Holding a large, blank paper tilted towards the sky, the central figure in Anju Dodiya’s ‘Marching With Mirrors’ seems quietly joyful. Behind her is another figure, a woman wrapped around an animal and reaching out towards the centre of the work. At a walkthrough at Chemould Prescott Road, Dodiya considers the painting, suggesting that the setting is not quite a forest, but a stage, and the woman with the paper, an image hunter. “She is hunting for images, and that is my desire. Day and night, I’m hunting for images,” says Dodiya. The third figure, a woman with a pained expression, is hidden behind a curtain, a suggestion of what is happening behind the scenes.
This metaphor of the stage and the figures in her paintings as actors or props, is one that Dodiya repeatedly alludes to. Across this first painting is ‘Pierce,’ a piece inspired by 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which she has drawn from in the past as well. In elegant lines, the samurai-like figure holds their arms up, as if ready to strike, evoking power and vigor. In their hands they hold a paintbrush, and in front of them a canvas. In her new solo, ‘Breathing on Mirrors,’ Dodiya explains that she is trying to create ‘an emotional theatre,’ one that she hopes viewers will participate in.
Mirrors hold a certain significance in Dodiya’s trajectory as an artist, from the site-specific installation Throne of Frost (2007) which deployed mirror shards, to her descriptions of drawing exercises as a student, done by depicting her reflection from a mirror in a daily nocturnal diary. In her works now, ruminations on the figure of the artist and the artistic process, it seems that the reflections have become murkier, a foggy uncertainty of the self.
Since her emergence in the art world, in the early ‘90s, Dodiya has been inspired by Pre-Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca and Giotto di Bondone, drawn to their figurative work. Drawing from popular culture, films, Greek myths, Indian miniatures, and poetry, her work centres around the body -- its suffering, pain, and resilience. Though her early work relied on watercolours, Dodiya has been working with charcoal on fabric for several years now. Since a commissioned work in 2005 of Shiva and Parvati inspired her to paint on a slim mattress pasted on to a padded board, she has been creating ‘pregnant paintings,’ the cushioned surface ensuring that the works are at once intimate as well as anxious. The fabric used is unbleached cotton, the kind that figures in most households, lining upholsteries or under furniture. It’s a material that is secretly ubiquitous, a witness to the mundane and the macabre in equal measure.
‘Breathing on Mirrors’ seems to mark a withdrawal of the artist, a holding back and paring down of the primary impulse of meaning-making through art. In the gallery note, Dodiya states, “As if, in a monosyllabic conversation or mimicking telephone emoticons, I have confined these drawings to a minimal emotional theatre.” The works function as snapshots of her interior life, flashes of meaning for an Instagram age.
In ‘Target,’ the figure of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows becomes a young girl, blood running from where pencils puncture her body. Mythical figures like Daphne, who was turned into a laurel tree to escape the Greek god Jupiter’s lust, are characters Dodiya circles back to in this show. In 2004, she painted Daphne as a figure in a maze, however the current ‘Daphne’ is a far more visceral work. Her body lays vertical, skewered by the bare branches of a tree, but still somehow she remains whole, held together by the very thing that pierces through her.
Arachne is another mythological character Dodiya has portrayed before, in a 2010 painting, ‘Arachne with Birds,’ where she is holding up a web that she could be either spinning or unravelling. In ‘Arachne’s Walk,’ the weaver, cursed by Athena to turn into a spider and weave forever, seems like a further meditation on the idea of work for Dodiya. “Is it a curse? To do something that you love to do, to do it well, and to do it forever? I thought that was a blessing,” says Dodiya. The Arachne in this latest version seems to be in control of the geometric structure around her, her hands determinedly holding the thin lines taut around her, while her gaze falls outside the frame.
On the other side of the gallery a set of 12 digital prints are mounted, entitled ‘Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden,’ a line from T.S. Elliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ Part of an ongoing project for Dodiya (this being the eighth set she has showcased in the last nine years), the works function as pairs. One image is a photograph from Dodiya’s own family albums, photographs of travels and of the artist herself. The second image is taken from a detail of previous artworks, which she might enlarge, stain, or paint on top of, rendering new meaning to older works. The two are then placed at the centre of painted mounts, lending a sense of freedom to the series, the abstract marks and cognitive jumps to connect the two images are a playful, thoughtful exercise. Exploring the afterlife of images, these works commemorate the passing of time, the mundane everyday moments and the act of reinscribing new meaning onto them.
However, the work that stays with me, long after I have left the gallery, is the only painting in the show that does not feature figures, or even a face. ‘Tie/Untie’ is an ideogram, an emoji representing Dodiya’s work if there ever was one. In the centre of the starched cotton canvas, two hands hold separate ends of a ribbon with a loosened knot. The theatre of emotion that Dodiya seeks to create is stripped bare of its props and actors, the sets and colours. Laid bare is her impetus as an artist -- to tie and untie knots, to create tension and to release it, almost simultaneously. Her works push depictions of the body -- suffering and ageing and marked by pain -- but the sharpness of the work carefully avoids the point of breaking. By tying and untying knots, presenting a theatrical portrayal of emotion, ‘Breathing on Mirrors’ invites us to partake in the pain and pleasure of the artist herself.
‘Breathing on Mirrors’ is on view at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai until 31 March, 2020.