoo Land of dreams, myths, and puzzles.