The Hindu Business Line
My name is red
Puneet Kaushik’s ongoing show at Delhi’s Gallery Espace is a multi-pronged exploration of the colour red
To many tongue-in-cheek commentators, contemporary art is like the now-discredited Rorschach test (used in clinical psychology), where different people would look at the same ink blot pattern and see wildly varying things (a furry puppy would become a man decapitating a woman; the head of a fanged monster could just as easily be seen as an elaborately drawn leaf).
When I entered Delhi’s Gallery Espace to see Puneet Kaushik’s exhibition Barren Red, a pair of American women peered long and hard at one of the first artworks on view. To me, it looked like a mushroom cloud — the base a swathe of bead-like pins, the crater on the ground very Scotch Brite-like, with the cloud itself a veined, gossamer structure of red brushstrokes. But to the Americans, the work represented a largish tree, with part of a village built around its roots. Talk about the eyes of the beholder.
Kaushik’s work, impressively serious and politically conscious as it is, retains this playful ambiguity. Barren Red consists mostly of abstract mixed media works like the aforementioned mushroom cloud. There’s textile work, Tibetan beads, embroidery, crochet and much else. The colour red (never far from sight) is an underlying element: sometimes a spectre, sometimes a quiet block of silence and sometimes signifying pure, elemental fury. According to Kaushik, “Contrast is at the core of the experience — light and dark, fiery and cool, passion and calm, intricate yet simple. As a testimony to my search for a balance between silence and speech, gravity and lightness.”
One of the most eye-catching abstracts (that was first painted and then worked over with other materials) looks like an aerial view of a large creature splattered all over the ground, or perhaps the remains of several creatures; a bloodbath. It may not be the most subtle or nuanced political statement about the times that we are living in (at the time of writing this article, warravaged Aleppo was about to be extinguished, once and for all). But within the confines of the exhibition space, it works.
The other significant influence on Barren Red is Kaushik’s extensive experience working with various indigenous arts and crafts traditions across the Indian subcontinent. One installation features a canopy-like structure made out of jute and an array of wicks (the yellow/white duos commonly sold during Diwali season). The canopy conceals an aggregate of red ‘cells’ made out of carpet material. When you step towards the right, there is a twin to this installation where the ‘cells’ combine much like how blood cells coagulate around a wound (or how protein strands combine to form a DNA chain). According to the artist, this installation stands for how we — all of us — cloak our true selves underneath layers and layers of pretence. The more layers you peel back, the redder the truths revealed. Here, red becomes the signifier of raw physicality, the bonds of flesh and blood that unite everybody — and are yet far from enough to prevent violent conflict, sadly.
Kaushik uses the colour red in other inventive ways. At one point, he plays up the red of the alpana or rangoli patterns drawn by women in several parts of India. One mixed media work (beads and paint) is a dead ringer for the medulla oblongata (the human brain’s control centre for the heart and the brain), although given the artist’s control of the ambiguous finishing touch, it could mean something very different as well. And this is where I had a small problem.
Although the artist’s stated intentions are to balance the different aspects of the colour red, I could mostly only see red in its destructive avatar. There was, for instance, nothing that directly addressed the red of menstrual blood; a symbol for creation if I ever saw one. One obvious bridge could have been Amir Khusro’s poem ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalander’, which sings paeans to the redrobed dervish, the most devout worshipper of them all (Jhule Laal). Red as as a force for creation or peaceful spiritual contemplation — the menstrual blood template could have given Kaushik more than enough space to explore these themes.
Yet, one has to marvel at Kaushik’s formal skills, his imaginative pairing of materials and works, as well as the degree of abstraction he operates with. You may find yourself reminded of Orhan Pamuk’s famous passage from My Name is Red: “I hear the question upon your lips: What is it to be a colour? Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness. (…) Part of me, the serious half, calls out to your vision while the mirthful half sours through the air with your glances. I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted.”
Barren Red is open to visitors at Gallery Espace, New Friends Colony, New Delhi, 10am-8pm.