How the Nomad Holds, Grasps and Moulds the Shape of her Location
by Nancy Adajania
It is a matter of contingency. Sharmistha Ray’s small studio in a warehouse in Bombay’s docklands, Mazagaon, does not offer optimal viewing conditions. We take Ray’s paintings outside, and to see them in plein air rather than under an artificial sun in an islanded gallery is a strangely fulfilling experience. The late afternoon sun catches the pigment in these baroque landscapes: alizarin turns to dried blood, jade streaks and agitates the surfaces it lies on, the canvases seem fleshy with layers of paint that throb, crack and curl.
These are muscular paintings. They throw more than a few punches at the categories of ethnicity, location and gender into which artists are pressganged by historical accounts, and they wrestle with that idiom called abstraction which, in the Indian art context, has too often been defined from Olympian heights, and just as often disintegrated into pseudo-mysticism. As Ray displays her paintings in the lawn outside her studio, we register the Pollockesque jabs at ritual violence in them; we follow the artist into Monet’s ‘Garden at Giverny’ only to see its beauty broken down, and encounter Turner, the archetypal father of the landscape and seascape of disaster, in her frames.
Some of Ray’s recent works were triggered by media reportage on the tsunami in Japan: the artist was particularly moved by stories about “the loss of a soulmate” in the time of ecological disasters. Dwelling on this, she has chosen to interpret the ‘soulmate’ as more than a literal or figurative beloved; she also sees, in this figure, the embattled self that is questing for its double. The ironically titled diptych ‘Till death do us part’ (2011) invite us to consider two panels that seem twinned in colour and gesture and yet, even while linked by a clear family resemblance, seem paradoxically dissimilar. Ray calls this her rendition of a ‘doppelgänger’ in paint. In linking the two panels, we cannot resolve them into a simple mirror relationship, nor into a gestalt that clicks into a sense of wholeness. Differences, escaping the iron control of analogy, keep leaking away from the sides of the diptych: the double painting is ambiguity personified, its spatial disintegration directing our gaze neither to a sovereign self nor its anxious double, but to the tension between two alternative conceptions of subjectivity that are forever conjoined to one another, escaping one another.
Ray usually refers to her paintings, citing Jung, as ‘archetypes’, the primordial images of the unconscious that surface in dreams or recur as psychotic fantasies. As the Jungian scholar Frieda Fordham warns us, the unconscious, in Jung’s view “is not merely a cellar where man dumps his rubbish, but the source of consciousness and of the creative and destructive spirit of mankind.” 
When activated in a specific situation, an archetype can manifest itself in diverse ways, ranging from a nightmare to a symbolic representation to a work of art to an act of mob frenzy. The artist’s need to ascribe a psychologistic impulse of self-clarification to her art is manifested again in ‘Raatri Divaa’ (2011), a diptych that denotes the temporalities of night and day, but also alludes to the light of consciousness coupled with the ‘shadow’ of the unconscious. According to Jung, those societies in which people’s ‘shadow’ selves are repressed are more susceptible to mass hysteria and mob frenzy than those where the shadow is integrated into the consciousness.
So far I have deployed the artist’s habitual reference to the Jungian ‘archetype’ in connection with her practice as an interpretative tool to decode some of her works. The twinned self can be read as the interdependence of manifest self and hidden shadow, but also as the struggle to integrate the female and male aspects of the personality. However, Ray’s art does not take its raison d’etre from any single philosophical programme, and cannot be confined to any single reading. As the title of one of her paintings proclaims, in no uncertain terms: ‘There are no fixed points.’ The immediate source of the painting was the artist’s experience of seeing the hard edge of fabled monuments suddenly making an appearance in a dense fog in Jaipur. The painting pulls the viewer in different directions, its chromatics veering towards the warm end of the spectrum on the left side and towards the cool on the right. The fragments of the monuments appear like floating hinges, dark and substantial in their materiality, yet abstract in their relationship to the narrative as a whole.
The extreme and alluring tactility of Ray’s work, achieved by thick layering and the sculptural moulding of paint, provides a semblance of easy access into her paintings. But this purported accessibility is deceptive – her pictorial surfaces are complex tapestries woven from a series of disruptions. She does not work through a unifying compositional method, but rather by deliberately misaligning inheritances and lineages. Ray’s art, like her life, cannot be reduced to a single, simple, dogmatically enunciated identity. Just as her paintings are not structured around a sovereign vantage point, her life’s choices and circumstances have also been produced around a distributed sense of selfhood, one that eschews binaries such as West/East, home/elsewhere. Her biography traverses a series of displacements: born in India, Ray was raised in Kuwait, chose to study art in the US, selected Bombay as her base in 2006, and now lives and works there.
