An exhibition of paintings by Namrata Arjun subverts gender binaries

Ontological Strip Tease by the Indian artist presents a series of works that destabilise the image form through psychoanalysis, dreams and memory, and revoke the empirical.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Oct 17, 2022

Ontological Strip Tease, a solo exhibition by artist Namrata Arjun, looks at inhabiting the painterly gaze, one that is liquid, akin yet adverse to form and formlessness at the same time. Through a series of oil paintings, Arjun brings together psychoanalytical and art historical touchpoints as she attempts to piece together and pull apart notions of empiricism in relation to representation and memory. The title of the exhibition itself turns on the viewer, as a provocation to witness the undressing of semiotic language.

In conversation with STIR, the artist says, “The basic premise was to look at the body as a frame, and what is normatively called the ‘female body’ in the first person perspective, as a frame to look through.”

Arjun’s own body doubles as a framing device, where the visual artist looks to treat the male gaze or the idea of a double consciousness, with mirroring as a tool that aids the dissolution of this splitting. The Indian artist delves deep into psychoanalytic theory and somatic practices as systems of reference, in order to question the idea of empiricism and a background of the colonial gaze of classification and systematisation through a history of photography that artists and photographers continue to grapple with.

Arjun speaks about using mythology, photographic references from family albums, dream images, in order to break the gender binary, which for her, has to do with breaking the ‘genre’, etymologically aligned in their roots. Documentation becomes a ritual for the artist as she speaks about remembering and recovering the ‘dream image’ that stands to constitute something that is dissipating yet held, where the image that she then produces as a result, attempts to become a container, rather than a narrative frame. Playing with a level of uncertainty within the recovery of dreams, which often act as stand-ins, temporary, partial in their makeup, the pictorial frame of Arjun’s canvas attempts to hold and embody.

Anatomy of a phantom dick, 2021, Oil on canvas, Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun | STIRworld
Anatomy of a phantom dick, 2021, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun and Blueprint12

The artist/protagonist in the painting Anatomy of a phantom dick looks down to see an octopus where there would be genitalia, reflected in the bathroom mirror within the pictorial frame. Further, the protagonist holds a darkened photograph of the cephalopod. One wonders where the ‘self-’ within the self-portrait lies, but perhaps the answer lies within the frame itself, where the mirror is the only instance of identification. Here, the mirror stands in as a device or a symbol to ‘contain’ the splitting of perspective within gaze. In conversation, Arjun refers to the octopus as a recurring nightmarish vision, and ultimately recognising the “need to befriend the image”. Through writing, painting, re-enacting, the image becomes tamed or ‘familiar’ as the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud might have employed the term, as a seeming semblance that one returns to upon encountering the uncanny (more a phenomenon and therefore relational, rather than contained), one that is held within the subconscious. The artist notes that somatic work is required in order to “hold” a dream, as opposed to the photograph that can be held in one’s hand.

Black Square, 2021, Oil on canvas, Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun | STIRworld
Black Square, 2021, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun and Blueprint12

Speaking to a recurrent theme within her works, Arjun says, “The idea of ‘doubling’ is prominent in this exhibition, where one thing can stand in for two things. The anatomy in the works is not perfect, so the idea is to have the body standing for something that is not the body. There are things happening visually, where I am looking at a dream image where one thing is standing in for multiple things. So, when you look at a hand, it isn’t quite anatomically perfect. It’s meant to sort of slip away. It’s supposed to be the figure as well as the slipping away of the figure to reveal something else.”

(S)praying, 2021, Oil on wood panel, Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun | STIRworld
(S)praying, 2021, Oil on wood panel Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun and Blueprint12

Questioning the truth-telling capacity of the photographic field of vision, Arjun’s own self-image is laid bare, stripped and representative of a feminised form between the art historical ‘nude’ and the nakedness of flesh. Seeking to estrange, denaturalise and queer the image(s) of the feminine and the self, Arjun takes on the “phenomenological image”, as she terms, of a sleep-walker.

(S)praying, 2021, Oil on wood panel, Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun | STIRworld
(S)praying, 2021, Oil on wood panel Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun and Blueprint12

Arjun, who is also a painter, says, “The way dreams work is the way words work. Words are being used in a sentence, but also have a stacked history of every way they have been used through history. The way dreams sort memory into pre-existing logics that have to do with emotional resonances around certain things.”

Chhinamasta, 2021, Oil on canvas, Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun |  STIRworld
Chhinamasta, 2021, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun and Blueprint12

The photographic frame within the painting is often dissolved. The protagonist seemingly rolls her own head towards a huddled family photo in one painting; another painting in the series Chinnamasta sees multiple heads on a table with women (within a family?) gathered around; an aeroplane is fished out of the sea; another plane flies outside a cowshed. There are rituals that are captured by the photographic lens to be then reproduced in the hands of the painterly self-image, where Arjun points out that they hold the anthropological gaze within an intimate space. Marriage, death, ritual, gathering are connoted through these images, where the artist questions the concretisation of memory, disrupting gendered performance within the familiar familial. The surface of the image hides as it holds.

Artist Namrata Arjun | Ontological Strip Tease | Namrata Arjun | STIRworld
Artist Namrata Arjun Image: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun
Behind the scenes with the artist Namrata Arjun Video: Courtesy of Namrata Arjun

Ontological Strip Tease by Namrata Arjun was on view until recently at Blueprint 12 in New Delhi, India.

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