FIVE AUROVILLE ARTISTS

By Debashish Banerji


The group of 5 artists showing together at the Cymroza gallery in Mumbai, seem at first to have little in common. A German, an Italian, a Belgian and an Indian Parsi, four women painters and a Dutch male sculptor, make up the group. What joins them is the fact that they all live and work at Auroville, a spiritual community founded by Mirra Alfassa, also known as the Mother, a collaborator of the modern Indian yogi, Sri Aurobindo. This is, no doubt, a profound source of likeness, a shared inner orientation towards the discovery and expression of spiritual or cosmic realities and coherences or intensities. This, indeed, is evident, in the large generic titles given to the artworks and even the very courage to title abstractions against the grain of most modern and contemporary practice. The question of content in abstraction, or the division into style and content is generally considered problematic or non-significant in modernism- the style is the content, which needs no further reference. Of course, post-modern practice has challenged this modernist purism, and has attempted to return to art its vehicular function as a signifier or metonym for social and psychological experiences and interpretations. From a sealed hermetic testament offered as surface only to an uncomprehending anonymity dehumanized by the global regime of techno-capitalism, there is a shift towards the re-affirmation of art as language, a tool in the salvaging, re-membering or re-creation of shared values and experiences. Participants in a communitarian context of a shared material, social, ideal and dynamic psychological reality and process, the Auroville artists are exemplars of this post-modern practice of the alphabet, vocabulary and grammar of an art culture which inheres in a common universe of perceptions, experiences, orientations and movements.

However, this culture must not be mistaken for an isolated island, nor its art for an internal cult-dialect of prefabricated signifiers. The Auroville artists come from a variety of life-situations and cultures, but they also share the ubiquitous condition of modernity which encircles the earth today with its neo-liberalist homogenization, its conditioning of experience and its flattening and fragmentation of subjectivity and this is what has brought them to Auroville. Their work is marked by a distrust for ideologies, propaganda or advertisational hypnosis and what unites them also is a culture of freedom and personal intuition in the exploration of experiences of subjective universality or non-dual consciousness or perceptions of harmony and beauty behind the bewildering diversity and chaos of appearances.  This imparts to their work the freshness of an optimism born of a lived collective culture of progressive experience and it is in this sense that their art becomes a language of shared perceptions far subtler and more primordial than the language of words.

Just as one may identify a common faith in the human ability to experience states of universal consciousness and harmony and a common culture of experimental seeking for these experiences and realizations which bestows meaning and content uniting these artists, one may also identify a shared language in their expression. This is what one might now call the global tradition of modern abstraction. From its foundations in the work of Wassily Kandinsky and other European artists attempting to salvage a universal and non-sectarian spirituality out of the ruins of pre-modern civilization between two world wars, through its phase of bold experimentation and self-confidence in the post-World War II manifestation of American abstract expressionism, abstraction in art has accumulated a repertory of expressive means that marks it as a visual language of the independence of consciousness from national or multi-national or ethnic or sectarian or even human identifications or identity politics. It has received its share of castigation for this – berated for an insensitivity to postcolonial inequalities or international humanist or socialist struggles, equated with the belligerence and arrogant individualism of American modernity, dismissed as domesticated neo-liberal décor, put down as inhuman or anti-human, it continues nevertheless to draw diverse gifted adherents and enrich itself with extensions of its expressive possibilities. In Auroville, it finds a natural crucible for its furtherance through artists attempting to overcome the division between subject and object in the realization of states of non-duality or to disengage identity from its entrapment in forms so as to invoke new potentia of a transcendental creativity, or expressing perceptions of matter as force, idea and quality of consciousness or questioning the limits of the human in its transpersonal stretch towards universality. To the specter of anonymity, dehumanization and homogenization of modern global humanity, these expressions of a social consciousness stretching towards a self-exceeding of our present boundaries and the discovery of powers of universality and harmony in shaping the future, are a welcome alternative, to say the least.

The revision of human subjectivity that could be said to have launched itself as an omni-disciplinary revolution around the turn of the 19th/20th c., found its inspirations in modalities of being and expression rooted in pre-modern and non-western cultures. Modern vehicles for synthetic ideas of world spirituality, such as Theosophy or Neo-Platonism or trans-cultural reconstructions of Vedanta, Daoism or Zen Buddhism, were important acknowledged or unacknowledged sources behind Euro-American abstraction. The independent hierarchic world of Platonic Ideas or the mergence of forms in the formless indivisibility of the Vedantic Brahman or the animistic or occult energy patterns of the consciousness-beings of Theosophy became the legitimate descriptive field of the new art, as proclaimed by its prophets, such as Wassily Kandinsky, in his “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” A variety of creative movements and groupings followed, a seminal one in which Kandinsky himself, along with a number of other innovators of form were involved, being the design and architectural creative community of Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. Bauhaus design veered in a direction which attempted to validate structure, technological precision, simplicity and the high polish or transparency of ultra-modern materiality walking the borderline between form abstraction and functionality in a self-conscious non-ethnic “international style.” It also spawned a new interest in geometric abstraction in painting. All these tendencies were inherited and powerfully reconfigured by American Abstraction in the post-World War II period. The descendents of Abstract Expressionism, such as Action Painting or Color Field or Minimalism, opened up overlapping visual language domains marked by an immediacy of optical experience without idea content, which could only be described in terms of the conditions of their creation – a spontaneous performance of dynamic intuition which sought its prehistory in the art of accident of the color drip ceramics of Tang China or the crazy spontaneity of splashed ink paintings and their calligraphic counterparts or the chromatic intensity or cosmic geometry of Tantric yantras.

