Urban Spaces and Counter Gazes

There are some paintings where political/gender critique appears in subtle tones and the overbearing aesthetics of these subdues it to create a counterbalance to the process of viewing. Shruti Gupta Chandra plays up this subtlety in her works effectively. In the latest series of paintings, considering her previous passion for building up pictorial spaces and the human bodies with strong musculature, Shruti Gupta Chandra moves further ahead in articulating her individualistic concerns about the human life within the fast growing urban spaces. From the early anchoring of her thoughts on existential matters, this time she contemplates on the issues pertaining to the urban realities, thereby positing the current works to the plane of post-modern visual thinking. To achieve this effect, quite deliberately the artist chucks her indulgence with the homo-centric gurative language and explores the possibilities of a pictorial language that could hold the subtlety of the traditional painting methods as well as the verve of the contemporary visual engagements.

Creating grids is a way to de-construct the existing realities. At the same time, grids create a lter and ground of moderation through which the realities could be negotiated, captured and re-constructed in novel fashions. Artists of the post-modern times have effectively used the possibilities of grids, both virtual and real ones, in their works. Shruti unlike in her earlier works, builds a lot of grids on her pictorial surface so that the image-wise immediacy with the quotidian realities is aesthetically negotiated and the resultant imageries are produced and presented as if they were happening in a space that is re ned by aesthetic as well as philosophical interventions. The apparent haziness or the presence of a transparent veil like coat over these works in fact provides a general ‘grid space’ to them even when the artist does not consciously create grids of negotiation in geometrical shapes.

Shruti, as an artist deems the urban spaces as locations of human aspirations and desire. Simultaneously she recognizes the fact that these urban locations are gradually, steadily and aggressively making incursions into the rural spaces, converting their characteristics, changing the climatic balances and even re-inscribing their histories. Hence, for Shruti, the spreading of urbanity is a kind of re-inscription of history or even interpolations made on the grander text of history.

It is almost like a flight of spiral stairs taking the climber to an ideal space; an ideally transformed urban space where everyone is given equal rights and justice. This image of a flight of spiral stairs appears in four different frames that constitute a single work, and in each frame the stairs show a different possibility of movement. For a viewer it is almost like looking at the same scene from different physical distances. The artist plays up a virtual zooming for aesthetic reasons and the twist is rendered when in one of the frames she abstracts the flights into a stream of paper like filings.

This imagery of stairs, in fact sets the tone of the latest series of works by Shruti. Metaphorically speaking, it shows the aspiration of human beings for an ideal space or life. Also it suggests the human ascendancy to a philosophical space. The transparent sheen over the painting at once imparts the ideality of this space as such spaces are not often pictured in a stark and direct fashion. This metaphor of stairs once again comes in a diptych where Shruti directly deals with the histories of a new urban space as set against the backdrop of an old urban space. The honeycomb or catacomb like architectural space is depicted in order to suggest the history of an old city within which the new city takes shape in the form of a pair of sophisticated stairs. Shruti does not tell the viewers where the stairs are leading them to. Instead, she gives certain visual clues where the tension and the lethargy of the human beings felt and experienced in such spaces are suggested through the images of a sleeping dog and a hand that tugs at a string stretched on the right top edge of the painting. The depiction of two principles, the active and the passive ones embodies the character of the two cities; the old and the new. And the painting has the capability of hinting at the possible tensions resulted out of such interfacing.

The human beings, who activate the process of urbanization and also suffer from such activations, face some sort of inescapability within this historical dynamics. Urbanization is often undertaken for the welfare of the human beings but instead of easing the human lives, it often contributes to the sufferings of the people. This is one irony of any kind of modernization project; one cannot escape from the results that one has produced for some other aim. It is like a Frankenstein. Shruti addresses this irony too in her latest series of works. With minimal representation of the human figures, in two of her works, Shruti brings in the self annihilating dynamics of urbanization. This movement imposes dizziness and nausea amongst the participants of this urbanization project. The artist envisions the urban-scape as a huge engine (again with its propellers and architectural forms suggesting flights of stairs in a concentric fashion) and sucks people into it. In another painting, she creates this movement in the form of a trapeze net or huge mosquito net tied within a historical architecture that represents the old and sustainable urbanization projects. In this net, human beings are seen as if they were washed away by a gushing stream; a metaphor for the dynamics of history.

Formally speaking, the production of grids happens quite naturally as Shruti focuses on creating pictorial surfaces akin to those of Piet Mondrian, though she avoids the strong colors of the master modernist. These grids, almost having the serenity of a gauche on paper or linen, could be interpreted as the abstract representations of the urban-scapes. Simultaneously they function as the general pictures of an urban scene and as Shruti likes to zoom in and zoom out, the close up pictures of certain localities too. The images of the human beings are brought in as suggestions to fathom the depth of the image as well as to reveal the grandeur of the urban scenes that she intends to depict. These human figures are depicted as thoughtful beings; and this thoughtfulness represents the artistic concern rather than her own existential angst for being alone in the city. She recognizes the fact that in an urban life one is alone in a very special way; in an aesthetical way and it could be shared only through the depiction of the thoughtfulness in such a special lonely state of being.

Shruti has been fascinated by the beauty of human body ever since she started her creative career. Though the predominance of the human body is considerably moderated in the present set of works, Shruti does not do away with them altogether. In a series of paintings where she has created visual planes of abstract color schemes, she carefully incorporates solidly drawn male human figures. At times they appear before the viewer as if they were filtered through a prism causing the multiplication of the images. In a sense, the artist also prefers it to be like that as she considers urban spaces as mutually reacting mirrors that cause endless reactions of the objects. A fair amount of distortion is given to the totality of the human body in order to emphasize the feeling of dislocation of these human beings.

Shruti Gupta Chandra, interestingly evades the idea of ‘femininity’ in her works. Though, she is not a feminist in strict terms, through a very clever aesthetic ploy she sends counter gazes at a male dominated society by depicting a lot of male nude bodies in her works. Though she portrays predominantly male nudes and suggestive androgynous bodies occasionally blurring the societal divides in a very clever way, she imparts even a sort of strong musculature to them. This counter gaze comes from her academic training as an artist. However, this gaze shows the contained but carefully cultivated gender politics of the artist. Shruti is not into sloganeering. But her works negotiate the urban spaces aesthetically and counters the male ideology on a level playing field of aesthetic expressions.

JohnyML
May 2011, New Delhi