Not a Dream, Not Peace, Not Love: Recent Works by Arindam Chatterjee

23 February - 30 April 2024




Around 2007 – after more than a decade of intense engagement – Arindam Chatterjee slowly moved away from abstraction, allowing figurative elements in his works. Like many painters of his generation and before that in post-independent India, he carried expressionism toward abstraction. Yet, even as abstraction may have guaranteed greater freedom, one can see that Chatterjee was never entirely at home in purely nonobjective. As he explains, one of the reasons behind this decisive shift in his art practice is his growing dissatisfaction with expressive abstraction, which he felt was not so effective a language to capture the true faces of the world, which emerged battered and bedraggled from the debris of civilization: Abu Ghraib, the unquiet Gulf and Middle-East, Guantanamo Bay and numerous atrocities close home. Created between 2017 and 2023, through the Covid phases, this body of works in the exhibition shows the high maturity of Chatterjee's figurative style, expression and critical approach to understanding the fabric of our life undermined by killings and torture, psychic and physical experience undone by hunger, misery and fear. While not directly pointing to any historical testimony of violence, these paintings speak of inner turbulence and ethical discomfort, addressing what might be called, following Hegel, the state of disremption [Zerrissenheit].

Indeed, looking at the works on display, we feel a certain nostalgia for abstraction. Sheer material exhilaration in Chatterjee's medium use is evident everywhere, indicating his earlier non-figurative dispositions. The technique is hurried (anguish/ restlessness/ movement), enabling him to produce staggering quantities of work around a broad thematic concern. Physical pleasure is derived from non-conventional, non-functionalist medium and material experimentation: rich pigmentation and tonalities, densely textured surface, and spontaneous use of ink and watercolour on coarse handmade papers. Less controlled inked lines bleed as fine scars, unlike the lines of perfection, trained and perfected in the art academy. Through this free improvisatory artistic experimentation, Chatterjee develops a dialogue that crosses the tradition of expressive abstraction with traumatic realism.

Many of Chatterjee's paintings are provocative in their celebration of the creaturely. Creaturely metamorphosis dominates his figurative imagination, revealing the crisis in the symbolic order of recognition and identity. There is an ape in Achilles's heel. In articulating the creature's disfigured images in relation to the human, Chatterjee tends to see humanism and humanlike-ness as different because humanity is not clearly distinguished from animality, often in the guise of one another. This radical understanding, which dissociates his work to a great extent from the creaturely transformations in mythology and comic caricature, veers our attention to the specific dimension of political power, the intensified biopolitical matrix in which life becomes a direct matter of politics and politics enters the very matter of our life. In this charged field of contradiction, inequality, impunity, denial and repression, the man shows proximity to the animal, instituting continuous movement from state to state, from good to evil, law to non-law, bestial captivity to human freedom and back again. What emerges from Chatterjee's work is an aesthetics of negation and migration. Instead of giving us a secured foothold in meaning and representation, it discloses the relativity of values and a series of opposed dualities, disrupting the image's temporal authenticity by putting both histories and the unconscious in flux.

However, Chatterjee's "inhuman humanism" – the depiction of brutal facts, figures and emotions – is by no means an anti-humanist gesture. Instead, it is an artistic survival, a strategy to counter civilization, which increasingly turns into its opposite and becomes barbaric. Defying the civilization/ barbarism binary, it critiques humanism in the name of inhumanity, which it helps to redeem. His close reading of Dostoevsky and Kafka, along with Jibananda Das, Binoy Majumdar, Utpal Kumar Basu and several other mid-century Bengali poets and writers, enables him to expose/ explore the dark underbelly of history and society, pulling apart the shiny, beautiful, ambrosial and trouble-free reality-spectacle manufactured and maintained by the market and power. His work, charged with anarchic passion and the dialectical spirit of the negative as distinct from aesthetic utopia/dystopia, speaks of no blow for freedom but the desperate struggle of man as a creature to free himself from a trap.

Having said so, we must admit that Chatterjee's paintings fascinate us despite their gloomy content. What they express is not just a set of negative values against the mindlessness of violence but a mute cry or whimper that knows no limit – indeed knows nothing – the positive value of utter meaninglessness.

Terrifying, no doubt it is, but it dominates.


- Arkaprava Bose