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There and not there

By Peter Bevan, Glasgow

SANTANA GOHAIN There are three intriguing paradoxes in these new works, traces of which were seen in some of the paintings shown in her exhibition, “Silent Speech”, The Museum Gallery, Mumbai in 2006.

In the catalogue essay for that exhibition, I wrote that some of these works are, “like many animals and plants…sensitive to light and movement”, and that, the viewer, “becomes an interactive element in the work’s completion”. The seed of this idea now blossoms in the present exhibition where all the works combine to form an enchanting space, in which the presence of the viewer enables it to come alive.

The first paradox concerns the illusory weight of the paintings. On first encounter, the works appear implacably solid, massive, sombre, and serious. The dark, metallic density of their surfaces weighs heavily on the walls of the gallery. Even the “white” works have a visual weight not immediately associated with paintings. There are connotations of permanence in their hard metal or stone-like surfaces, but they are in fact, very fragile constructions in graphite on paper and speak more about uncertainty in our perceptions.

These monumental works cannot be overlooked but they also demand close scrutiny. As we examine them more closely, we become aware that what is on the surfaces is also ephemeral. Changes of tone in shapes, lines and edges hint at an illusion of space within the pictorial plane but cannot be resolved into a coherent spatial illusion. Areas of tone and texture are fragmentary, either diffusing from one to another or occupying relief panels, resembling slate chalkboards or the irregular stones of ancient walls. The paintings are also partially and variably burnished or polished in whose sheen is reflected the light and colour of their environment and this kinetic phenomenon is dependent on the movement of the viewer. This provides the second paradox, intimated by the exhibition title. How is it that movement is invisible?

The paintings are motionless but their surfaces are active, constantly changing as the viewer moves closer, looks from different angles, walks from one painting to another. This ephemerality contradicts the material surfaces. Solid masses dissolve into myriads of subtle, amorphous shapes and sparkle with reflected colour and light. These paintings are dark imperfect mirrors, like polished black granite, in which we may search in vain for definition. They are both “there” and “not there”.

"Works are not only paintings, working on the surfaces is very sculptural. I use graphite like clay”. (S. Gohain. 2008)

The surfaces are heavily “worked” rather than “painted’. We find multiple layers of media and a dense variety of marks indicating the making processes of the artist. Santana studied printmaking in Vadodara and the evidence of her training and sensibilities for this discipline prevail in these albeit, irreproducible, unique works.

As she says, her prime concern is with the surface. Her “image”, as it were, cannot be seen as an illusion in the work; it is the whole work itself, in its entirety. She sees the interior of the painting as an active space where things happen through a language of ambiguity rather than imposition. Although divisions, rectangles and other shapes are perceived within compositions, their relationships are not defined with certainty and because of their variable reflective capacities, spatial relationships are inconstant. This is her “image” or vision in microcosm and by extension; the unified environment of related paintings in the exhibition is a macrocosm.

Santana’s paintings have a superficial likeness to Minimalism, but they are in fact, quite the opposite in temperament. Where minimalist artists extolled industrial materials and processes far removed from the hand of the artist, Santana relishes the slow and painstakingly handcrafted.

“I still use printmaking tools and sometimes make my own tools for my drawing”. (ibid)

The love of making is seen in the dexterity and subtlety with which these large surfaces are made. There is a meticulously staged layering and overlaying of materials and the evidence of a gradual accumulation of mark after mark after mark. In this unspoken dialogue between artist and media, marks mutate in accordance with modified intentions. They change shape, tone, texture, viscosity, and brilliance in order to reflect delicate gesture, emotion, tension, deliberation, and uncertainties. Sometimes, they reveal a minor dissatisfaction perhaps inevitable in long repetitive processes; a hand impatient, or a little out of control, due to the tension inherent in concentrated work, and also in a related sphere of improvised performance.

