by Satarupa Bhattacharya
Sheetal Gattani's (b. 1968) practice, belonging to the abstractionist expressionist genre, has a strong sense of nostalgia, and her recent exhibition, “Minimal Consciousness”, did leave me humming notes from the past. This was especially so because of my recently rekindled love for the genre. I found it necessary to step away from viewing the show with history in mind to realize the exquisiteness of Gattani's voice reverberating through layers of acrylic paint.
The gif format poster for the first show of Gattani's practice in Delhi had initially elated me and had me spiralling through hours of conversations with artists and thinkers of the genre that sunk in my conscience. It impelled to look at Gattani's practice closely and ask her all the whys and hows of her practice. It took two phone calls and a long day at the gallery to fully engage with her show. Of course, this included the need to break out of a previous show held in 2016 at Bombay (“46 Pillars”), where I viewed her works for the first time.
Gattani is very dedicated in her engagements with the rhetoric of nostalgia and performance. In my phone calls, I realized that this was an artist willing to explain her technique and her technique is no less than a performance hidden underneath the visible layers of dried textured paint. She explains that she always begins her work by colouring her unframed linen canvas with a coat of black paint as that gives her a sense of beginning. Then she works with other colours on the canvas and, with each coat of paint, she begins to realize her language on the canvas. Her technique involves placing the colour on handmade paper with the help of a brush and then placing this paper against the canvas to transfer the colour onto the canvas. As the colour transfers, a pattern takes shape and a form begins to emerge. With every transfer of colour and tugging the paper off the canvas, she witnesses the miracles of her process, creating a language that is important to her artistic labour. Then she frames her canvas, when, sometimes, she adds dimensions to the frame to create modulation in her artwork, giving the canvas a three-dimensional effect. This modulation is also a result of the hardening of the canvas under the layers of paint.
To my eyes, each canvas carries its own markings from the process of her creation and, in this process, while she has been able to establish a special visual currency of her own, she is also able to offer a distinct visual engagement in her practice. The difference here is visible in the details that she is able to extract from her practice. On probing her further to disclose her methods and inspirations, I understood that her practice is her research and, each time, her process of creation becomes a site for excavation of some new information from her medium.
There is a strong dramatic repose in her works. Each work exposed on the surface seems covered in laborious layers of her silence. On each occasion that I insisted on a reason she did this, her response was to simply relate it to the importance of the process where she valued her physical inputs as expression, and not so much her thoughts as possible means to uncover the layers that she had exposed in her practice. She also mentioned her immense love for silence and stillness. Any movement of the air, including the fan, is capable of distracting her.
During our conversation, I remarked that some of her canvases reminded me of weathered walls and, to my surprise, Gattani chirpily responds that that has often been attested to her works. According to her, many criticisms were directed at the repetitive nature of the visual impact in her practice. Then again, these critical claims remind me of Gertrude Stein's poem on Henri Matisse: "Some said of him that he was greatly expressing something struggling. Some said of him that he was not greatly expressing something struggling."
I find her works fairly versatile despite the school of abstractionist expressionist's chromatic engagement with their flat surfaces. Gattani's surfaces are marked with lines, and if these are examined closely, then they have minute details that shift from one to another. This became more apparent because of the display staged by Puneet Kaushik.
Gattani's paper works also have blurring lines blending different colour palettes to form an entire visual composition. Some paper works have horizontal and vertical graphic lines running through the entire surface. The sizes of these lines are carefully calculated and anyone with a special interest in geometry or patterns would be able to gauge the precarious nature of these lines. In my view, these are not mere markings of the soak-staining process on the canvas as it had originated during the Modernist movement in first-world countries under the Washington colour school. These are markings of the artist's love to laboriously engage with her art with hours of concentration on the medium. Gattani explains that her practice is personal and that "there's no beginning or an end to my practice."
Her friendship with Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2013) has also added to her articulation and meditation on the school of abstractions and may have initiated a willingness to explore more surfaces in her practice.
Finally, I found Gattani's exhibits quite relevant as it helped me to visually engage with another artistic engagement of the Indian Modernists and the colour field school. New Delhi's Gallery Espace is an exciting site to explore the language that emerged post the Modernists in the arts. Placing Gattani's practice in their collection adds to their strong archive, holding their sights firmly towards a future when we may be more conscious of the abstract school that is still in the process of becoming active in the popular genres of visual literacy despite its already established critical claims.
(The images of the works are courtesy of the artist Sheetal Gattani and Gallery Espace.)
Satarupa Bhattacharya is an independent researcher and cultural practitioner/worker. She received her PhD in 2014. She's interested in visual culture, cultural studies, performance studies, violence studies, and art history. Earlier, she worked as a journalist and taught at institutions.