New Works: Sheetal Gattani
Sheetal Gattani’s paintings speak many languages and conjure up many emotions. Layer upon layer of colour with no discernable form lend a sense of timelessness to the works – we are immediately reminded of moss laden and rusted surfaces that have weathered over decades of neglect and decay. Yet, these works on canvas are painstakingly executed without any conscious effort to represent anything familiar or known. Do not look for any symbols or references in these works as there are none to be found. What you will see, however, are saturated colours, geometric grids, patterns, lines and shadows as a result of careful and deliberate (mis)treatment of the painted surface in order to get the desired texture and tonality. The viewer is invited to interpret and respond to this reduction of form without any predetermination, and, as if to exaggerate this point, none of the works have a title, thus giving complete freedom to experience the painting at a uniquely individual level.
In my interaction with Sheetal, if there was one thing clear, it was that her works are a journey inward that reveal the fusion between her art and her life. Born into a typical Mumbai middle-class family in 1968, she did her schooling at The Convent of Jesus and Mary, and almost accidentally became the artist she is today. Encouraged by her teacher who was impressed by her sketches, she applied to the J.J. School of Art in 1989 and topped the entrance exam. She went back to her alma mater armed with a diploma in art education, where she not only shared her knowledge and enthusiasm for art with students but also continued to invest her energy into her own art practice. By 1994 she completed her M.F.A in painting at the J.J School of Art and began to actively participate in group shows including ‘Young Talents’ at Gallery Chemould during the same year.
Sheetal’s works are a testimony of her aptitude for mathematics and interests in Zen philosophy and it was in this context that she began using bits of paper that were then transformed into tiled jewels through the application of paint. I had the pleasure of (re)viewing some of her earliest works from the late 80’s and 90’s and it was evident that Sheetal has always been preoccupied with the formality of line, the play of light and the resultant shadow in her expressive works. It was fascinating for me to learn that Sheetal constantly used black surfaces as a starting point and that most of her early works were uniformly sized 10 x 10 inches – the square format perhaps allowing more structure and predictability, and allowing the artist to get on with the task of painting without laboring on the dynamics of perspective that a rectangular format might have posed. Her experimentations with collage to achieve the desired effects of line-light-shadow mark her first works and it has been a steadfast progression since. Calm and composed with silent sincerity, Sheetal Gattani comes across as an artist who is not in any rush to go anywhere except where her paintings might lead her…
I first encountered Sheetal’s paintings in 2005 during her solo exhibition at Gallery Chemould and it immediately made an impression. I had just returned after spending six years in the United States and was enthused to see a young abstractionist take traditional material like watercolour - best known for its translucency - and transform it into dense and layered fields of colour. Added dimensionality and texture was achieved by scratching and almost tearing the thick black paper underneath. The resultant effect was delightfully refreshing and a shift away from the figurative or otherwise conceptual milieu that most young artists at the time were preoccupied by.
Fast forward to 2008 and we see that in this new body of work, Sheetal Gattani has made a daring departure from her staple diet of watercolour and paper - an all too familiar medium that she mastered over the last eighteen years - and has slowly transitioned to acrylic paints on canvas as her new medium of expression. This is a significant shift to the extent that the new materials throw new challenges during the painterly process. Besides the medium, the format has become noticeably larger and confronts the viewer in a much more direct manner - almost forcing the gaze to get enveloped by the monotonic whites, grays and browns that form the majority of the colour palette in this latest oeuvre. The richness and density of the smaller format works are equally compelling and they feel like they are just the right size for the idea that is contained and is being communicated to the viewer. There is also a new dimensionality in some of the paintings with deliberate cuts across the surface of the canvas that are angled and embossed onto a raised portion of the stretched frame. This is her way of calling attention to the all important line and its resultant shadow play that has always been an integral part of her visual vocabulary.
In some of the works we see that the monotony of the large surfaces is ‘broken’ into grids or into parts that form a grid. There is even the occasional indent and curve as some canvases are mounted on especially sculpted surfaces. In the end, all of these cuts, grids, curves are visual reinterpretation - techniques employed by the artist to engage the audience and introduce complexity on an otherwise flat surface thus giving each work its very own personality, an untold story that is yet to reveal itself to the eyes of the viewer. To fully appreciate the method and the magic of these joyful works, spend some unrushed time with each painting – much like you would when listening to a violin concerto or a piece by Beethoven or Bach. Just as the ear has to be tuned to sound, the eye has to become familiar with swathes of colour in the absence of discernible symbols. It’s almost like gazing into space – only when you allow yourself to take in the vastness, thought patterns automatically emerge and you become open to the possibilities of reaching within and experiencing life with all its richness and emotion.