BETWEEN THE RIDDLE AND THE EXCLAMATION
Recent Paintings by T Ratheesh
T Ratheesh’s paintings have long been defined by a palette of sensuous, many-shaded reds, greens and browns, evocative of natural fecundity and the earth’s powers of regeneration. Equally, his paintings have borne witness to the enduring mystery of human communication. The artist has the gift of rendering everyday meetings, conversations, and interactions as tableaux, so subtly dramatized that they capture our attention yet do not tip over into theatre, leaving us guessing as to the exact significance of the event.
This is particularly true of his recent works. Is the man in the kitchen, accosted by a hovering pigeon, about to open a thermos flask, use an air-freshener, or set off a bomb? Is the man kissing his daughter beside a pond in bloom saying goodbye as he leaves on a long journey, or is he delighted to be back home? Are the men carrying a large red cut-out of a political symbol – a sickle and star-tipped arrowhead, a variant on the Communist hammer-and-sickle ubiquitous in Ratheesh’s native Kerala – about to install it triumphantly at a rally, or have they taken it down in a gesture of retaliation or protest? We remain in speculative unease, as they exit right of frame; at left of frame stand two members of a right-wing organisation, still in their khaki shorts but in casual attitudes, as though relaxing after a rally.
And when figures disappear from the canvas, the human presence is recorded in language and the traces of activity: a wall standing in the midst of thick vegetation is covered with a palimpsest of graffiti, some of it evocative of young love, but much that is political in nature, including the names of contending politicians and parties. We wait for the painters who have left their cans and brushes in the frame to return from their break.
Ratheesh’s recent paintings unfold in the paradoxical terrain between the riddle and the exclamation. Each painting is alive with expressive richness and narrative possibilities; each holds a secret close to its chest, yet approaches the world with the heightened intensity of candour. Despite seeming disparate in their choice of subject, these paintings are centred on three constant themes in the artist’s oeuvre: the warm intimacies of the family; the urgencies and anomalies from which the crowd is compacted; and the lavish matrix of the natural world. What these themes have in common is the surging presence of the maternal: it is encrypted in the unconditional love that sustains the family; in the sense of enfolded belonging and security that animates a crowd made coherent by a collective identity; and in the vegetable kingdom’s fertile abundance.
Motifs of confessional purification, of cleansing and renewal, recur in these paintings. Take ‘Maranan’, in which the artist offers a synoptic vision of the cycle of birth, decay, dissolution, and resurrection. This work is unified by a skeleton that plays armature, simultaneously, to robustly blossoming vegetation, orderly agriculture, and building activity. In one adroit move, melding scale and detail, Ratheesh establishes a fluent continuum between figure, landscape, and still life. Elsewhere, in a dramatic self-portrait, the artist-persona faces his viewers naked, divested of all his clothes: a delightfully profane ascetic who seems to have renounced the claims and demands of the social world.
Another work, a tender double portrait of the artist-persona and his daughter, offers us the portrait of a third subject: the pond outside Ratheesh’s home in Trivandrum, a shimmer of water, flowers, and the reflections of a house. And consider the painting that depicts the artist-persona attempting to regain control of a kitchen that has been overrun by pigeons: while some of them are pecking at crumbs on the floor, he stands on a patch of grilled light, turning to look at a pigeon that has just flown in through the window. In a wonderfully eccentric fashion, this work riffs on the archetypal scene of the Annunciation: the artist is no Virgin, of course, and yet the Angel-bird brings him momentous news, to which he must attend. Perhaps it has to do with the occupational hazards of balancing his love for a well-managed domestic interior and his passion for nature’s exuberance, in a culture and a climate that encourage the blurring of the line separating them. Perhaps the bird’s wing-beat will echo as a storm in the house that is the artist’s heart.
[Extract from the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition]