This is Rotterdam based Aji V N’s first solo exhibition in Mumbai. Organised by Gallerie Mirchandani + Steinrucke, these recent watercolour paintings and charcoal drawings on paper (all untitled) provide an important occasion to assess the work of the Kerala born artist who so far has shown mainly in Europe.
Alternately mysterious and meaningful, the works rest as if in the shadow of some mystic, poetic realm where entry is denied to all those who do not simultaneously have their heads in some wondrous, fugitive cloud and their feet close to dark, earth-bound visions. Each one seems to spring from a different impetus, creating a variety of dialectical tensions between pictorial reality and metaphorical meaning.
It is possible that the artist, as an Indian living and working in a context that must be overwhelmingly Dutch-European, creates art that of necessity comes from some inner state of being. Personal estrangement in the cultural sense and the freedom from so called security and community could be a part of it, affording him the contemplative experience that translates on his paper into dream-like, visionary narratives.
Suspended as if in an ambiguous moment, these narratives - with perspective almost absent in their frontal presentations - play across both vertical and horizontal formats in sequential readings. Their surfaces do not necessarily portray events; instead each work, very different from the other, conveys the uniqueness of its own inner necessity, its own elementary rhythm.
At times a febrile unrest is intimated in the displacements of the structural fields in Aji’s watercolours: agitated by winds or waves, themes of water and memory seem to be constants. At the same time, even as the paintwork pools and ripples across his light infused fantasies, the flow of the movement guides the eye towards open, fathomless spaces - spaces that can be charged or meditative. These landscapes that draw from nature’s own lyricism, seem to have existed already in the artist’s mind. There is a strong feeling that their primordial textures, subliminal and somehow poignant, were always there in advance of their appearance on the paper, objects of sensuous transparency, worlds in themselves.
Their colours, deepening or fading with the seasonal cycles, range in one work from the lemony greens and muted golds of a late spring afternoon light spilling across a flower speckled meadow, to that of the rich terracottas of an autumnal dusk in another, that consumes both sky and ground in a warm embrace. Even as their painterly overlays refract the planes of shifting light, the first work only hints at demarcated space - its luminous void interrupted with two or maybe three, naked bodies, dancer-like in their graceful defiance of gravity - while the second work celebrates it. Here divisions like the bar of rippling aquamarine water and the geometrical calibration of finely ruled horizon lines refuse to let sky and ground merge.
The same lines recur in another work, this time denoting a water body. Elephants swim through this raster of close horizontal stripes, sending up flurries of waves with each breaststroke, each breaker floating free in an unstable but equally eloquent articulation of identical linear elements. Focused on the expressive nature of painting and on its poetic content, Aji’s images have long been liberated from naturalism. Part of the artist’s sporadic propensity to pare away the non-essential, helps create his own magical equivalences. His surfaces breathe and expand, often prompting us to enter their implications along with their mathematical demarcations as well as their atmospheres of mist and shadow.
Austere contemplations exist alongside works packed with images and detail. Taking advantage of the tensions that arise from different emphasis of illusion and technique, he can float a single, large image of the full moon - a sphere of golden luminosity - in an empty sky, with the same evocative range of grace and execution employed in his much more dense and layered narratives in charcoal on coloured paper.
Among the latter is a Chinese scroll-like landscape built episodically from the base of an impenetrable spread of foliage that climbs upwards giving way to range after range of conical hills. There are no skies, no horizons, no grounds, just an occasional glimpse of winding steps that connect the disparate landscape in the manner of a pilgrim’s journey to perhaps an invisible shrine located on a distant unseen peak.
In still another drawing teeming with imagery, Aji fills his dream-like format with two muscular, naked forms intertwined almost orgiastically. The need to read the image is, as always, limned with uncertainties that have to do with questions of relationships and existence. A swarm of monkeys - a repeated motif in the work of an artist not averse to symbolism - clambers all over them in a remarkable re-imaging of great personal fantasy. Since the figures seem to have fallen on the ground, surrender to sexual temptation - a la Freud - becomes a possible inference. Along with the insinuated sex of the protagonists (as in the earlier mentioned watercolour with its sylph-like bodies), conjectures like this seem incidental to the visionary intensity of a work where nature, form, diffusions of light and metaphorical preoccupations combine most intimately.
