When Evening Calls
16 Sep, 2022 - 01 Oct, 2022
Gallery Veda and Ashvita's present a twin showing of paintings and ceramics by C. Douglas in Chennai. The exhibition showcasing works from the last three decades will be displayed at Gallery Veda and Ashvita's Mylapore.
FRAGILITY AND FRAGMENTATION IN DOUGLAS’ PAINTINGS
To a pointed question by Ashvin Rajagopalan, 'Who is the man with bandages in your works?' in the book Missed Call: C. Douglas, The Mind of an Artist, Douglas says, “It is a historical reference to Van Gogh and Bhupen Khakar’s, Man with Cold painting. The woman with a bandage on her lips is a reference to an advertisement, Speak Easy that teaches people spoken English. You feel some silence when you miss a call. One may not feel fractured or mutilated when you miss something you just keep on living. The mutilated and hollowed living finds many expressions in Douglas’ paintings; human figurines spread on the ground pierced by arrows cripples on wheelchairs, the blind poet, a broken mannequin, and the fragmented bodies that ooze different fluids. 'The void, the hollowness, the endless emptiness within all of us,' Douglas would say, 'The spaces between the ladder, the void within the telephone receiver, the eye of the needle are all essential symbolic hollowness within us. Since he seeks to present our inner fragmentation, he adopts figurative and abstract styles of painting. The angular faces that look like skulls, stick-like figurines that appear to have jumped out of tribal wall paintings, and one-dimensional human bodies populate his paintings. Despite the muddled and crumpled surfaces, the paintings acquire a certain luminosity and depth. We see a fragmented body on a ladder in an untitled painting where the interplay of the surface and the background suggest a profound emptiness. In another painting, the bodily parts are broken and thrown all over only to be connected by a telephone wire with the receiver showing an empty speech bubble. Underneath the stream of suffering and pain caused by empty speech bubbles, there is a secret undercurrent of a spiritual journey that flows through, and it consists of Zen poetry, Ramana Maharishi’s silence, and unheard melodies. It is the call of a bell men would ignore as Douglas depicted in his ceramic sculpture in 1994. The bell and a man cupping his ears form a repeated motif in Douglas’ works. Sometimes, the bell does not have a clapper. Douglas quotes Francesco Clemente who went in search of Shiva’s brass bell that is hand-crafted and sold in Varanasi. Clemente found out that Shiva’s bell does not have a clapper; it has to be heard internally. It is like one hand clapping, imagery we come across in Zen poetry, Douglas would muse.
Lines acquire prominence and create visual depth. Perceiving visual depth in his paintings is a viewer act since Douglas creates everything on the surface, a non-hierarchical space. These paintings very clearly evoke Derrida's critique of the metaphysics of presence which introduced a play of absence and presence (Derrida 1997). In the presence of angular mask-like faces in Douglas' painting, what is missing and absent is the significant other. The communication between the angular faces is also missing, and they do not see or hear each other. This is not a case of people experiencing extreme forms of loneliness, but it is a kind of sickness. By recognising the absence of the 'other' as sickness, Douglas escapes the infamous Sartrean dictum 'the other is hell’.
In conversation with Ashvin Rajagopalan, Douglas says, 'In contemporary theory, they say that a healthy, wealthy man has several identities. In stark contrast, the sick man (who is mentally ill) has only one identity. He forgets about the 'other'. He stays in contact with himself by the smells of the body. He stops changing his clothes. He almost starts wearing a uniform. The bad odour of his could be interpreted as the smell of himself so he forgets what is 'difference', what is the 'other'. But he is not clinically schizophrenic'.
Of all the pictorial elements Douglas came to rely on lines, figures and textured surfaces to construct his paintings. During his decade-long stay in Germany, Douglas was greatly influenced by the works of new Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer and Wolfs (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) and he would say, 'Sometimes, I like to use the sand as a texture for my work, or tea stains, or tear the paper, or walk over, crumple it up, which is why I prefer to work on paper or any fragments that are there to create my own surface.' Perhaps the man with bandages on his head in Douglas’ series, Missed Call is a distorted self-portrait of the suffering and sensitive person he is, although he would pass the question of why he has not done self-portraits at all. In a way, Douglas brings the viewers’ attention to the materiality of the medium he uses in his paintings; if it is mud it is grounded and if it is paper it trembles between life and death. Fragility and contingency give Douglas his final visual vocabulary that connects with our inner nerves of existence.