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Sense of isolation and silence

RANJIT HOSKOTE on the paintings of Kiyomi Manseta Talaulicar, whose work was shown in Mumbai recently.

KIYOMI MANSETA TALAULICAR'S paintings make no attempt to be voluble: products of an austere economy of pictorial means, they seem to be turned in, even closed in on themselves, gently yet firmly at odds with their environment. In this, they appear to reflect something of the manner in which their creator has conducted her painterly career: born in Mumbai in 1965, Kiyomi is an alumna of the Sir J.J. School of Art. She first came to the attention of the art world as a young artist of promise in 1989, when her work was selected for the prestigious national exhibition, "Indian Eclectics". Kiyomi moved to the United States soon afterwards; she now lives and works in St. Paul, Minnesota.

While she has pursued her art in her country of adoption, both in an academic and a gallery context, she has had to pay a certain price for the relocation. Almost inevitably, her shift from India to the U.S. has ensured that her trajectory remains tangential to the main directions of both cultures. When placed against the art-works produced by her North American as well as her Indian contemporaries, Kiyomi's paintings convey a sense of isolation and silence.

As it happens, isolation and silence are precisely the artist's central themes, on the evidence offered by the paintings that she has worked on over the last three years, some of which were exhibited at Gallery Chemould in Bombay recently. These paintings, executed in mixed media on paper, are defined through a deliberate honing-down of motif, plane and texture to a quietude. It might be stretching the definition to describe Kiyomi's artistic strategy as a minimalist one, but the description is not without its uses: most of her paintings address a singular object, with the ground reduced to a bare minimum, as though the object had to speak for itself, stripped of all its anterior histories.

In Kiyomi's paintings, therefore, we encounter such focal motifs as the toppled figure, the outstretched arm, the chair and the open palm with its fingers pointing up in a gesture of blessing or menace. Some of the paintings are constructed through the repeated iteration of a motif into a formal pattern, like a row of candles, a diagonal arrangement of fleurs de lis, and a sequence of spare, stylised lions. The elegant simplicity of the pattern allows the inner resonance of the motif to assert itself, in all its melancholia and plangency.

In these pictorial accounts, the human presence appears most often in the form of the vestige. The painter avoids contact with the figure in its pulsing, carnal bulk and its sparking, nervous energy; she prefers to indicate it obliquely through the mark, the trace, the clue. In her paintings, Kiyomi suggests the human presence through such vestigial signs as a set of hand-prints, the arm shown in the blur of a fractional, infinitesimal movement, the vacant bench displayed against the ghost of itself just a moment before.

This last observation has an important bearing on the way in which Kiyomi organises her motifs: not only is the object implied by its shadow, but it is also dramatised through the differential between itself in the viewers present and its former self in an implied past of a moment before. Kiyomi's works repeatedly demonstrate a preoccupation with an elusive quality that we might well speak of as pastness: this emerges, not only from the blur between the present moment and its preceding moment as she paints it, but also in her choice of titles, with some of the paintings being registered as memoirs, fables or folktales. The artist manages an allusive encryption of personal memory and folk memory, of childhood story and mythic space, with the fewest possible props.

What is crucial, then, is that the image is always a relic of passage in Kiyomi's paintings: the very slight movement of the object, which indicates the spatio-temporal position that the object has just occupied and relinquished, is by no means a study of timelessness. It is, rather, a representation of the slowing- down of time to a trace of motion, which reveals time's fundamentally attritive action, as well as the dramatic possibility of kinesis that it offers. Time holds out the first alternative to the passive self, and the second to the active self.

It might be argued that the lion, multiply printed and vanishing from view in one of Kiyomi's paintings, personifies the process by which the active self leaves elements of its constitution behind in residues and precipitates; at the same time, it refines itself through graceful progression. In recording the changing aspects of the self, body or object that is subject to times processes, Kiyomi combines an appreciation of the transformative power of the process with an awareness of how the subject can resist or subvert its imminent alteration.

Consider, for instance, the chairs that dominate a number of Kiyomi's paintings: occasional receptacles of the body, these chairs acquire specific characteristics and even idiosyncrasies of their own. Some of them are homely and comfortable, others bear themselves with dignified aloofness, and yet others are prickly and irascible. They appear, almost, to have developed personalities of their own, to have come to life in a fashion inescapeably reminiscent of the anthropomorphic furniture in Francis Bacon's early paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be noted, parenthetically, that Kiyomi's taste for Baconic forms, textures and colours is one of her indulgences: it pushes her backwards towards a mid-20th Century High Modernism, an idiom to which she can contribute only as an obedient disciple, not as an original master.

While the artist can scarcely hope to turn back the inexorable movement of art history from High Modernism to post-modernism, it is intriguing to follow the negotiations that she conducts with the irreversible flow of time as her principal theme. Clearly, she regards time as a process in which certain acts and instants, deeply invested with significance, are lifted above the ordinary concourse of events and ritualised into near-ceremonial frames of gesture. In capturing this vital moment-within-a-moment that bursts from the flux of time, Kiyomi achieves a meditative pause in which time's irreversibility is suspended, and the painting unfolds itself in the tranquil space of duration.

Where Kiyomi is on far more uncertain ground is in the homage she offers to the later Abstract Expressionists (a bow in the direction of yet another branch of mid-20th-Century High Modernism) through the flat, luminous colour surfaces that she favours as a backdrop or a counterpoint to her isolated figures. In theory, at least, her combination of this approach with her Baconic handling could have resulted in a dialectical interplay between two different principles. The Abstract Expressionist handling of colour as a sheer veil of light proposes an archetypal and mythic experience in which the self merges with the cosmos. In contradistinction, the Baconic emphasis on the figure-in-torsion is fraught with the sense of the individual selfs anguish and solitude, its sense of having been betrayed by an indifferent cosmos.

Unfortunately, it would appear that the artist has not fully examined the philosophical implications of her painterly choices. As a result, her dual manner is not impelled to deliver its fullest outcome. Instead of generating a friction between concrete figure or object and abstract ground, a dynamic tension between the material and the transcendent, Kiyomi remains indecisive. Worse, her commitment to the well-behaved composition ensures that she cannot follow the logic of her sources into the dangerous, uncharted areas of expression to which they point.

To adduce instances: while she adopts Bacon's palette and his manner of applying paint, she lacks his unflinching ability to look at the body in its vulnerability and pathos; consequently, her approach to the human presence lacks empathy and immediacy. And while she takes over the later Abstract Expressionist fascination with colour as a veil of splendour, she employs an intimate scale instead of the large scale necessary for this fascination to fulfil itself, rendering the effect merely pleasant, rather than blindingly radiant.

In other words, Kiyomi's commitment to the well-behaved composition defeats the revelation that may have come through, had she essayed a greater risk in her image-making. By playing safe, all she achieves is a low-wattage illumination that may give transient pleasure to the eye, but cannot ultimately disturb us into a renewed awareness of the human predicament.

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