"Prepare to Soak" -- George Oommen and the color of memory.
If art and the intellect meet only to exact revenge upon one another--â€to build on Susan Sontag--then George Oommen's vengeance is of a sumptuous, restoring quality. In no small measure we are reminded: to see is to feel. To feel is to know. His squelching colors and brimming, dripping images invite immersion. Prepare to soak.
The visual hum of a George Oommen piece is continuous; blizzards of strokes and bolts of color seize the eye. The Sacred Places series is one such--from a pall of darkness the artist excavates the centers of flames. From a fog of falling color, is birthed a new one. Here, in the conscious process of unearthing color is revealed a deeper, inner quest that leads finally, to the celebration of arrival. The spirituality is resplendent, yet quiet; the artist, a devotee of color. He pursues the particular yellows that fatten the crimson, steadily building toward a horizon from which color overflows in swathes. Color is the force behind the tactile, unreal figurativeness of Oommen's paintings. Whatever the medium--oil-bar and acrylic--or tool--garden hose and fingers count among them--his canvases verge on a physical, runaway sensuousness.
Cut away then, to the mind's eye and the long journey taken from the artist's native Kerala, a tiny state on India's southern coast, to New England's wintry shores. Oommen's abstracted landscapes are full of the wistfulness that such journeying brings. The artist has talked about his search for the yellow that floods the light in Kerala, a search that returns him often, to the work of the great British painter and master of color, Sir. Howard Hodgkin.
Here is evoked a world of rain, river and sky, of miles and miles of coconut palms and light in the various transparencies and hues that color memory, making of it the artist's final, transforming lens. The sodden soil, heavy air, and rush of leaves, drenched from a monsoon downpour--these are the artist's first matter.
Oommen's palm fronds neither nod nor crown a tropical shoreline. Instead, they are borne down by wetness, so one sees only their arched, curving spines awash in rain showers. A blazing sky and setting sun sometimes intercede. Horizon lines remain, anchoring us to the physicality of the artist's vision. Boughs weep into dark lagoons, and reflections, altered by Oommen's versatile drip technique, become the vehicle for the artist's remembrance to speak loudest. Blue and green bleed crimson into the water; skies seep into the sea in long, wet drips, in flushes of Indian yellow and Olive green and dense thickets diminish into searing light. The canvas suffuses with nostalgia.
In other landscapes, the image is delineated within a shape or a filter, drawing the eye in. Surrounding this core is the larger visual context of a grove. Color literally pours out, filling the water and transforming it. Again, the artist follows where memory leads. The clear green fanning of the palm, and the welter of gold and green that frames it reduces dramatically in a subsequent work. Here, the feeling rests. The palm leaf is still central, but ghosted and white. It has emptied, leaving its mark, symbolic only of itself, while all around sky and water weave into each other in long, languid ropes of color. The story is the same--of a land left behind, memory as feeling, transformed and culled, till it returns in a new form.
The Kanjeevaram series is Oommen's foray into play and discovery, less personal and less intense than his other themes. These paintings evoke the vibrant colors and sheen of a variety of South Indian silk saris, named after Kanchipuram, the town in which they are traditionally woven. Here, Oommen creates an appearance that is reminiscent of fine silk threads and tassels. In a particularly magical piece, the artist arranges nine disparate tiles that reveal the "pallav", usually a sari's most decorative part. A montage of borders in yellows, wine reds and dirty browns, the piece evokes a woman swinging past and the flash of color when light hits the silk, laying and moving upon her.
Oommen's paintings can be motile, sifting and shifting, the way memory does. In "Across the River in Mankotta", he returns to a favorite scene, executing it here purely in greens and yellows. A second, lower canvas catches the ends of drips, in a construction that is as much about process as it is about yearning. The painting ends where the canvas ends, unlike memory, which is infinite. We never really return home. We just go, in every color we know.
-- Shaleena Koruth
Monsoon Magic/ Rain Painter
ARTICLE 535 - Monsoon magic, [July 09, 2006] SHALEENA KORUTH for THE HINDU.
George Oommen paints to reawaken the feeling the image brought when he first saw it. Once the feeling returns, the painting is over.