The moods and images in these works get further synthesized in different ways as seen in their depiction of animals, sometimes tempered with mythic possibilities. Each painting or drawing intensifies being in an ambiguous, psychic space where occasionally a recognizable or semi recognizable hybrid emerges. An unforgettable earlier work - a charcoal drawing featuring three stags in a forest clearing joined together by one universal antlered head - made for images that could be realistic yet charged with allegorical transfer. The combination of literal with invented form, imparts unsettlingly seductive depths to such enigmatic scenes.
Aji’s drawings - some driven by line and contour, others by shadow and light - each have a distinct structure, each its own magnetic field. His use of charcoal has the tactile richness of a finely grained, multi-layered surface, the graphite sometimes so intense, so unrelenting as if it were a recording of some endless, existential experience. Yet, whatever the vast blackness begins to turn diffuse and the mélange of animal, human and plant forms surface from the bottomless depths of the dark to catch a sudden ray of light - the last light before the apocalypse - it pushes the expressiveness of the work to a point where it almost becomes a magical, other worldly incantation.
The blackness extends over the entire paper, as if rubbed in, almost incised into the surface. One imagines there must be cracks and scars beneath the charcoal surface, even arabesque of images that we still cannot see. Then suddenly, as if in a representation ofsomeancient rite of vision, the reductive fracturing of light sends the darkness fleeing and an image appears. It could be a scarab surmounted with a humanoid head or a rush of constellations relentlessly piercing the inky black abyss of the sky, creating n turn a sense of unsettling presence or awesome space.
Between the density of darkness and openness of light, the paradox and poetry of Aji’s image is revealed. The woods are aglow as are his houses and skies. His moon for instance - a temporal marker that underscores the idea of transition - has the power of something just discovered, which in a sense it is. No one has seen such crescent, half hidden or full blown aspects of the moon or of water or sky for that matter, or of fields and forests and architectural elements. It’s as if these images were translations of some mysterious need that has to be contemplated in a ritual of silence.
Integral to the artist’s work is its exceptional gift for conveying a sense of isolation and of the uncanny, so fundamental to one’s inner being yet so unacknowledged. In one haunting dream-like painting, a nocturnal scene, the red tiled roof of a house on the edge of a bluff - the moon above, the sea below - is set aflame at one end. Though the lit up window panes suggest human habitation, the sense of eeriness and danger is intensified. As the flames flicker and lick the night sky, the shadowy trees in the background seem to flinch and pull away, retreating further into the all-consuming darkness. A moment of foreboding is juxtaposed with a pang of acutely perceived beauty.
There are vestiges of romanticism to the work that conjure up Albert Pinckham Ryder, the 19th century American landscape painter, who is said to have paced the deck of a ship studying the effect of clouds passing over the moon, or the movement of the waves in storm and calm. One imagines Aji doing much the same, in his dreams and fantasies. For some echoes of Edgar Allan Poe also waft about. But it is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges above all whose poetry inspires Aji and with whom he shares a passionate inclination, to dwell on precarious visions of mysterious inner worlds.
“The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature…” wrote Borges, adding that “… without fixed rules it (poetry) progresses in a hesitant, daring way, as if moving in the darkness.” Aji’s works, realised as if intuitively, their forms sifted and sought out in a tentative realization of consciousness, appear to echo the same concept. His personal significations, unique to himself, go beyond appearances - exploring the indirect, the encoded and the unstated. The artist’s images have a mythic energy that is timeless in its mixing of mutable subject matter and subversive provocation; their irresistible fascination lies somewhere between high imagination and psychological states of being, crossed very now and then with visions of life and art as fiction. Much like Borges description of poetry as “a mysterious chess, whose chess board and pieces change as in a dream.”