Mass and fluidity
A sequence of mottled images grows on the paper through this interplay of black and white: sometimes the image grows slowly, as the water smears and blurs the crisp passage of the ink. RANJIT HOSKOTE records his responses to Vanita Gupta's recent works on paper.
WORKING quietly in her studio, exhibiting her work at infrequent but carefully chosen intervals, Vanita Gupta has practised a somewhat arte povera approach to her materials and methods. Paper pulp and dark colours, the steam iron and the sponge, Indian ink and the deckle edge: these have served her well. From such an artisanal simplicity of means, she has developed a rich spectrum of allusiveness. Gupta's recent works on paper, currently being exhibited at Mumbai's Pundole Art Gallery, manifest to advantage this spirit of self-restraint combined with a love of the tangible.
Water, a key element
In these works, the artist restricts herself to black ink laid on handmade Poona and Jaipur paper with brushes of varying thickness; all she does by way of preparation is to size the paper with glue and treat it with a tea wash. Other than these elements, it is water, usually taken for granted in such an idiom, that plays a vital shaping role in Gupta's working process: it promotes many effects, whether through the wash or the drip, the splash or the draggle, each sparking off a small event of transformation in the viewer's eye.
A sequence of mottled images grows on the paper through this interplay of black and white: sometimes the image grows slowly, as the water smears and blurs the crisp passage of the ink; at other times, the tempo of creation is faster, as the stroke of ink slices through the white space of the paper. Sometimes, all that remains to tell of the brush's transit is a thin edge of black, from which trails a greyness of drained colour. At other times, the surface gains its value from a hard black stain that seems to indicate the brush in repose; but which is really the imprint left by the brush in a surge of energy.
In the present suite of works, Gupta retains the intimacy of mood that has marked her work for a decade, whether in the ephemeral, rough-edged watercolour traces that she essayed over 1996-1998 or in the dyed, shredded and gauzed paper sculptures that absorbed her attention between 2000 and 2002. And yet she summons forth an intriguing variation of scale here, working with small and medium-sized as well as considerably larger surfaces, varying her treatment in each register. The works under review should help dismantle the reputation that Gupta has gained for being a reclusive miniaturist: an inexplicable exception in a generation of younger artists who are, as a rule, as formally gifted as they are adept at playing a sycophantic cultural media to their own advantage. Gupta has certainly been reclusive, working on her own rather than with an established commercial gallery; but the tag of miniaturist is restrictive, as this exhibition demonstrates.
Taken together, Gupta's current works dramatise a constantly shifting dialogue between the solidity and boldness of the mass and the fluidity and elusiveness of the veil. Through this pursuit of an athletics of line and wash, veil and mass, Gupta expresses her delight in gestural play, not necessarily as a symbol of any other force, but rather, as its own object. Of course, as viewers, many of us are reluctant to let go of the last traces of the familiar; correspondingly, we tend to be suspicious of forms that do not refer to the world of recognisable things, and read them to our taste.
Black ink on handmade Poona and Jaipur paper.
From such a viewpoint, it is possible to read Gupta's gestures in these works as markers of the figurative. Occasionally, we may even congratulate ourselves on having decoded these forms, believing that we have discerned faint suggestions of the human body, like elements of a lost anatomy briefly glimpsed on an x-ray plate.
In some of these works, indeed, it becomes extremely difficult to resist the suggestion that it is a ballet of bodies that unfolds before us in moments of approach, encounter and withdrawal, as black strokes slash across the wet surface, hover around one another, intersect, settle in whorls, strike out again at jagged angles, somersault across the plane, to stop just short of the moment of free fall.
It is not improbable that a subliminal record of the body is indeed being developed in these works, the artist's intuition perhaps working autonomously of her stated non-objective premises. At the same time, Gupta also plays quite deliberately with the sense-seeking fallibility of the viewerly eye, especially when she employs blots of the variety associated with the Rorschach testing procedure, in conjunction with an elementary wet-fold technique, to achieve riddle-like mirror images that invite us into a game of interpretation. Her works may seem to encourage us in this quest for readable forms at some level, but they practise a subtle deception. The hints of the figurative vanish as startlingly as they presented themselves, apparitions erased by washes that reaffirm the primacy of the play of gesture.
In actuality, the image here does not refer to an extra-pictorial reality so much as it is the trace of the moment in which it was made. In this sense, each stroke in Gupta's suite of works is its own occasion, a comet of thought: a precipitate expressive of the kairos of the moving brush, driven by the energy of the kshana of execution, articulating the primal acts of reaching, holding and connecting before they vanish in the river of time.
Gupta's is an aesthetic of lyrical minimalism, situated within the broader rubric of gestural abstraction. This must not mislead us, however, into expecting an irrepressible buoyancy in her art; the apparent lightness of her strokes only accentuates the meditative intimations of evanescence, extinction and renascence that her works convey. As though imbued with a Zen sensibility, her art develops its images through a calibrated alternation between speed and patience, disclosure and silence.
The quality of silence
Of these, the quality of silence is surely the most significant for Gupta's art. Her works demonstrate that abstraction, while it is stereotypically posed in opposition to realism or figuration, stands also in opposition to language: it can act as a gentle refutation to the claim, advanced by the early and at that date too-dogmatic Wittgenstein, that "all that can be said, can be said clearly; that which cannot be said must be passed over in silence".
An abstractionist idiom such as Vanita Gupta's shows us that silence, too, can be a mode of inquiry, a means of approaching the condition of understanding. In the face of her play of mass against veil, phantom grisaille against opaque density, we find our explanations evaporating, our questions melting away. What remains as a residue of our encounter with these works is a trace of passage in the mind, like the tail of a comet that is already burning away to nothingness as we look at it, across a distance of light-years that is really a measure of the irreversibility of time's logic of dissolution.
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