His works are impressionistic in their fidelity to colour and light. Sensory and tactile: "Kerala Altered Reflections"
KERALA'S oldest memory -- the monsoon -- is also George Oommen's. In his landscapes, the rain falls in all colours. The insane wetness, glistening mornings, and rivers, now stunned, now set in motion, but always receiving Kerala's quintessential light -- this is the stuff of Oommen's art. As unprecedented prices and ongoing media attention award Indian contemporary art a place to reckon with in the international scene, Oommen is a visual ambassador for Kerala, with his "extravagantly charged vitality reminiscent of the sensual worlds of Henri Matisse", according to Dominique Nahas, critic for "Art in America". His most recent exhibitions, held in September and October 2005 were in Boston, Massachusetts. Sensory awakening
Looking at one of Oommen's pieces, one is aware of a sensory awakening. In "Kerala Altered Reflections" (2002, acrylic on canvas) hoary thickets of rain-deluged palms intensify at the canvas's centre; the monsoon weaves both sky and land into a luminous wash that drizzles tropical yellows, blues and greens into murky, many-layered water. The suggestion of torrential rain places you feet first in the squelching palm grove. This tactile dimension of Oommen's landscapes is most striking. Most of the inspiration for Oommen's landscapes comes from Mankotta, a secluded resort in Haripad that he visits regularly in the winters. Not given to much emotional display, Oommen lit up as he discussed his plans for the future: a visit in summer to pursue the harvest's radiant yellows. "Kerala", a painting by British artist Sir Howard Hodgkin, has haunted and challenged Oommen since he first saw it in New York in the early 1990s. It uses a shade of yellow that Oommen calls `spectacular'. Oommen refuses to identify with an artistic movement or even define his style, which is largely abstract. His works are expressionistic in their nostalgia for Kerala and a heightened spiritual awareness; they are impressionistic in their fidelity to colour and light as it might appear on a rippling sari or river. The difference does not matter, because he paints to reawaken the feeling the image brought when he first saw it. Once the feeling returns, the painting, or series, is over. At Mankotta, Oommen immerses himself in the visual and physical details of Kerala. Often waking as early as 4.00 a.m., Oommen records the unfolding of a typical day with photographs, sketches and his mind's eye. The backwaters are quietest and most still at dawn; these are the moments Oommen draws upon. He paints though only in Boston, painting only if his remembrance justifies creation. "If it (the feeling) is lost, it's not worth painting", he says. As if the lush nostalgia on his canvases is not testament enough to his affection for Kerala, Oommen's recollections Ã¢â‚¬â€ even his earliest Ã¢â‚¬â€ are. With unmistakable fondness, he recounts learning to draw Malayalam letters in the sand at the village school in Mepral, his hometown. A favourite of Oommen's pieces is a three-panelled landscape "Mankotta Reflections" (2000, 12 ft x 6 ft, acrylic on canvas). Unlike most of his work, which uses bright, vibrant hues, this is a muted construction of whites, creams, blacks and browns with smatterings of gold. Oommen's intention here was to capture a moment in the water when its reflections were flowing away with it. It started out as an experiment in detail, but was executed on a large scale. Oommen in his workspace with "Mankotta Reflections" in the background.
Oommen's "Kanjeevaram" series, he says, are more universal in appeal, especially in the West. When asked where he finds saris to inspire him, he smiled and showed a scrapbook of sari advertisements he has collected! Here, Oommen is experimenting in colour, texture and technique. "I'm letting it go... I'm learning what colours on top of what colours produce what kind of effect... I'm learning, but there's a very definitive framework. It's a border, it's a sari, it's got to be silk-like." Formative years
Oommen's years at the Delhi School of Architecture were artistically formative. His aunt, a painter, introduced Oommen to the works of Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose from Shanti Niketan. Elizabeth Gauba, teacher and founder of Shiv Niketan, a well-known school in Delhi, introduced him to contemporary Western art. Satish Gujral's yellows, inspired by the colours of Mexico, caught Oommen's eye and was instrumental in his choice of San Miguel Allende, his future art school. Oommen's studio in Arlington, a Boston suburb, is a converted garage that opens out into a wild overgrown yard. A wooden stand doubles as an easel and can be adjusted to hold different sized canvases. A narrow gutter runs through the floor of the studio on one side to catch the drips that Oommen's sprays create. He uses a variety of spray guns with different nozzles to spray colour, turpentine or water on his paintings, depending on whether the medium is oil or water-based. The result is Oommen's signature drip effect. Paintings hang on all walls, and among them was "Sacred Places 1"(1997, Oil on canvas), a composition in green and yellow with an absorbing, meditative quality. Sacred Places 1.
In the early 1970s, Oommen saw a series of films by Louise Malle titled "Phantom India". One featured a young girl in a Hindu temple, performing with an intensity that deeply impressed Oommen. Later visiting a temple, he was struck by the architecture of its inner sanctum. Oommen, who was raised a Christian, found that unlike the floodlit altars in churches, the temple is entered from a larger, well-lit space to a much smaller, dark space where the only source of light is the gleaming idol. "You're in a space where you completely lose your peripheral vision and you can hear your heartbeat." This inspired Oommen to create "Sacred Places Within You", paintings where he literally excavates a bright, saturated spot of colour from a surrounding darkness. A "Sacred Places" painting collapses the viewer's sense of space, chipping away at it till there is nothing but canvas and the discussion of colour and light within. It demands quiet contemplation before granting an understated grace. After creating more than 60 pieces, Oommen now owns only four or five that he will not part with. It is among his most successful and resonant series. According to Dr. John Bowles, a contemporary art historian from UCLA, "Oommen is creating something that's a precious, devotional object. There is a lushness ... the brushstrokes are active, but not hectic." As he showed me around, I asked Oommen if he intends to stay with his favourite theme, Mankotta. No, he replied. Always restless, he wants to grow and keep learning. But surely, the Kerala of Oommen's memory can earn no rebuff in his plans for paintings to come, for the past must certainly be the hinge the future swings upon. Article Courtesy: THE HINDU.