In an attempt to deal with the complex issues of individual choice and collective pressure related to identity politics, Ray has sometimes taken a decidedly contrarian view. As curator of ‘A Place of Their Own’, an exhibition on the predicament of South Asian American diasporic artists, she thought it might be as productive to interrogate the stereotype of a ghettoised diasporic identity, as to assess the strategic viability of a notion of marginality that has developed into an alternative centre. She writes: “Growing up in Kuwait, I defined myself as Bengali to individuate myself from other Indians (of which there were plenty). In America, I was absorbed into a grassroots South Asian-American minority that I couldn’t relate to. Upon my arrival in India, I upheld an Indian banner for the rest of the world even if I was no more to the locals than just another NRI sniffing about my roots. Back in America, a new, exclusive ghetto for the Bengali-American has been formed in my absence. (Think: Gogol Ganguli). Any creative enterprise in the margins used to be a hopeful starting-point for eventual absorption into the so-called ‘mainstream.’ Nowadays, the ghetto may be the place to be.” 
The artist’s hybrid identity has cued some observers into reading her work as simply an instrumental use of Western art history in the service of ‘Indian’ subjects, tones and textures. This could not be further from the reality. The use of binaries such as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ are misleading because they assume that there is a pure, unadulterated cultural location from which art can be produced. If we were to shift focus somewhat, we could instead see her work as a cumulus of entanglements, a braiding together of various histories of art, culture and politics.
As evening descends upon us, the docklands turn a smudgy grey. It is only fitting that Ray’s paintings for her first Indian solo were born in an area once famous for its ship-building yards. In the theatre of her mind, the artist is in equal parts melancholic seafarer, adventurer and pirate.
Our next port of call is New York in the early 2000s, where Ray studied for a dual degree in painting and art history at the Pratt Institute. In her early paintings, she moved on parallel tracks, practising both a semi-figurative and an abstract style. For instance, the expressionist ‘Mybrids’ (2002), embodying Shiva’s third eye, and the Gustonesque ‘Go Tell It to the Mountain’ (2003) could be seen alongside the lyrical gestural abstraction of ‘Sea-change’ (2002) and ‘Red Sea’ (2002). At art school, Ray was told that her sense of draughtsmanship was superior to her sense of colour. And yet it was colour that she wanted to explore freely, without being tutored on the correct chromatic schemes.
In Bombay, Ray was able to reflect on the kaleidoscopic patterns and colours of this chaotic city, which fall randomly into place only to perplex the observer on the rebound. Her outsider/insider eye, for instance, fell on the brilliant blue tarpaulins that protect urban shanties from the vagaries of the weather and an insensitive municipal administration (‘A Different Kind of Blue’, 2011). Pausing in Amritsar, she translates the legendary Golden Temple pictorially into an armour of secrecy. Heavily built up with countless layers of paint, the painting has a gravid, weighted quality that overwhelms its size. This anthem to a sacred monument offers the eye a minimal softening and release in the form of a chromatic under-layer: indigo, green and orange show though the crevices. For all their painterly pugilism and candour, Ray’s paintings are often enveloped in a cloak of secrecy. The under-layers assert their presence like a body rash breaking out on the surface of the painting, signalling the discontents of the self.
A robust romanticism pervades Ray’s artistic universe. Not surprisingly, she counts Turner as an important influence. “On approaching his paintings,” she observes, “the strokes disappear into a gesture.” In general, the individualistic and pioneering spirit of 19th-century Romanticism could be seen as one of the starting points for Ray’s landscapes. As a movement, Romanticism is difficult to define. Although it is said to be nurtured by the Counter-enlightenment qualities of irrational inspiration, mystical wisdom and intuition, it was also motivated by a curiosity about the science and technology that were extending the reach of reason and subjugating the abundance of nature.  In the poetry, novels and paintings of this period, we see, simultaneously, evidence of both the rationalist tendencies of the Enlightenment and its opposite, the Counter-enlightenment, in the same work; or the one dominates the other, depending on the context or occasion at hand. Shelley would conduct experiments in electricity, shock-starting the new, and in the same breath call poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, imagining them as secular oracles.
Turner would depict a train speeding into the future made possible by the progress of the Industrial Revolution, but the train could equally morph into a demonic presence as it charted the territory of the canvas. Turner’s spectral gestures return, in Ray’s paintings, as shadowy selves that refuse to be quelled. To Turner, I would add Ray’s predilection towards Bengali romanticism, indicated by a proclivity towards melodrama and the judicious deployment of sentiment in her work. From this source comes the sound of the colour in her paintings, the vivid and amplified rhetoricity of her tones.
While studying in the US, Ray was moved by the works of the mid-19th century American landscapists of the Hudson River School. These landscapists were, in turn, influenced by Romanticism, especially the works of Constable and Turner. While the artist was affected by the American landscapists’ need to forge a relationship with wild, untamed nature and find their own place in its epic narrative of the Sublime, we must not ignore the fact that Romanticism’s rhetorical flourishes were played out against the histories of the enclosures of the commons, colonialism, and the slave trade. In the paintings of the Hudson River School, the drama of taming nature runs parallel with the establishment of property law. Alfred L. Brophy has, in fact, demonstrated how the human division of property can be cited in the American landscapists’ paintings. “In the vista of ‘The Oxbow’…, [Thomas] Cole shows the move from wild nature at the left through civilisation on the right. Well below the vantage are well-ordered fields, orchards, and roads. The property lines are visible on the canvas. All this is evidence of humans’ subduing of nature, of their improvement upon it, and of the advance of civilisation.” 
