C. DOUGLAS: A PARADOX

Review by Hemavathy Guha
September 01, 2018

 

In Search of Fragments
C. Dougles
July 7-28, 2018
Akar Prakar, New Delhi

An exhibition of paintings from his early periods as well as recent ones of one of the senior most and reticent artist from Chennai, C. Douglas is on at Delhi’s Aakar Prakar, in Defence Colony, New Delhi. It opened on July 7 and the opening was sombre just like the artist.

C. Douglas indulges in creating grey tinted paintings on crumpled paper with which he has come to be identified. He ventured into this mode in the 90’s influenced by German expressionists. Let’s go back a little and try to trace his journey beginning from his childhood in Kerala, later as a student of the famed Madras college of arts and crafts and then as a resident of Cholamandal artist village. Douglas originally hails from Kerala where he attended Balan Nair’s art school for a year. Subsequently he took admission in the College of arts and crafts, Chennai where he was placed in the ceramics section which made him concentrate on terracotta and ceramic vases. It was here he be friended the artist K.Ramanujam, who was senior to him and started spending his time at Cholamandal where he lived. Ramanujam’s vulnerability and his unification of art and life found an echo in the young artist Douglas. He was drawn both to Ramanujam’s persona as well as to his ink drawings inspired by film, fantasy and architecture. Ramanujam’s untimely death in 1973, shattered Douglas who moved to Germany only to return subsequently to the village. Like Ramanujam, who, in the words of Douglas, depicted himself travelling but never arriving, his works began to express the desire ‘to leave but never to reach’.

Douglas is fond of reading, poetry, philosophy and particularly fond of modernist authors like T.S. Eliot, Rilke, Rimbaud and Camus as well as theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. Aware of the limitations of reading and theory, Douglas says through an analogy ‘Paul Cezanne always dreamt of a fleshy woman and he was about to embrace her, but she turned out to be a skeleton’. Hence a lot of importance is given to ‘body’ in his works, even if they are those of mannequins as we come across in the smaller works. He has used various techniques like crumpling the paper, sometimes even walking over it to get the texture and staining the paper with tea, stitching it and at times spreading sand over it.

The present exhibition traces his journey from the 1990s till the present. Several works in the exhibition are undated, but we can presume they must be from 1990s as the recent ones are of period from 2007 onwards.

As we enter the gallery, we are treated to the small works on paper clubbed together as ‘missed call’ series from 2008. In these works, where he has used metallic colours like gold and silver extensively, Douglas is supposed to have moved from his ‘dark phase’ to flat surfaces and colours. In these works, one notices phone numbers randomly noted, bunch of flowers perhaps not delivered or expected but not received, the receiver of the phone kept off the hook, broken ladders, the disjointed body and limbs of mannequins or humans thrown here and there creating a unified composition.  Viewers can derive their own meanings and metaphors from these small format works of which there are many displayed.

The large format painting titled Mirror II, 2007 is a multimedia on canvas.  The major part of the canvas has a swathe of silver pigment with two birds flying. A man is depicted in the foreground with his hand on the hips and pointing at his shirt which is separated and thrown off. Words, numbers and symbols fill up the canvas which are a characteristic of artists from Chennai of his generation. One also notices repeated impressions of a stamp on the left side of the painting. In another big work titled Mirror I, 2007, a man in striped clothes is lying on the floor. Bubbles with numbers and words occupy the foreground of the canvas. The man seems to be dreaming or waiting. This painting too has a swathe of silver pigment with flying birds and symbols in red ochre in the background.

There are two charcoal works on paper which are quite small and subdued.

1990s were the times when he began working on his characteristic grey works influenced by German expressionism. The neutral colour of grey represented a liminal state that embraced vulnerability over heroism and uncertainty over finality, says the curatorial note accompanying the exhibition.

The work titled ‘Listening Ear’ has a man sitting on a ladder and a gramophone playing with the HMV dog sitting and listening. A pendulum is hanging indicating perhaps time, which the man is holding and whose string is tied to the flying birds. The birds seem to be singing indicated in the form of bubbles with dots in red ochre. The paper is crumpled with touches of red colour here and there. In the blind poet and butterfly series, butterflies in white and ochre are shown in one painting and, in another, butterflies and caterpillars have been depicted in the head of the central figure. The folds of the paper are quite visible. It  is interesting to note that he depicts always two birds one black and another white.

In a small exhibition of this nature, one cannot fathom the depth and sincerity of the volume of work executed over several decades by the artist. Douglas’s art and life are a constant process of negotiation between different identities; that of an artist from another state living in Chennai; as an artist within Chennai living in cholamandal and as an artist who is an integral part of the Madras art movement but creates works that cannot be easily fitted within nativist ideology of the movement. Douglas does not see the predicament of one human being as being fundamentally different from the other. Within the Madras art movement where identities were being forged based on collective identities of language, culture or region, one can conclude that Douglas addressed the human being on a one to one basis.