The art of George Oommen is nostalgic in the best, unsentimental sense. His paintings evoke a kind of sheer, unearthly beauty. They are inspired by a place on the planet, however. One of the impulses behind them is to evoke an atmosphere that is at an opposite pole from the austere ambiance of Boston where he resides most of the time. For a few weeks every year Oommen goes to Kerala, at the southern tip of India, where he was born and raised. Kerala is not that well trafficked but is known far and wide as an earthly paradise. He immerses himself in the tropical climate and rich color and this supplies him with images and sensations to take back to New England and convert into paintings. At present Oommen is inspired by two main forces. The first is the stylistic one of Indian miniatures. This influence is felt in the compact format he often favors, a square within a square. Although as in the miniatures the emphasis is on line, an American viewer might be reminded of abstract expressionists such as Newman and Rothko whose compositions reflect geometry whose canvases evoke a limitless space. It is not surprising that Oommen's art has underpinnings of geometry for he is an architect and city planner and these are both rational disciplines. But his elemental images, even if they are details made grand or washes of various shades of green, hint at an unbounded hedonism. The second main influence is a contemporary painter: Sir Howard Hodgkin, one of the foremost British artists. He is a painter who has gone to Kerala. Hodgkin mines everyday reality for his imagery which initially reads as abstraction. Likewise, something in an Oommen painting that might at first seen like an abstract exercise in achieving luminosity could turn out to be a near-precise description of light striking a river in Kerala. It is fascinating to contemplate the necessary existence of these paintings, for Oommen isn't a romantic on the order of Gauguin who foes to a tropical place to escape civilization. Oommen is deeply involved in contemporary urban life. His Harvard thesis was a project for housing homeless people in a bridge then being constructed in Calcutta. The Indian government was interested in pursuing Oommen's ideas but the bit of Gauguin in him was wary of "bureaucratic tangles." Oommen's colors are especially intense. They are also very pliant allowing him to achieve either areas of dense color or especially runny washes. The secret is Oops Paint sold at home depot. Naturally it is marketed as house paint, but modern artists have always taken to varieties house paint. Oops comes in especially bright colors and, as the name implies, is very user friendly. The magical world that Kerala seems to be, and a wall of Oommen's works hung salon style makes a deluxe travel brochure, evoked with a paint that is aimed at the commonplace world makes it seem ever more magical and something that will occupy Oommen for the rest of his painting life in as search for the equivalent of precise sensations. Already George Oommen has been a painter for several decades and he has explored many styles and attitudes. In a very real sense he is a complete artist: he is at a point where his work, though intensely retinal, has a wide range of meaning. Rooted in sensuousness, and realized in an everyday manner, Oommen's vision of Kerala, has given him a concentrated approach to art and enabled him to achieve a conspicuous spiritual dimension. A series was entitled "Sacred Places within You." And one can expect George Oommen to be preoccupied for some time exploring enchanted places. William Zimmer,
Contributing Art Critic To NY Times.