Santana’s paintings reveal the habit of working; the discipline of serial work; the stoic acceptance of the slowness of process. This fastidiousness is necessary to achieve the materialisation of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and acknowledges consequent delay in the realisation of aesthetic experience. It is the body, which “understands” the acquisition of habit and develops a harmony between intention and performance in our work in the given material. Tools used everyday by artists, become extensions to the body, in the same way that a blind man learns to perceive the space around him through the tip of his stick.

She has evolved a highly personal emphasis on habitual processes, perhaps to maintain a sense of individuality in the growing homogeneity of contemporary society. This is based on the traditional unity of craft, i.e. between the mind, the hand and the material. There are elements of a kind of Tantric ritual in this carefully designed, meditative activity. Using both mental and physical strategies with a limited vocabulary of visual language, she achieves the freedom of creative play.

In front of Santana Gohain’s works one thinks of the well known dictum, “God is in the detail”, and this may be even more significant when considering the extraordinary “texts” found in her work. The fact that this obscure but tenacious graffiti is indecipherable constitutes the third paradox.
Drawn “writing”

The idea of a kind of “writing”, which is drawn, is a useful approach to an interpretation of these blocks of inscription found in the recent paintings. They should be considered as a form of drawing as much as insipient texts.

Santana’s letterforms are in no recognisable alphabet or script and in breaking with convention, draws our attention to their appearance rather than their potential for meaning as signs. Their abstract forms have singular “characters”, and combined in lines, do trigger associations in the viewer. But not in the way that we read the meaning of words, it is through the formal values of the drawn “letters”, the regularity of textual structure, how they are made and the context in which they are placed in the work as a whole.

Art frequently has a refractory element, an avoidance of clarity in communication, it acts more as a unifier of external and inner reality, accepting ambiguity as a truer reflection of our experience in the world. But how do we respond to this third paradox, in which what initially look like written texts but are actually a form of drawing?

We should perhaps firstly concede that it is a poor analogy between art and language, since it is the requisite intention of language, other than poetry, to communicate specific information dependent upon accepted conventions. Artists on the other hand, often work on the intersections between multiple intentions, for instance, between idea, image, media and context, and their creative explorations frequently alter or break conventional structures, which appear inadequate to their purpose.

Santana is working on the intersection between drawing and writing, which we might initially define as calligraphy. Calligraphy employs minute gestures in mark making with the fingertips, allowing individual characterisation and expression. But it also implies a distinction between the forms of letters and their “content”.

In the Surrealist’s use of “automatic writing, ideas and feelings were liberated from the norms of logic and reasoned statement by the free association of words. Drawing essentially from the unconscious mind they achieved startling incomprehensible texts however, in most cases, individual words were still “readable” since they conformed to a recognised alphabet.

In order to understand Santana’s interest in the common ground between drawing and writing we may also look at the paintings of so-called, Abstract Expressionists (to which I referred in the catalogue for, “Silent Speech”). In the case of Jackson Pollock, there is no calligraphy and the marks he made were completely divorced from the conventions of representation. His spontaneous splashes and dribbles of paint are instead, indexical signs, that is, signs with direct correlation to the physical acts of his painting.

This spontaneous drawing-with-paint was seen as a recognition and assertion of selfhood, welling up from within the body, uncorrupted by the conventions of representation and therefore proposed as pure and “authentic” creative expression. It was suggested that it results from a psychic access to a primordial essence, i.e. a pre-verbal experience.

This desire to access pre-conventional states of experience is echoed in the atavistic notion of an adult’s re-connection with childhood experiences, again, “uncorrupted” by the learned thought processes of logic and reason. We can all perhaps, remember instances of early objective learning about the world, which were at the same time, integrated with the fantasies of childhood imagination. These memories may still have a vivid sense of reality for us, compared with our jaded current perceptions and may constitute an attractive route towards (re) discovering a truer sense of “identity”. However, even if this search can avoid a potentially debilitating nostalgia, it may unearth a form of knowledge so personal that it can only remain fundamentally, secret, perhaps even barely “known” by the artist herself. But we all know how very seductive the idea of a “secret language” is.

