“Metal is neither a thing nor an organism but a body without organs.”- G.Deleuze and F.Guattari, (Nomadology: the war machine)
One encounters an unusual visual image with a human hand jutting out from a hollow pipe. Part flesh part metal, part human, part industrial, Rameshwar Broota’s recent paintings push forward the discourse on transgressive representations of the human body. One is made to encounter the unfamiliar psychological terrain through corporeal fusion, forcing us to reimagine the body’s boundaries in ways that may or may not be pleasant. Like a story without conclusions, Broota’s imagery stimulates many questions. Is this an anxious awakening towards the recurrent ‘loss of the body’ with its incessant withering in states of pollution and war or simply fears of an imagined disembodied self? Is it a stalemate between forces of nature vis a vis the forces of technology? Are we deadlocked in a situation with the human body getting more and more obsolete and technological components taking over? Shall we consider these as signs of a potent fusion or a dangerous possibility? In an age dominated by science, fiction and technology, are we humans transforming into what Christine Gobi has termed ‘metallized flesh’? Deeply felt “human” themes of anxiety, pain and isolation on the one hand and the need for power, harmony and protection on the other are explored by Broota in his recent works. Broota’s art can be seen in terms of a continuing perceptual investigation in which steady thematic development and formal disclosures are deftly balanced.
The formidable presence of “man” that once loomed large on his monumental canvases has now been fragmented and mutated in the wake of mindless urbanization and mechanization. Earlier, man was caught in stages of metamorphosis facing the threat of time and mortality. His masculinity and virility was recurrently tested out against the enduring presence of nature/natural landscape. Now he is threatened by his own creations. His staying power and resilience is pitched against the omnipotence of his metallic counterparts. The human and inanimate are often placed in direct material juxtaposition: flesh against wood, flesh against metal, their hybrid assembly accentuating the interplay between seduction and force.
Broota’s engagement with the naked male body has been almost obsessive over the years. Magnified, monumentalized, mutated and measured, the observed body (mainly his own) has been put through microscopic lens, x-rays, studied in details and as a macro cosmos with its palpable surface and bony structure examined clinically by the artist.He has been a keen observer of its contours, its flexing anatomy that expands and contracts in order to change its forms along with its use, its limits and ever growing potential. Yet for Broota the (male) body remains a mystery for it is more than a biologically programmed machine or a classically idealized form. Through his practice of self introspection, the artist continues to investigate the interiority of the male body with unusual curiosity and depth.
In the current series, all extraneous elements are relinquished for the pieced parts to communicate quite precisely the underlying emotions of being trapped, transmuted and dehumanized. The counterparts contrast, contradict, concede and catapult as shown in diverse situations, the fragmented human part confronting moments of hostility, sometimes, of support and at other times of conflict and threat. The viewer is cued to a condition or circumstance which can be simultaneously sensed as humorous, fragile, tenuous, powerful, and even brutal. At times, the manufactured object becomes an extension of the artist’s body while his identity gets deconstructed to be part-apparatus. The dialectics of natural and mechanical forms is presented in the visual image by the co-existence of opposing substances, counter in feel, touch and emotionality. Surface and structure evoke a tender sensual touch or a dramatic push and pull between them.
Historically, one can reference some examples where artists have engaged such concerns, especially works by proto-cubists, cubists and futurists wherein the human body has been dehumanized by its angularization and flattened anatomy but also celebrated for its mechanical dynamism by Futurists such as Marinetti and Boccioni. Picasso and Leger displaced the body by rendering it ambiguous, relinquishing its sensual surfaces and volume and reconfiguring it following a machine aesthetic, adapting it to the demands of speed, power and violence. The war and its effects had already created the terror of matter and the anticipation of terrible future possibilities to deal with the human body. While there were reasons to mourn, there were causes to celebrate the omnipotence of the machine as it could transcend human limits and feed the narcissistic longing of prolonged performance.
There is an advanced play in this series between human warmth and the steely coldness heightened by the interface between geometric angularities and undulated body contours. Often exploring the ‘virile pose’ with legs apart, Broota tries to capture sensations by retaining a body-piece suggestive of the whole. One sees a leg of the absent male nude precarious in its unsettling stance with pressure on his toes and a difficult angle of his foot, seeking support perhaps from the architectural fragment. The artist makes the viewer’s eye move on the crisp edges of the stretched body contour and the sharp angularity of its counterpart. His compositional maturity can be seen in the way the white expanse around the image repeats the geometric and irregular shape. The contrasts of flat and round, massive and small shapes are carefully orchestrated in the visual arrangement often by a delicate demarcating line that subtly presses one against the other. In another, the little grey steely part acquires a humane quality when seen against its dark massive counterparts.
Parallel to his conceptual theme, Broota also seems to be exploring the function of the hand versus machine aesthetically too. Both a photographer and a painter, Broota challenges the output of the camera, rendering by the dexterity of his hand what the camera is designed to mechanically capture- flawlessly depict the corporeal world. Here the eye and hand constantly challenge each other, his critical and profound observations deepening his desire to attain the microscopic detailing with a masterly finesse. The question that comes to mind then is- why would Broota strive to paint so labor-intensively if the camera is available as an easy substitute?