New York City, 2003 George Oommen is an architect and painter living in Massachusetts, whose painting is entirely concerned with remembering his native Kerala, the spice coast of southwest India. On the arc of culture-America to India-on which Oommen's imagination dwells, memory is the primary ground of meaning in his work. An architect by trade, Oommen's paintings have an architectonic concern for space, but they are marked by an enveloping subjectivity. In his Sacred Places series, for example, Oommen was inspired to create dark abstractions, by southern Indian Hindu temples, where worshippers proceed from light to dark, to an interior so entirely devoid of light one becomes acutely aware of one's own heartbeat. In the same manner, Oommen's recent landscapes eschew all of the daily interferences of life to mentally get back to a mythical Kerala remembered in abstract essence. In his work, Oommen uses the visual peculiarities of tropical forests to frame metaphors in paint for the nature of memory. For example, in the experience of tropical forests, one takes in the panoramic whole, but here and there is arrested by, and zooms in on vibrant details. To capture this effect in art, Oommen superimposes onto his paintings a succession of transparent frames that shift visually from one level of seeing to another. The smallest frame-within-a-frame even shifts media--from paint to pen and ink--to render distinctly an abstract icon of a remembered moment. Oommen seeks at all times to erase the impediments of "art", to free the mind to remember. This impetus pervades every aspect of his recent art. Oommen's art has become more abstract lately to get beyond the landscape, to the memory of it. Oommen has switched from oil to acrylic paint, and has in turn begun to spray the paint with water, to cause it to run watery and transparently down the canvas (an effect that also constructs on canvas a metaphor of perception in monsoon-season Kerala), to erode paint down to the act of memory itself. He now only makes use of "oops paint," wrongly mixed paints offered cheaply by American paint stores, not to let the tradition, the substance, or for that matter the cost of the paint, come between him and his drive to part the veil. All of his recent canvases are prefabricated, bought found objects all the more easily dissolved by impromptu subjectivity. Finally, Oommen does not belabor a painting for weeks or months, but engages rather in a kind of mental action painting in which the painting is the pure precipitate of an afternoon's revery on far off places. In making use of cheap materials and expedient techniques--perhaps also reflecting an unspoken sense of the shifting ground of a globalized life--George Oommen reveals himself as contemporary conceptual painter, forever devising new ways to open the secret doors embedded in the architecture of memory. Robert Mahoney, New York 2003 Robert Mahoney has been an art writer in New York for over fifteen years, writing for such publications as ARTS 1985-92) FLASH ART (1988-94) Contemporanea,(Tema Celeste and Cover magazines. He currently writes for TIME OUT New York (since 1995), Artnet online (since 1996), and contributes to edificerex.com and D'Art International. KERALA AS PROUSTIAN MADELEINE: THE LANDSCAPES OF GEORGE OOMMEN
By Dominique Nahas In his abstracted landscapes George Oommen depicts the area of his birthplace, the Spice Coast of Kerala. He pays at times particular homage to the memory of the feelings and sights of Mankotta, a small island in the inland waters of his favorite region. We are made, as viewers, to participate in Oommen's re-creation of his native land's heartbeat : its reflections, colors, light, shadows, natural life and, most importantly, its radant intensity. In the artist's paintings and drawings the eye floats amidst a panoramic network of sun and moon - lit waterways and lush foliage. These primordial images are composites pictorially reconstituted from the memories of many years' real-time experiences in the area. (The artist no longer lives in India, but returns to Kerala on a regular basis). The images before us depicts the places and spaces of Kerala, in the southwestern Munnar region of India, where the artist was born. This is a fact. Yet there is so much more to Oommen's world than empirical reality. It is evident that the artist's journey into the self are mirrored in the landscapes of his beginnings. Oommen's repeated imagery, with its drenched pools, drizzles and pockets of color, suggests an extravagantly charged vitality reminiscent of the sensual worlds of Henri Matisse and of Howard Hodgkin. Equally important is Oommen's painterly capacity to invoke as well as to evoke a spiritual (and changeable) center as well as a specific natural habitat in the real life-world. In his writings the artist has stated that one of his main considerations is Ã¢â‚¬Å“Whether (images) are retained in the retina or in the brain Also of importance to me is the spiritual self. Where does the inner sanctuary lie?" The artist has also often noted how he has been inspired by this habitat and how he has shaped his ambition to become Kerala's "chief ambassador" to the world. The work at hand is also a map of Oommen's ongoing interior and changeable journey into the self and its awareness of such. It is this displacement between what is known of a life-world geographic place called " Kerala" , actually, by Oommen and what is felt or projected as imaginary, symbolic or real by the artist and the viewer that is at the center of the experience of viewing this penetrating work. What is real for Oommen is the emotional truth that he is drawn to the Kerala area because it is clearly a living symbol of origin as well as of change for him. It is his chief source of inspiration. Cyclic time and linear time poetically intermesh in Oommen's lush panoramas and intense close-ups. This is sensed through the artist's syncopated interplay of dominant verticals and horizontals and the effective use of colored, drizzled light and shadow in the work. Perhaps it is the abstract visual expression of what one might call intimate distance which is most compelling in Oommen's work. The artist's repeated use of horizon lines in his work, for example , anticipates in visual terms what phenomenologist Edward Casey calls " changing standpoints", that is continuity and uncertainty combined. Jacques Derrida makes a similar point when he describes the horizon as " always virtually present in every experience; for it is at once the unity and the incompleteness for that experience - the anticipated unity in every in completion". There is an elegiac wistfulness in the painter's work, a sense of passing time that is deeply and paradoxically grounded in his works' luminous depictions of eternal Kerala. It is this unfolding drama which is at the core of George Oommen's vision. It gives his work humanity, momentum and depth that is rare in landscape work. -Dominique Nahas, critic for Art in America, New York editor for d'Art International and is based in Manhattan.