Drawing Dreaming: Pallavi Sen | Chemould CoLab

14 March - 27 April 2024

Pallavi Sen’s paintings are perhaps best characterized as a kind of hard-edge watercolor; the term seems almost oxymoronic, unlikely. She uses watercolor against itself: where, in the watercolor works of our collective imagination, pigment should run, or drop, or flow across its substrate, she has corralled it, disciplined it. Her works are often composed of hundreds of rectilinear fields, each containing a single color, and in this she gestures to the familiar grid paintings of high modernism, and expands upon them, offering something manifestly open and intimate. 

In contrast to the unyielding, opaque color fields of hard-edge geometric abstraction, each watercolor segment offers transparency and porosity. The relationship between pigment and page becomes syncretic—and rather than imposing pure form upon a neutral substrate, the works wax and wane with the texture of the paper. This openness is often mirrored by the subject matter itself.; despite the strict delineation of separate fields, the hard borders, Pallavi also inevitably brings in the affective and intimate—combining this solemn geometry with precisely-rendered representations of daily life. So the watercolor works are wholly novel: they combine the precision and representational qualities of Indian miniature painting with the rationalized grid of high modernism.

It is a pleasure to see these works again. For a while, Pallavi took a break from painting, focusing instead on larger scale, collaborative projects. She turned toward planting, sowing, spending years developing a meadow on the Williams College campus in Western Massachusetts. In that project, and in her garden project at the Clark Institute, she brought a similar sensibility—systematically delineating spaces that might hold a softness, a ripeness, a verdancy. Pallavi is attuned to organization and relatedness: of color, of planets, of subject and frame, of part to whole. I know that Anni and Josef Albers’ works are important touchstones for Pallavi, and one can see echoes of their œuvre—the way that the borders of paintings suggest Anni’s textiles, the gestures toward Josef’s color theory. Pallavi is a student of the way that colors interact, the way any two things might relate to one another. The way that a thing’s properties become heightened when placed next to another; the way a flavor might combine with another to accentuate a third; the way things recede and appear and recede, and settle. She plants a pollinator in such a way that it might catalyze the entire garden; she paints pale red beside deepest green.

A girl sleeps atop a patterned quilt. The quilt sits atop a patterned rug. A woman with her back turned fingers a freshly-picked sunflower. A cat sits beside a man reading a newspaper; the headline: Incessant Striving Task of Future. In this work of Pallavi’s, as in others, many things happen simultaneously; time and space are stitched together. Her precise, minute details require a tremendous amount of physical dexterity, a preternatural steadiness of hand; it is a wonder to watch her at work. Her hands are never still—now gesticulating to emphasize a point, now deftly removing a peculiarly multicolored bean from its pod, now chopping or stirring or whisking—she is constantly in motion. The whole world contained in a single act: she dices vegetables (quickly, smoothly); a star collapses in on itself. Pallavi explores the quotidian and the infinite in equal measure. She paints the things she knows, and the things she can’t possibly know, and sits in wonder at the beauty of it all. And we are invited to sit beside her.

Written by Coleman Collins

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