Broota says, “When you make something the same size for instance a portrait, to me it becomes a study… I like tweaking the scale to bring an extraordinary dimension to the work, making it larger than life or then miniaturizing it for a specific kind of message or impact”. Painting allows for imaginative possibilities and potential transformation of the subject along with an extremely personal and direct connection with the materiality of the medium. Even absurd conjunctions are infused with a sense of heightened realism for instance a hand jutting out from its metallic counterpart, its palpable flesh stuck within the pipe.
There is a queasy uneasiness in viewing the larger than life image of the index finger, detached from the rest of the hand made to bend and twist to its limits. Its shape, its bony structure, its many folds and crevices with tiny cracks and pits that look like cuts into the sensual flesh. A thin wood piece piercing the under skin of the nail is symbolic of pain evoked by an invasive element. For this artist, a very small part of the body demands the same kind of attention and treatment that one can relate with his imaginative landscapes for instance in the ‘metamorphosis’ series. Though there is a clinical approach to detail the work transcends beyond technique to highlight its predicament. In another work, the thumb shrivels under pressure while Broota examines the minute creases to understand the intricacy of individual parts through extreme close ups, moving as if a magnifying glass over his body. The realization that every detail of the human body is expressive and can speak of psychic tensions has made Broota move from the monumental to the minimal, from panorama to fragment. The hardness of the bone and the softness of the flesh and their co-existence within the body itself seems an exciting proposition for the artist.
In the horizontal format (diptych) that allows Broota to sweep through the infinity of space, one enjoys the sense of extended visual movement as the artist makes the viewer’s eye slide up and down and in and out of the assembled parts. In many of the works, Broota enhances the opaqueness of the metal versus the porousness of the body-fragment. The exteriority of the polished object and the strained interiority of the body highlight an incompatible encounter but an inevitable necessity, the body ticking through prosthetics and artificial transplants in order to postpone mortality. I recollect some of the titles of Broota’s very early works having medical references such as Transplantation, Diagnostic Centre, x-ray etc. The body sheathed in metal does feel stifled but can also feel secure/protected much like what the helmet does- dematerializes the features of the face but becomes an outward protective layer.
The vulnerability of the male body has been a major preoccupation with Broota. The body here is never relaxed or at peace. It is either firmly stretched or jutting out in a posture of trial or then sagging in its impotency unable to be as taut and erect as its industrial counterpart. If earlier the human stood against the forces of nature, now it faces the consequences of urbanity and industrial expansion. Concrete angularities, metallic chains, hollow pipes threaten invasion and violation of the human form/ body. In such a hostile environment there is always an urgent need to test levels of human resistance and resilience. Things come out of things, nudging their other parts to take on a strange and wild internal energy.
Professing a fractured vision of the future, Broota unravels the potential of the ‘partial image’- loaded, stark and forceful to generate new meanings by use of magnified scale and altered proportions. A lot of consideration is given to the precise placement of the composite image within the painted space. The outer edge of the canvas is absolutely necessary for Broota’s composing of the work. It is the placement of the image within the frame that conveys feelings of displacement and dislocation. The expanse of spotless pristine whites create an amorphous space around the image deceiving the viewer of its actual size/boundaries to merge with the blankness of the white walls wherein the painted image acquires a sculptural volume to stand out as a solid form. The empty space is a necessary device to deliberate the scale, size and the distance of the desired form from the viewers. Previously Broota used impenetrable blacks to darken the canvas and allow the partial image to emerge through it. There was a mystery about the darkness in Broota’s that allowed for the play of nuanced gradations of white, grey and black, adding weight and material to the canvas. Evolving into its next stage, the airy whites of the recent paintings give the works a contemporary edge and fulfil the axiom of ‘less is more’.
There is nothing that is arbitrary or wildly excessive in Broota’s works. Chance encounters are dispelled for more organized and choreographed ones. Even the vulnerability of the human form has to be evoked through compact and crisp rendering of the body. Nothing weak or wishy washy is accepted in the making of his artistic language. Even in the miniaturized portrait, we see extreme close-up of facial features, especially the eye that emphasizes circular and conical shapes further contrasted by the use of black and white.
Aligning his laborious process to stay within the contours of the form, Broota once again works with meticulous control and visual insight, creating sharp edges, soft volumes and striking a balance between scale and stance of the staged encounter. Having extensively worked, at times overworked the surface for expressive tactility, Broota now simplifies and amplifies the visual image, achieving the desirable effects by tuning his rhythmic movement of the hand while scratching the surface in his unique way of working with the blade’s edge. Tremendous restraint has to be applied for a uniform effect while scratching the tones and creating the play between light and substance as a wrong movement of the blade may leave a mark or incision that cannot be erased or rectified. The miniature format works done this time test the ability of his method of working within a restricted space, where the movement of the hand is extremely limited while scratching the surface, quite unlike working on a larger pictorial field.
The de-idealized contrapossto in one of the most compelling works represents a strident foot firmly resisting the pressure of metallic parts while the other loosely dangles. The paradox of existence is best exemplified in the dual consciousness of serious and comic situations as the human body struggles against its temporality.
The hope is that human spirit will endure and the body will free itself of its boundaries.
New Delhi, January 2009