by Sukanya DebApr 20, 2023
Puneet Kaushik’s latest body of work is a departure from his earlier oeuvre, but a departure that nonetheless carries with it formal traces of its past. Kaushik is perhaps most well-known for his paintings and installations. The latter often prominently feature steel nets whose shadows are as much a part of the aesthetic experience as are the material objects themselves. Both his paintings and his installations, however, are characterised by a fascination with lines and flows, as well as an almost visceral attention to organic structures and phenomena. His recent work retains if not amplifies the use of lines. However, the organic component gives way for the most part to what could perhaps be best described as an archaeological and mineral imagination. That said, make no mistake—the artefactual nature of these creations literally weaves a tangible human presence into the material objects in question. This invocation of life and culture is, however, available in the form of remnants—the things that survive the people who produce them, accessible only through memory and imagination. At the same time, a mindfulness on the part of the viewer of the fact that these remnants are not literal artifacts allows the reconstructive process to become a creative, interactive and playful one.
The surface for the majority of the new works is handmade paper, specially made in Auroville under the supervision of the artist himself. More than a mere blank space upon which the artist leaves his imprint, Kaushik makes the paper very much an integral part of the work as a whole. It is often perforated, cut out, repasted, layered and sometimes used to construct papier-mâché style structures that rise from the not-so-flat surface. In some places, Kaushik has produced an almost pebbled texture in the paper, by picking at it with a metal stylus—known in Gujarati as a lekhan—traditionally used for writing on palm leaf manuscripts. Layers and textures are the very stuff of which these works have been made, and considering them in these terms is perhaps most appropriate given the manner of their production. Each layer that Kaushik adds in his iterative process transforms the work significantly, while also serving as a palimpsestic record of the creation process. The paper is akin to a geological substratum, an underlying layer that forms the foundation for further layers.
The works also make use of perforations, stitching, beading, sequin dust, woodblock printing, ink wash, gold and silver pigment, acrylic, and watercolours. These mediums and techniques occur in different permutations and combinations to produce a body of work that owes a lot to traditional handicrafts. This is not surprising, considering the fact that Kaushik often works with traditional Indian craftspeople. The indigenous and the handmade are very important to Kaushik, who has been influenced by, and has experimented with, a number of different traditional artforms, including sanjhi stencils, shibori dyeing, patachitra beading, and silver or ash bidri work.
The colour red is as omnipresent as it ever is in Kaushik’s work. Kaushik says his love for red comes from the fact that the colour connects all of humanity by virtue of our shared blood, if nothing else. The cultural significance of red in various parts of the world would also support such an appraisal of the colour. However, while red was often organic and almost visceral in Kaushik’s earlier work, here it is more like sandstone—still natural, but with suggestions of the tectonic and historical. The bloodstain-like splashes and amorphous red shapes that can be found in earlier works are replaced by red lines and geometric patterns. The beads and thread he uses are also red, literally weaving their way through the works. The use of these materials stems from Kaushik’s fascination with Tibetan monasteries and the associated spiritual connotations these objects—threads and beads—have. On a more tangible level, stitching and darning are inherently binding actions, bringing together separate and sometimes disparate elements to form a larger whole. In ink, thread and bead, the colour red provides a linear dimension to the work, sometimes adding directionality and flow, often generating patterns and motifs reminiscent of textiles, or heraldry. But while the colour red is certainly a near-constant presence, Kaushik makes bold use of other colours as well, including ones that have not been quite so visible in his past work. The colour blue makes a striking appearance, complementing the red but also interrupting it. The blue tones certainly provide a calming dimension wherever they appear, bringing to mind iconographic representations of the Virgin Mary and her blue vestments or, more secularly, the endless possibilities of a clear blue sky. That said, the softer reds are by no means as stark or discomfiting as the ones in earlier works like The Embryo.
A series of works using gold and silver pigments also form part of the new collection. Again, these colours have appeared in small doses in earlier works such as in the croquembouche-like Bricolage. One might even argue that that this lustrous silver can be seen as a successor to the metallic net-like installation work Kaushik has been known for in the past. A more telling source of inspiration might be the aforementioned bidri work as well as handicrafts incorporating silver inlay. Gold and silver carry with them connotations of engraving—words and patterns etched onto materials associated with longevity and value, as acts of adornment but also memorialisation, whether intentionally or not. In other instances, the gold and silver are accompanied by copper, often producing patterns through repetition, as well as circuit-like networks. The paper as well as the use of coffee and tea stains make it seem as if these were unearthed technological remnants of a lost civilisation, circuitry embedded in layers of soil. Gold also has its place in embroidery, and in places where the two pigments have been used to create geometric patterns, patchworks, or Mondrian-like rectangles, one cannot help but think of old textiles—faded but lovingly preserved, laden with personal memory and cultural significance. This sense of age and persistence is the result of both the colour and texture of the paper, as well as the frequent use of coffee and tea stains. The invocation of fabric might also be seen in the use of woodblock printing, producing simple but pleasing patters and tessellations. The technique of woodblock printing itself can be seen as being analogous to the work of memory; the pattern is a trace, something left behind, a literal impression left behind even after the object has disappeared. Some of these impressions seem to dissolve as they multiply, bringing to mind some of M.C. Escher’s lithographs such as Liberation, Sky and Water I, and Cycle.