This thought is reinforced by the look of the “texts” themselves. They remind one of ancient inscriptions in a language no longer known, inducing an almost reflexive action to try to “break the code”. Even after the realisation that these “texts” are indecipherable, there remains a curiosity to look for clues as to how we might “construct” a meaning for ourselves by searching for “patterns” in letterforms or “rhythms” in their placing, or examining individual “letters” for recognisable attributes like pictograms.

In thinking about why these inscrutable texts are so fascinating and evocative, I refer to the (Oriental) counter argument to the idea of human life progressing through continual innovation. That there is in fact, nothing new under the sun because the cosmos is so unutterably vast, everything that happens must have happened many times before. It may be said therefore, that what matters in Indian metaphysics is the pattern rather than the instance; the general rather than the particular. It is the “pattern” of these texts which is significant, not what they might or might not say. They will remain a “secret” language to us but the important thing is that they are there, evidence of a private ‘performance’ of work. They are highly personal, silent monologues, which sometimes resemble incantation, and here I am reminded of the further paradox contained in her title for the previous solo show, “Silent Speech”.

In answer to my question, I think Santana’s “texts” may embody all of these ideas, illustrating the earlier point that through juxtaposing paradoxical elements, art continually questions and remodels convention.

She has discovered a working method combining both physical working processes and meditative states of mind, in which actions and results are spontaneous. However, the results are not random indeed they have a kind of sublime order, each mark fits naturally between the one after and the one before. The mind is working at the just-below-conscious level, required by a performing concert pianist or any master craftswoman wielding her tools. It is not characteristic of a heightened consciousness but a heightened awareness, connecting her to all the paths of knowledge available to her.

In the aesthetic experience, such a state of mind is reciprocated by the viewer in front of works with which, they empathise and at this point, I am fully aware of empathy in my reading of Santana’s works. They signify an artist’s imagination alive and in flux, finding resonance in my own life experience, not just as an artist but also through memory as far back as it can go. It is perhaps true to say that art offers not new knowledge, but a “place” of shared experience, where what we already know is stimulated and intensified by the artist’s approach.

“Red is always vibrant in my eyes” (ibid)

Santana’s methodology is to work in series of related images as most artists do, but they frequently select one or two to release into the public realm of exhibition. Her exhibitions however, reveal a consistent and continuing series and in this sense the works are typologically related. They are all of the same species exhibiting evolutionary change, each being a further interpolation of predecessors. This can also be observed in the evolution of the “texts” in the works from 2006 to 2008.

This visual development is not a logical progression but an aesthetic phenomenon driven by a highly personal poetic imagination. However the sensibility to the formal values of visual art (shape, tone, colour, texture) is still rooted in the commonality of cultural experience. It is generally thought that red works best in small quantities in relationship with other colours and if experienced in great quantities, an intense red may cause nervous disorder. It is seen in nature in small quantities and relatively short periods as flowers, against a background of green. Red can be seen from a distance, it cannot hide.

Santana concurs, and deliberately “leavens” her work in mostly black, white or grey with fewer using red. The surfaces here, look like patched cloth with threads of “texts” woven, stitched, scratched or stained into them. Perhaps even more than the black or white works, they appear like layered fragments of varying ages, some more distinct than others, some lying in or on the surface, others faded, becoming almost indistinguishable, perhaps echoing the unreliability of memory. The artist has an unspoken dialogue with colour, which is not at all complicated, their conversation results in recognisable moods, of solemnity, calm and occasionally, delight.

In those works with reflective surfaces, colour is also crucial but not through the physical application of media, but because colour is infused into the surfaces as fleeting reflections of the environment. In this sense it is alive, a constantly changing, continuous “performance” in time and space. The reflected light changes because of the viewer’s movement and because of this, paintings do not operate in the way we are accustomed to view autonomous art objects. Instead, we become conscious of our role in causing them to come to life.

Invisible movement

In December 2007 Santana took me to her studio. In my experience, unoccupied studios often feel desolate, a word meaning both uninhabited and sad. Empty studios are melancholic environments, which is understandable since they are essentially places designed for a working activity. They are also highly personalised by individual working practises and consequently they may feel “alien” to visitors used to their own requirements and predilections.