In the Auroville artists, we may find a completion of the circle of the forms and languages of abstract experimentation developed in Euro-American modernism through its re-assimilation in new traditions of Asiatic consciousness practice. For example, Nele Martens draws her inspiration from the play of conscious energy in or as form, universally active in nature. Structural modeling through variations of color density combine with controlled or swift rhythmic and textured brush dynamism to convey an impression of archetypal energy-events at the subtle interface between substance and force. While Martens, of German origin, with her early cultural immersion in the work of Bauhaus artists, can be seen furthering the traditions of Kandinsky, Klee and Johannes Itten, she brings to her paintings a color sensitivity and intensity which introduces an element of quality of consciousness missing in her European sources and only beginning to be hinted at in the later American Color Field artists. One may see this most clearly in a painting like Immersion, where the simplicity and contrast of the two-color scheme and the luminosity of pigment project a powerful visual immediacy through which a synaesthetic sixth-sense experiences the consciousness-world of flowers. The bold and expressive structural power of Martens’ work predominates in paintings like “Breakthrough,” while the dream-like monochromatic It Touches My Soul, stands apart for its evocation of interiority. These two paintings may, in fact, be taken together as exemplifying the sunlight and moonlight polarities of Martens’ consciousness explorations.

Nele Martens' Paintings (Mouseover image for title; Click to see full size)

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Another artist relying on intensity of color as a primary qualitative constituent of her work is Hufreesh Dumasia. Dumasia’s canvases present an all-over attention, placing her inheritance closer to the American Abstract Expressionists. But unlike Pollock or de Kooning or their descendents, her centreless expanses radiate an intense exuberance and light, the subtle shades of the qualitative language of an impersonal and transcendental Delight, which as the Upanishads say, is the originating power of all Becoming. But these shades of Delight are not abstractions or even symbols for Dumasia. As in Martens’ case, a direct and mindless optical impression is the carrier of a synaesthetic experience of these universal Delight-states in their cosmic materiality. Dumasia’s layered densities of scattered color-particles and stretches of expanding amorphous shape are subtly organized through underlying rhythmic circularities or sinusoids and impress the viewer as descriptions of archetypical processes and realities at atomic or astrophysical levels of consciousness-matter.

Hufreesh Dumasia's Paintings (Mouseover image for title; Click to see full size)

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Annamaria is a third artist of this group to rely on non-formal elements of abstraction to express herself. Anna Maria, draws her inspiration from an intimate lived relationship with the world of natural contours and vegetation. These forms, looming out of thin evocative patina-washes, are reminiscent of Chinese splashed ink landscapes or other conceptual abstractions of the Chinese literati (wen-ren) painters. She clarifies that she paints out of an inner intuition but it was only after discovering studies of chaos and fractal theory that she consciously sought the capture of similar processes in her work. In this, I feel more confirmed that her inspiration parallels the Daoist ideas of expressive spontaneity arising out of a meditative union with the creative shakti in Nature - giving body to the elemental lines behind natural forms and processes. However, to these microcosmic exercises, color lends a dimension of inner dynamism and drama, as brought out most clearly in a painting like The Invading Light.

Annamaria's Paintings (Mouseover image for title; Click to see full size) 

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If the previous three artists depend more on color, line or texture, Belgian painter, Agnus and Dutch sculptor, Henk van Putten put to work a progressive intuition in the expressive power of geometric form. With a predisposition towards the retention of the marks of natural or historical ageing processes in the perpetual recyclings of cultural materials, the marks of the passage of time bearing within them the insignia of imperishable or eternal gestures, Agnus uses the patina settled covers of aged ferrous boxes as the surfaces for her brushed acrylic subtle symbols of the hermetic life of devotion and self-transcendence. These symbols serve as watermarks, burned or etched into the inevitable decay of forms, a reminder of the persistent imperishable in perishable things (nityo’nityanam), formed of the enigmatic language of familiar similitude, yet uniquely distinct in every instance.

Agnus' Paintings (Mouseover image for title; Click to see full size)

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Finally, the work of Henk van Putten, the only sculptor in the group, draws us further into the pure geometries of form and the properties of material substance with their immediate modern roots in Bauhaus design. The machined purity and perfection of deceptively simple forms, extruded or interlocking curvatures painted in intense primary colors bring to concrete focus a fusion of the worlds of rational order and the spontaneous symbols of earth fertility, while at the same time presenting and resolving the ambiguous relations between inside and outside and stillness and movement. Pythagorean geometry, Platonic Ideas and the perpetual circulations of Tantric meditation machines (yantras) form the archaic presences enlivening and rendering perennial these ultra-modern solids, offering themselves as inexhaustible bodies of contemplation.

Henk van Putten's Sculptures (Mouseover image for title; Click to see full size)
 

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