The colour palette for most of these works is beige, brown and skin-tone (produced by the coffee and tea-stains), interrupted by striking red, black, silver or gold lines as well as the occasional blue circle. Such a palette seems almost geological, as if it were the product of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation. At the same time, the colours reflect Kaushik’s fascination with skin—a surface which like soil has layers and which changes with the passage of time.
Works containing tea and coffee stains make up a large proportion of the works that exist at the time of writing. These are materials Kaushik has been experimenting with as far back as the 1990s, along with natural colours drawn from hibiscus and beetroot. The strategic use of these stains can be seen in his personal notebooks-cum-travelogues, though they arguably have not featured in his public work as prominently as they do now. The parchment-like texture of the paper upon which the stains are arranged brings with it connotations of antiquity. At first glance, the stains might be considered to be evidence of the passage of time and usage, traces of people long gone in whose proximity the parchment has withstood use and, perhaps, carelessness. Not only has the parchment survived, the traces of the past seem to have transformed the material into a palimpsest, its layers a testament to its rich history. Or so it might seem; after all, the arrangement of stains on the page is by no means the product of actual neglect any more than the object is actually centuries old. On the contrary, Kaushik is very careful about the placement of his figures on the page, preferring off-centre arrangements rather than what he might otherwise find a tired convention.
Very different from these are the black and red works, in which charcoal, graphite, ink and lead produce gradients of darkness that dominate the work. In some cases, they are accentuated by grey, as solid rock might be accentuated by claw marks or chalk. The resemblance to such things, as well as the use of texture to create literal grooves, only adds to the suggestion of something anthropological and archaeological that appears and reappears throughout these works. Purple also makes an appearance in the form of indigo and sequin dust. The sequin dust is often found poured into sizable holes cut out in the paper, like sand accumulated in ancient cracks. If the layers of paper used to make these works can be considered to be like walls obstructing the viewer’s gaze as if to protect what lies beneath, the cracks and holes are means of ingress and egress—vents and portals that allow for access, escape or communication. These holes are like evolved forms of the smaller perforations found in other works, negative space occupying central positions, often ringed with red beads that lend them an almost yonic appearance. In other instances, the holes look like zippers, or even the marks of insects that have eaten away at the paper. Interestingly, this suggestion of organic life is present here, not through iconic signification based on resemblance, to use C.S. Peirce’s semiotic classification. Instead, it is indexical—the sense of something left behind, traces of things that have come before. Through the holes one can often see underlying layers peeking or sometimes shining through. It is as if the palimpsest was torn open to unveil long forgotten mineral ores or, in one case, pipal leaf. It would not come as a surprise to know that Kaushik’s early notebooks also bear traces of his love of collecting and pressing flowers between their pages. Knowing how pressed flowers served as remnants and reminders of Kaushik’s experiences of travel allow the viewer to see the use of these natural objects and stains as being similarly infused with memory, even if it is a memory the viewer cannot have access to.
The most striking and visible motif in these works, however, might be that of the map. In so many works, amorphous shapes are contained by larger bodies, like islands in an ocean. Sometimes, so many layers have been used in the construction of these “islands” that one can feel their boundaries and surfaces as much as one can see them. There is something topographical about them. Dashed lines often appear in and around these shapes, resembling routes and borders on maps. They are also inspired by kantha stitching. The dashed lines are sometimes drawn in ink, but sometimes they are the natural shape of the stitching that Kaushik has incorporated into the work. Imagining these works as maps make other elements within them fall into place. That shape on the border—might it be a fort? Those swirling or zig-zagging patterns—are they ocean currents? Even when this island-ocean configuration is not in place, the shapes of certain lines and outlines trigger the memory of the contours of countries and continents—the revenge of geography classes relegated to the past, perhaps. Many of the works have closely arranged polygonal shapes, forming clusters with networks between them.