Similarly, Ray’s affinity for Romanticism must be viewed against the backdrop of globalisation. To explain her political position in today’s world of networked exchanges, she draws on Manfred Lange’s term ‘glocalisation’ (a neologism that underlines the inextricable link between the global and the local), as against the homogeneity imposed by the political and economic forces of globalisation.  What we experience in Ray’s work, then, is the unfolding of a non-territorial imagination that fixes on particular referents of its choice. In practice, this experimental sense of belonging is manifested in the haptic quality of her work, precisely haptic because the nomad forms her notion of belonging not only intellectually but through a sensuous knowledge gained from holding, grasping and moulding the shape of her location, for she cannot take such a shape for granted by reason of birth or naturalised habitation: in Ray’s paintings, we find tokens of this sensuous knowledge in the heavy encrustation through impasto, the intense layering which gives rise to the quality of bas-relief sculpture, and a certain polychromatic shimmer that arises from the interplay between light and pigment. Now settled in Bombay, it is as if she were haptically feeling her way through art and life from an intimate distance.
I began this essay by speaking about the artist’s muscular approach to painting, which is antithetical to the conventional notion of what is feminine. Her work is veined by a festering violence. This is not only the case with works that openly speak of aggression (‘Rivers of Blood’, 2011), but also with paintings such as ‘Forbidden Pleasures’ (2011), whose crushed fruit-like encrustations bring to mind vaginal bleed. In this context, the artist shares her disquietudes with me about how the work of women artists has been perceived art historically, whether Georgia O’Keefe or Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell. While I am seized by the subalternity of women artists and their historical struggle, I am reluctant to opt for categories that essentialise gender, or indeed, ethnicity, region or any other ground of politicised identity. The problem is that a tactical self-definition can become a straitjacket, preventing any further exploration or interpretation of an artist’s work. Georgia O’Keefe suffered all her life and even posthumously from being stereotyped as a painter of ‘pretty genitalia’. The critic Jerry Saltz criticises the manner in which O’Keefe’s works have been “seen in purely sexual terms’.  Steiglitz’s iconic nude photographs of the artist ensured that her work would forever be seen through an overtly eroticised prism. Saltz writes: “The sexualized misconceptions of her work devastated her. ‘I almost wept,’ she wrote of one review in 1921.”  Here was an artist whose work was ahead of its times. It had prefigured the innovations in scale, texture and colour that Colour Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction and post-modern abstraction would later make. Similarly, Helen Frankenthaler, who happens to be one of Ray’s favourite artists, chose not to align herself with the reigning feminist movement. A pioneer who first injected a floating effulgence into the abstract expressionist idiom with the technical innovations she devised in her fluid watercolour compositions, Frankenthaler’s work went on to influence Colour Field painting. She is quoted as saying: “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.” 
We return to the notion of the artist releasing the discontents of the self into her painting. The small studies called ‘Psychic Objects’ stare at us like ghouls from a subterranean world, littering the canvas with messy subconscious impulses. As always, Ray’s universe is peopled by many selves contending for space, a space where paint turns to flesh and flesh is trans-susbstantiated into wilful intransigent ideas unafraid of conventional pieties.
1. See Frieda Fordham, ‘An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin/Pelican, 1953) pp. 27-28. Some of the archetypes — in Jungian terms — that affect human behaviour are the anima and the animus, the wise old man, the earth mother, the persona, the shadow and the self.
2. See Sharmistha Ray, ‘Curating in the Ghetto’ in the Indian Contemporary Art Journal, Vol., 2, Issue 4, 2010, pp. 50-51.
3. For a discussion on the contradictory impulses within Romanticism see Hugh Honour, Romanticism (London: Penguin, 1991).
4. See Alfred L Brophy, ‘Property and Progress: Antebellum Landscape Art and Property Law’ in McGeorge Law Review, Vol., 40, 2009 (accessed from http://blurblawg.typepad.com/files/property_progress_antebellum_landscape_art.pdf)
5. See Sharmistha Ray, ‘Locating Ourselves: The Persistent Question of Indianness in Shifting Global Scenarios’ (presentation made at a panel discussion, at the India Art Festival, 2011).
6. Jerry Saltz, ‘Out of the Erotic Ghetto’ in NY Mag., 20 September 2009 (accessed from http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/59249/ )
7. Ibid., 2009.
8. Frankenthaler quoted in Grace Glueck,‘Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83’ in the New York Times, 27 December 2011.