Through powerful ceramic works and acrylic paintings, the three artists at Exhibit 320’s recent exhibition are in search of an abstract visual vocabulary centering on urban realities and meanings.
“Breathing Spaces” showcased works by Delhi/Gurugram-based artists Rahul Kumar and Chetnaa, who initially collaborated at the First Indian Ceramic Triennale in Jaipur, and emerging contemporary artist Kaushik Saha, a graduate of MSU, Baroda.
One of the major draws of the exhibition is an installation titled ‘TerraGeometrix’, which was originally mounted in Jaipur. It maps the wide navigational possibilities of an urban setting, with its network of railways, arterial roads, detours and flyovers. The brown-coloured discs refer to the antiquated built structures of a city/town, especially relevant in the context of the historic Rajasthani capital. The spaces between each of the discs personify the island-unto-itself existence in an urban landscape.
This panoramic urban viewpoint finds an extension in other collaborative works by Rahul and Chetnaa in the present exhibition. Through simplified, minimalist forms and geometric lines, the aerial view of a city is established with many motifs suggesting a cartographical perspective or an architectural model. Often, the deceptively non-subjective imagery appears to be devoid of a specific (and intended) thematic meaning or undercurrent.
Their art practice translates into an experimentation with the medium of ceramic and the visual vocabulary that emerges out of it. The works can be seen within the context of contemporary ceramics that have witnessed, over the past few decades, the dramatic transformation of the material from being functional, architectural or domestic-based art to defining the artists’ “conceptual intentions rather than as a pure modelling material” (quote by Kristine Michael, 2018).
For Rahul Kumar, who has been working with clay for over two decades, the rigidities and symmetries of an urban centre find expression alongside (and through the medium of) the organic form of clay. On the other hand, Chetnaa, who found the medium of paper to be somewhat limiting, discovered newer expressions of evolving her artistic practice through the malleability of clay. A painter by training from the Delhi College of Art, the core of Chetnaa’s art focuses on the geometric lines, which, according to her, is also reflective of urban spaces.
Invariably, the scope of their experimentation establishes a dialogue with the abstract acrylic paintings of Kaushik Saha, their fellow artist in the exhibition. The seemingly flat terrain of Saha’s art, embedded with a heavily textured palette, draws upon his perception of the urban landscape, which is that of a ubiquitous monstrosity. The layers suggest incessant piling up of one structure over the other, including the civic demolition activities and the process of re-making that follows. The multi-layering also creates a semblance of imprisonment synonymous with urban life—the effect is heightened by the aerial viewpoint established in his paintings.
Masking the urban realities – including the ugly ones – his paintings are influenced by the form of public hoardings and advertisements, as if to suggest that the goings on of the city, whether personal or public, are a site of the spectacle. “We are all advertisements…products of urbanity,” the artist sums it up.
If Saha’s paintings are dotted with miniscule-looking human beings preoccupied with daily jobs and even crimes such as a rape and likely murder of a woman by a group of men, Rahul and Chetnaa do not dwell over the human presence at all. The patterns in their works are minimal, occasionally headlined by the motif of the gold leaf, which appears often in their art. Is it the ugly prosperity of the city that is surrounded by a sea of black? Or is it an artistic experimentation targeting the very form of their medium?
The use of “applied gold leaf”, instead of the ceramic fired gold lustre, is because the leaf had its “own quality with textures and colours leaking in from the lower clay layer showing subtle protrusions embracing the geological textures and cartographies,” Rahul Kumar explains in an essay written by Kristine Michael for the exhibition.
Whether it is Saha’s abstract paintings or Rahul-Chetnaa’s highly versatile clay works, we notice that there is an emphasis on form over content in these exhibits, even though the underlying theme is urbanity. The increasing lack of “Breathing Spaces” in metros and towns has fueled their artistic imagination, allowing unique forms of aesthetics to take shape.
In view of the intrinsic irony in the ‘Breathing Spaces’ exhibition, I want to refer to Ranjit Hoskote’s essay, Landmarks of Confession, that discusses the inherent violative nature of modern, as against traditional, built environment: “The breaking of ground, the planting of the cornerstone—all architecture begins with these foundational and self-assertive acts of violence. By the time the master builder has completed his project, every trace of the connection between the natural and the constructed will have been wiped out.”
This subtext of violence can be easily read into the artists’ exploration of the urban scape.
Breathing Spaces, collaborative works by Rahul Kumar and Chetnaa & paintings by Kaushik Saha, was open for viewing from 24 Nov-25 Dec, 2018.
Writing by Ankush Arora