The configuration is strikingly similar to figure-ground diagrams used for city planning. Sometimes, some of these shapes are filled in with different patterns, as if specific “buildings” were invested with some significance that is inaccessible for want of a cartographical key. Taken altogether, these works seem as if they were relics of lost worlds—lost cities, lost cultures, lost people. Surveying the works brings with it a succession of images that seem to fit this reading: layers of sedimented and eroded surfaces; maps that have lost their legends; faded textiles; inscribed obsidian slabs; perforated, cut-out and eaten away parchment; sequins reduced to dust; buried technology; disappearing tessellations. It is as if these works were excavated and must now be put together to reconstitute a picture of the past. They demand that we reverse-engineer memorialisation, reconstitute what was lost through that which has survived and endured—the remnant, the relic, the artifact.
We might consider the artifact as occupying the nexus between art, artisanship, and craft. Kaushik believes in the importance of considering all three families of creators—the artist, the artisan, the craftsperson. In many ways, his work can be seen as an attempt to introduce traditional everyday creative practices like patachitra or embroidery into spaces and to audiences who might be unaware of them or even contemptuous of their value as art. The three families of creators need not have any hierarchy between them. And, in some instances, the passage of history blurs the boundaries between them. Fine art, textiles, items of everyday use, manuscripts, and maps might each have their distinct existences. But when they are recovered as artifacts, they become united in a common function—that of signifiers of the past. In some cases, these signifiers may be illegible ciphers, like the Indus Valley seals. Regardless, the passage of time and the materiality of these objects make them objects of history, carrying with them the story of the culture that produced them. The artifact unites social value, technical skill, and tradition. And yet, it is also a product of all three.
Kaushik’s work is by no means an imitation of artifacts like maps, textiles or inscriptions.
Indeed, Kaushik finds attempts at hyper realistic art—representations of objects that aim for extreme verisimilitude—as being unnecessary after the development of photography. But through gestalt, the viewer is capable of drawing on their memories of artifacts in order to make meaning of what is before them. In doing so, they conceive of spaces and objects that never were. Coincidentally, this process can be seen as an example of a very different “hyperreality”, far removed and perhaps even antithetical to the hyperrealist approach that Kaushik eschews. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard defines the “hyperreal” as “a real without origin or reality”. It is the reality that never existed but is created by the map, not any pre-existing reality that the map can claim to represent.
The creation of unreal places and objects is by no means anything new, particularly in terms of mapmaking. One need only think of the imaginary cartographies that are so peculiar to works of high fantasy, such as the fictional maps made by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. Indeed, even the fantastical maps drawn as part of fabricated accounts of distant lands in the European Age of Exploration can be thought of as hyperreal. Fantastical maps, both historical and literary, were produced in tandem with narratives that invested the locations on the map with names and significance. Puneet Kaushik’s works, by contrast, do not come with any such narrative. Kaushik’s earlier works had titles like Beehive, or Dislocated Roots, or In Conversation. These titles could be said to describe the works or, at least, gesture towards particular interpretations. In the case of the new works, the absence of titles is suggestive both of a thing lost to time and an invitation to viewers. The invitation is to participate in the creation of the unreal real that the work both produces and represents. In other words, if there is any narrative to be found, it has to be created by the viewer in their subjective exploration of Kaushik’s artistic surfaces.
Art historian Nathalie Trouveroy has noted a similar quality in classical Chinese painting. In “Landscape of the Soul: Ethics and Spirituality in Chinese Painting”, she writes:
A classical Chinese landscape is not meant to reproduce an actual view, as would a Western figurative painting. Whereas the European painter wants you to borrow his eyes and look at a particular landscape exactly as he saw it, from a specific angle, the Chinese painter does not choose a single viewpoint. His landscape is not a ‘real’ one, and you can enter it from any point, then travel in it; … It also requires the active participation of the viewer, who decides at which pace he will travel through the painting — a participation which is physical as well as mental. (2)
We might even say that Puneet Kaushik, like Trouveroy’s Chinese artist, “does not want you to borrow his eyes; he wants you to enter his mind”. However, to say as much is to step into the realm of artistic intention which need not constitute the be-all and end-all of artistic meaning or value, as has been argued by philosophers like Roland Barthes. We do know that Kaushik subscribes to what he calls “the old-school notion of art as self-expression”. But an expression is, by definition, outwardly oriented; to see his art as merely an invitation into his mind would perhaps be too solipsistic and narcissistic a view for Kaushik. If, to quote Trouveroy again, “the landscape is an inner one, a spiritual and conceptual space”, then it is one that the viewer of Puneet Kaushik’s work may construct and choose for and inside themselves. Insofar as the artist himself is concerned, the art itself remains.
'Threads of Time – The Material Memoirs' will be on view at the Gallery Espace in New Delhi from December 04, 2021 to January 12, 2022.