There is a recognizable light that saturates the canvases of young Vadodara-based painter Abir Karmakar; it is muted, orange and incandescent, the glow of an interior space with the dimmer switch set low. It serves as a cue to viewers, setting the stage for the artist’s use of the privacy of the home, or the hotel room, as a theatre for radical self-experimentation, sexual role playing and ambivalent mirror games.
Karmakar has made a name for himself with a style that depends on a small set of powerful elements: His mannered, painterly use of oils that hearkens back to the fleshy melodrama of the Baroque; his preoccupation with the erotic and suggestive possibilities of the male body; and, finally, the staginess and theatricality evident in the way he explores those suggestive possibilities. All three of these elements are on full display in Within the Walls, a solo show currently on display at Gallery Espace in New Delhi.
Appropriately, given its title, the exhibition features a set of 12 untitled canvases depicting scenes that could only be played out in the claustrophobic sanctuary of the private room. In a set of smaller paintings, the artist evokes the candid immediacy of the snapshot: We see him crawling on the floor as though we are standing a few feet behind, with a camera. Dressed in effeminate striped underwear and wearing hot pink slippers, he holds a door closed—as though trapping someone inside—and a small pit bull stares back at the camera, wondering what all the fuss is about. This sense of sublimated photographic mediation is noticeable throughout, and works to draw the viewer into a psychological space, to make him a partner in the game of mirrors. We find ourselves sharing a very intimate moment—and that realization can be disquieting.
All fours: Karmakar uses his body as a means of self-expression.
Another of the smaller works catches the artist as he walks away from a hotel mirror, fresh out of the shower and wrapped in a towel. His eyes are cast downwards, away from our gaze, but this refusal to meet our eyes is undercut by the composition of the scene: The bathroom’s trio of mirrors multiplies and reflects the subject from all angles. A tension is created by the privacy of the scene and its mirrored exposure, and this ambiguity spills over into the artist’s use of the image for a work that will, after all, hang in the public space of a gallery. In doing so, he brings the viewer into the seclusion of the hotel bathroom—itself simultaneously a private and impersonal space—and he exposes what goes on in there to public view.
Karmakar’s real forte is his use of oil paints to create large, composed canvases. A yellow chair jammed with its back against the door, a carpet that looks like faded tiger stripes in the half-light of a heat lamp: This is the stage set for a sexually charged triptych in the cramped hallway of a hotel room’s entrance. In the image on the left, he lies naked on the floor, huddled in the foetal position, squeezed into the hallway, with his eyes cast upwards, peeking. In the middle image, he sits with his arms wrapped around his legs, self-contained but with a glance that says “come hither”. On the right, we see him on the floor again, with legs bent and to the side in a conventionally feminine erotic pose that refuses to dispel the androgynous ambivalence of his nudity, one arm covering his breasts, his eyes fixed challengingly on the viewer.
One last pair of smaller paintings takes the artist’s interests and reduces them, telescopically, to their simplest elements: the textures of skin and hair captured in oil, the unbeautiful male body in performance. We see close-ups of a man’s torso, squeezed together by his own hands to effect playful, gender-bending transformations of sagging flesh. It feels like a game played in front of a mirror, alone; but then we find ourselves standing there, in someone else’s bathroom slippers, looking.
Within the Walls will run until 21 October at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, and from 8-22 November at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai.