Anju Dodiya’s worlds lie between the real and fantastic

The artist’s ongoing show in Mumbai turns the gaze inwards

Published - June 28, 2020 11:57 pm IST

In her ongoing exhibition, Breathing on Mirrors , Anju Dodiya turns to German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s articulations of anxiety, introspection, and the process of creation that relate to her own preoccupations with the artistic process and human condition. The exhibition features Dodiya’s characteristic figurative paintings, rendered primarily on mattresses that are made of unbleached cotton fabric and stretched on padded boards, using watercolours and charcoal. The numerous references that construct Dodiya’s unique vocabulary showcase her archival instincts as she draws from diverse sources across time and space. In this body of work, Dodiya highlights the moments that precede the intense act of creating. Her works embody a sense of rigour that shows through in her highly distilled compositions. In an interview with The Hindu , she expressed striving in these paintings to arrive at a “minimalist form of representation,” that is, allowing fewer gestures to convey more meaning. She succeeds in conjuring theatrical images of beauty and terror through carefully-contrived arrangements.

Dodiya is acclaimed for her “fictionalised self-portraits” that resemble her physiognomically, but portray varying protagonists caught in curious narratives to address questions of identity and the fragility of life. The exhibition’s title Breathing on Mirrors refers to the act of examining oneself closely. Dodiya abandons the literal mirror used in self-portraiture, referencing it metaphorically to explore “unexpected things that emerge in the process of making art and confronting oneself. When you come close to a mirror, things become foggy and ambiguous,” she says. It is this abstraction that the artist grapples with by narrating versions of the fictionalised self.

Three works set the tone of the exhibition. In ‘Snail (after K)’ , Dodiya renders a figure carrying a heavy load, inspired by work by the Greek artist Janus Kounellis , to convey the idea of labour. ‘Morning Walk’ depicts a person carrying pillows in an outdoor environment, and ‘Untitled grid’ is a watercolour sketch of a woman in bed with her blanket. These images refer to notions of routine, and reveal an aesthetic that straddles comfort and struggle, intimacy and alienation.

Surface and media

In 2005, Dodiya was commissioned to create a large scale painting of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, a work that she realised on a double-bed. Over the years, the surface of the mattress for the artist has evolved into a potent space for “dream images, portrayals of solitude, and investigations of private lives.” Dodiya adds, “Such works may additionally be viewed as pregnant paintings.” These paintings on mattresses and on madarpat, the unbleached cotton that lines our sofas and beds, have a strong presence in the gallery. Dodiya is drawn to the idea of pulling something out of our domestic lives and bringing it to the forefront, an act that resonates with the concurrent reticence and outwardness of her practise. She negotiates between confrontations in the physical spaces of her studio and home in Ghatkopar, as well as her inner-self to create her compositions. In her works, the mattress and madarpat are stripped off their functions and transformed into painted objects.

An unwavering watercolourist, Dodiya challenges herself to work extensively with a medium that does not lend itself easily towards scale or the texture of fabric. She expresses interest in the way watercolour stains the cushioned surfaces of mattresses. It’s blurs and smudges are counterpointed by Dodiya’s charcoal lines and incursions held by the fabric’s grain. She creates works that simultaneously contain delicate renderings and hard-lined geometric elements. Her wall note states: “The tension of the creative act is acted out on soft mattresses, hinting at the domestic nature of the demons. The charcoal is a stabbing device that conveys anger at the imperious world.” Through her choice of media and material, Dodiya expresses concerns that surround the creative process, embracing emotions of vulnerability and strength.

Act of creation

“It takes courage to conquer the anxiety of making something,” says Dodiya. Her painting First Step captures the moment at which one overcomes their inertia and enters a world of possibility. Pierce , influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, represents the artist as a samurai or warrior who confronts the white of a canvas. Dodiya pitches painting as, “a ritual or martial art that demands integrity and rigour.” In her works Target and Studio (with Phoenix), artistic tools such as paintbrushes and pencils are rendered as weapons. The protagonist both a hero and a sufferer, engages in the turbulent act of creating.

In addition to her hyperbolic expressions of an artist’s inner challenges, Dodiya also deliberates broader issues surrounding death and decimation. Her painting Pleasure (after Magritte) depicts a woman eating a bird based on one of Rene Magritte’s most gruesome paintings. For Dodiya, “the idea of eating a bird signifies the end of civilisation.” By painting such an image on a mattress, associated with intimacy and security, Dodiya acknowledges how her own trepidations stem from a place of comfort; they are not the same as the socio-political upheavals faced in the world outside the studio, she expresses.

Control and spontaneity

Dodiya’s referential works cite Renaissance paintings, world cinema, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, newspaper cutouts, and miniature paintings. She balances control and spontaneity, allowing the medium to dictate choices as she carefully layers anachronistic and personal references to conjure worlds that lie between the real and fantastic. She does not disclose her narrative or expect one to recognise every reference, allowing viewers to piece together what they can infer.

In her series of digital prints, Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden, titled after a verse from T.S. Eliot’s work, Dodiya creates diptychs that feature moments from her life, and images from her art, inserted onto mounts. She renders the mounts with abstract patterns, that she recounts are joyous to create. The work pertains to the passage of time, mortality, and the idea of the mundane. They hark back to the idea of the “sublime pause” emphasising the point at which one begins their creative endeavour —an act that is simultaneously terrifying and liberating.

Anju Dodiya’s show is ongoing at Gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Fort, Mumbai, until July 31. Visitors must email to book an appointment. All physical distancing norms — masks, sanitisers, one-foot distance between individuals will be followed, and surfaces will be sanitised before visits.

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