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SERENITY AND TURMOIL
VISUAL ARTS

Of the three artists now showing at Galerie 88 (until July 31), Amritah Sen’s work is the most distinguished. Sen has put together a series, tellingly called Halfway, which stands out not only for its evocative imagery, but also for the way it merges intellect with expertise. The other two participants, Santanu Maity and Sumona Jana, are also impressive and deserve to be lauded for the seriousness that they bring to their art. However, neither of them can match up to Sen’s effortless sophistication, and shown together with Sen’s graceful yet troubling images, the paintings by Maity and Jana look flatter than they would otherwise appear.

Santanu Maity’s powerful base colours, for instance, make quite an impact on their own. On his largish canvases, red, blue and green come alive in their fieriness: we experience the redness of red, the blueness of blue and the greenness of green with a renewed freshness. Then, as these colours congeal into gentle touches of impasto, we discover their hidden depths; pigment thickens into form, the two dimensional canvas suddenly takes on the quality of relief.

But this illusion is spoilt by the ubiquitous presence of the bee, a motif Maity uses to signal his bond with nature. This oversized creature is a rather unnecessary prop in Maity’s theatre of colours, and the fluorescent gleam of his recurring images is too obviously reminiscent of Andy Warhol. Maity’s lone installation in wax (harking back to the bee theme) seems to be lit up by a menacing red glow. The jagged edges of melted wax, resembling stalactites and stalagmites, make you feel as if you are looking at a cave slowly closing its craggy mouth.

Sumona Jana is more firmly in control of her material, and looking at her paintings of meteors in the night-sky spangled with celestial bodies, one is reminded, if only for a moment, of the sublime nightscapes of the German photographer, Thomas Ruff. However, there is nothing of the sublime about Jana’s work, although her thinking seems sharp — the pristine blackness against which her myriad stars and planets appear actually stings the eyes with its impassivity.

Jana calls her visual panoramas Mysteries of creation or The beauty of creation, fitting them squarely into a scientific iconography. But there is more to her work than meets the eye. Looking closely, one discovers stray petal-like forms floating around, or even a tendril crawling delicately down a rotund object. Are these then visions of astronomical or minuscule proportions? Are we actually witnessing the life-cycle of a star or the flowering of a seed (picture, left)? Is Jana teasing the viewer with the mysteries of scale? This is an interesting body of work, but Jana seems to have exhausted its possibilities already. One would like to see where she takes her work from here.

This brings us back to Amritah Sen. Sen holds on to her favourite mode of using paper and colour to create a visual language that is starting to look like her signature style. (It would be sad if she decides to stay with this language forever.) But she sails through confidently, even with her tried-and-tested method, because of the refinement of her vision and her delicate sense of proportion. There is nothing obviously surprising about her montages; if anything, their appeal lies in understatement.

The inspiration behind Halfway is autobiographical. Sen explains that the title signifies the mid-point of her own life, from where the past and the future appear equidistant. The work resonates with an unresolved dilemma, treading the thin line between abstract and figurative, real and surreal, pleasure and pain, living and dying. As with her earlier work, Sen revisits a familiar human/animal dreamscape, where different body parts tumble out of the empty whiteness of paper, zebras gallop around (some in the agony of giving birth), and shadows crumble into strange shapes (picture, right).

Anupam Chakraborty’s Layers, at the same gallery (2007), explored how works of art can evolve out of making and manipulating paper. Sen uses paper more directly: to cut or tear shapes out of it, to serrate or burn the edges, and to play around with the patterns in the paper. The physicality of this process is reflected in the image of mutilated hands with deep, open wounds embossed on them. There is a fragility about Sen’s paintings, as if she allows the brush to barely caress the paper’s surface. At the same time, there is a ruthlessness about her imagery, a refusal to turn away from the squalor and dread of life. Serenity and turmoil get inevitably mixed up, as they always are in real life. The stitched-up cuts on arms or feet resemble inflamed vaginas: creation resides as much in the hand as in the womb, every part of the body is endowed with its unique skills of making, focused on its chosen ideal of perfection.

To move beyond the halfway point from which we look back and ahead at life, the stoic and the epicurean in us have to be reconciled. In art, too, sense must blend with sensibility; only then do our pleasures and regrets become meaningful. “Maybe there have been better times,” an inscription on one of Sen’s paintings reads, as if pining for the good life; but before long comes a different kind of cold certitude — “but this time is ours”.

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