The alchemy of art
Tanya Goel’s large-scale wall painting, Carbon, comes alive as warm sunrays fall on it. With each flicker of light, the colours on the canvas seem to ripple and merge, imbuing the work with a sense of lyrical movement and animated chaos. But when you go closer, the eye breaks free of the optical illusion and starts to zoom on to individual textures, colours and notations that populate the canvas. The work begins to resemble the excavation of an architect’s plan.
For her ongoing show, This, The Sublime And Its Double, at Nature Morte in New Delhi, Goel draws inspiration from the city grid, “combining poetry and cartography to create a landscape of her inner being” as an intuitive response to urban chaos. Her works also explore the idea of the screen, which has created a hyper way of looking. “There are so many screens perforating the grid that we are not focusing on anything. Hence, the paintings initially create that illusion of not looking at anything. But when you really focus, a pattern emerges,” she says.
Nature Morte’s director and curator Peter Nagy, who is showing Goel’s works for the first time in the Capital, calls them an exploration of a rigorous abstraction that is deeply invested in the process of their creation. Goel makes her own pigments from a diverse array of materials, including charcoal, aluminium, concrete, glass, soil, mica, graphite and foils, many sourced from sites of architectural demolitions. “What thrills me are details that come from different pigments, textures, and their reflective possibilities. Those, together with the notations, combine to make for a richer painting,” he says.
In fact, light plays a huge role in Goel’s process. She believes that light—be it artificial or natural—creates moments of friction in the “everyday” of things. “My work is the surface on which light plays out as fiction,” she says.
From the time she started her practice in 2010-11, Goel didn’t want to tread the realm of abstract expressionism. Rather, it was the idea of constructivism—a more concrete version of abstract art, which began in Russia in 1914-15—that inspired her. “Works of the Constructivist artists came about from moments of such trauma. Their abstraction seemed more real than reality. One can see a similar lack of familiarity and dissociation today as well,” she says. And that’s why her works look at ruptures in spaces and geographies—both external and internal. The grids in her artworks, whether it is Carbon or Semitone, look like tectonic plates, ready to tumble into chaos one moment and all set to uphold the balance in the next.
Goel’s studio is akin to an alchemist’s lab, where she mixes materials together, documenting the transformations that the passage of time creates on the pigments. “Goel is constructing what she terms ‘an archive of compressed time’,” writes Amanda Sroka, in the recent issue of the art magazine Marg. “Goel’s pigments will often sit out for days, weeks or months before being incorporated into a large-scale work…. Subtly and subconsciously, these materials animate Goel’s surfaces, binding the lines that seem to extend far beyond the canvas frames.” In her current body of work, one can see the ash that she collected during the Delhi winter, a couple of years ago. “You know how they burn a fire outside gates. I started collecting ash from each mound, and the colour from each was different. I was also interested in the skin of aluminium and the shimmer and shine of mica, which I got from Bihar. Then, I would collect fallen barks, burn them down into charcoal. And each time, the shade of black wouldn’t repeat itself,” she says.
And yet, repetition seems as intrinsic to her painterly practice as the unique identity of her pigments. It is through reiteration of grids and notations that she has created a new language. Her works are based on an algorithm, which might relate to a mark, shadow or line. In Carbon, for instance, the codes A, B, S and S1 occur repeatedly. While A stands for the line, S stands for its reflection, B represents the shadow of A and S1 is the reflection of B. “The title of the exhibition refers to this sense of synthetic replication, once seen as anathema to the concept of the sublime but today very much compatible with it,” says Nagy.
In her current series, Goel has established her patterns within the four parameters of coal, concrete, mica and aluminium. She has also made smaller studies based on textile weaving, inspired by her visits to the weaver villages in Murshidabad. One work is dominated by a line, sort of like the silk thread running across the loom. Another one, a study in red, plays with the idea of dhoop chaon (light and shade) in weaving, which is similar to the study of formalism. A large-scale work in red and blue explores the subconscious relationship that the two colours have always shared, whether it is in ads on TV screens or posters, and also draws on the colour theories of Josef Albers about the after-image that colour leaves in your eyes. “I am interested in making meaning out of nothing. I want my work to be constructive, to be able to speak in a new language,” she says.
This, The Sublime And Its Double can be viewed at Nature Morte till 13 January, 2-6pm.
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