I recall a feeling of melancholy as we entered her studio in a relative twilight and surveyed the “empty” spaces, the stacks of boards in corners, closed cupboards, empty chairs, the worktables laid out with papers, tools, materials, all still and silent, temporarily use-less and in silence, waiting for work to resume.

Rows of dark paintings lined the walls and it was only as I walked towards these and began to look into them, that I discovered they were coming alive. They were being switched on, as it were, by the presence of moving people. The burnished surfaces absorbed and reflected continuously changing patterns of subtle colour and light. It was as though all the rich nuances of our surroundings, which were previously unremarkable, were drawn into them and re presented to us as if enhanced. It is remarkable that some works of art do seem to have this life of their own. They had known how beautiful the world is all along and as we acknowledged them, they revealed it to us.

“When I display my works in the gallery, it should be like one work, with the whole interior environment”. (ibid)

It seems to me that the sensations I felt on that studio visit are of a kind she wants to trigger in her exhibition.

The desire to create a total environment is of course not new, and there is an example from the early 20th century I would like to discuss in terms of an interesting analogy.

“Les Nympheas”, Claude Monet, 1922-26. Installed in L’Orangerie des Tuilleries. Paris.
“Les Nympheas”, Claude Monet, 1922-26. Installed in L’Orangerie des Tuilleries.

Monet developed the idea for this enormous work in the last few years of his life. He envisaged a continuous elliptical screen, made up of painted panels representing nothing but an endless surface of water with no horizon and no banks, seen as it were, from a bird’s eye view. The viewer would be totally surrounded by this immense screen depicting the infinitely variable qualities of pond water; softly modulated tones of depth where the surface is transparent, patches of surface where it is visible and elsewhere, whatever is subtly reflected in it. This produces a completely ambiguous sense of space since it is all painted in his diffuse and atmospheric style of Impressionism. Monet proposed that this room would offer a refuge for peaceful meditation.

In L’Orangerie the viewer is embraced by an apparently infinite expanse of water and initially becomes aware, as they walk around, of the awkward clumsy movements of their bodies accustomed to the gravity of air. Their eyes drift, slide and curve, wandering over these vast surfaces and the body unconsciously adopts the slower, fluid movements of a swimmer.

In using this work as analogous to Santana’s exhibition I am suggesting that she also wishes to present an environment in which the viewer is not only actively involved, but is changed by it. If we overcome our initial awkwardness, we come to see the work not only through our eyes, but also through our bodies. She invites the viewer’s participation in order to activate the paintings during our presence, enabling them to function at their full potential.

Normally, we are not conscious of the equilibrium maintained between awareness of our bodies and the spaces we move through. By leaving the familiar spaces of our everyday lives we enter this exhibition and communicate with an imaginative space, which is psychically innovative and through it we are reminded of our essential indivisibility from the world. Santana’s work is a perfect example of the precepts of phenomenology, in that,

“Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism”.
M. Merleau-Ponty. 1962


Artist’s quotations attributable to written notes supplied, January 2008

Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture. The Daros Collection. Alesco AG. Zurich.1999
Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis. Hayward Gallery. London. 1996
Monet at Giverny. C. Joyce. A. Forge. Dunbar. London. 1975
Phenomenology and Perception. M. Merleau-Ponty. Routledge. Oxford. 1962
Tantra. Philip Rawson. Smith-Jariwala Gallery. London. 1993
The Poetics of Space. Gaston Bachelard. Beacon Press. Boston. 1994

About the author: Peter Bevan originally studied Painting at the Royal College of Art in London and taught at the Glasgow School of Art from 1973-2003. He began to make sculpture in 1989 after his first visit to India and since then has worked and exhibited in USA, Japan, China and India. In Vadodara, 2005 he worked collaboratively with Ganesh Gohain on "Jugalbandi", an exhibition of sculpture and drawings. Over the last ten years he has also written a number of essays on artist's work with a view to bringing his own practical experience as an artist to the task of writing about art.