Rhapsody in Abstraction: Essay by Vijayakumar Menon

(On Unni Pulikkal’s exhibition ‘Rhapsody in Abstraction’)


The process of transforming shapes having sensory stimulation into significant forms creating imageries of meaningful situations is an individual’s internal / mental activity of presentation and re-presentation of concepts. The production of new concepts by the artist with cognitive skills in creativity is his/ her intellectual and aesthetic activity and the subsequent satisfactory response to it by the onlooker is the counter-signature for it. Any activity is placed between standardization and efficiency, and the semiotics of keeping a real shape as a sign is a kind of surrogate for concept. Deriving the uniqueness from the common and the general by framing, cropping and re-placing is ‘processing of the language’ towards the arena of art. The placement is contextualization which can convey meanings if the sign can signify the situation.

Any shape has multi-potential to become anything if abstracted from its familiar and generally accepted context. Appropriation of it by the artist making use of the abstract form of it and its potentiality of being generous to become ‘another’ is a process in terms of the medium. Reaffirming the validity of abstraction painters, sculptures and photographers create plenty of spatial elements in temporal actuality. Any form can be made a part of the super-grid of abstraction provided it can make a link in the interlocking co-ordinates of art, language and concept. Representational or imitative art such as painting, sculpture and literature didn’t have possibilities to become as abstract as music or architecture till the 19th centaury. But the folk culture with its abstract thoughts has created a lot of abstract patterns connected with floor pictures, body painting and decorative motifs. Floor pictures/diagrams, body painting etc connected with religious or ritual activities did not have the chance to go beyond the periphery of rules attached to them. Western abstract art in the20th centaury had the initiative to see art as “an entity in itself and not an imitation of anything else.” Can that definition be something like subordination or distortion of the ‘nature of it’ to give emphasis only on the plastic quality of language? The predominance of exercise in the articulation of language could be seen in some geometric abstraction in sculptures and also in colour patterns in paintings termed as Abstract Art. But in most of these examples some residual elements to recognize the subjects could be seen. Any how abstraction can also be considered as a pattern of language to communicate concepts if a visual is articulated to become an imagery, a metaphor, a sign or a metonym. Deriving forms from nature to make them motifs or decorative patterns was a phenomenon in art that gained high acclaim in the Art Nouveau movement in the west. Moving away from decoration, now artists are taking the abstracted forms as a ‘vocabulary’, for creating a language of signs to ‘narrate’ the concept/context in space and time. The abstracted form is then transformed into a metonym or a partial metonym to contextualize a situation or to signify a concept to communicate a feeling or to enable it to narrate a situation. It is a long journey from representative art to non-representative one and from there to narrative art again by using abstracted forms being made metaphors. When photography was introduced the “machine art” had a paradoxical and dichotomous relationship with painting whose language was manipulated to make the photographs pieces of fine art items.

Fine Art Photography.

The historical situation of replacing the “mimetic subject matter” by other concerns is important in the development of visual arts. Abstraction has varied styles connected with the cultural and historical contexts. From documentation level when photography moves to inventive and creative field of fine art by articulating subjectively the objects photographed to transmute them into visual lexicon new vistas of expression are opened up.

Exemplary art works having conceptual and aesthetic triumph along with compositional unity can give distinctive stylistic ideals extending the formal values to human situations and social contexts. Such conditions extending to non-conventional and philosophical dimensions hidden within the artistic psyche can create surplus values to images photographed/painted/sculpted. The non-mimetic language of abstraction in photography is a vision and a ‘will-to-form’ which subsequently attach human situations in the context of contemplation. Abstracted forms can either be just generalized patterns or essence of art content; and the imagery thus created can present itself as an entity that conveys the concept through suggestion. The elements in nature are abstract in nature, but the familiarity of which very often doesn’t allow us to deposit meanings in it. But if the ‘physical vision’ is framed and arranged with a ‘perspective’ the ‘camera vision’ can become the organic ‘inner vision’ of concepts, situations and contexts.

Photographs of Unni Krishnan Pulikkal are non-mimetic and non-documentation in nature, but constructed images and imageries (of concepts) derived from surrounding environment and framed systematically through a vision. Tiny water drops, patterns of waves, leaves, creepers, flowers, small creatures, birds and butterflies seen in nature are ‘characters’ narrating the situations or insinuate the moods through photographic language. The transparency of water drops, the ripples formed in water by the fall of a leaf on the surface of it are casual visuals but vision filled. Evening Rhapsody has a ‘stony line’ of the receding evening light on grass. The space-time relation of it is conspicuous as the tones and moods of different spots are made luminous keeping the time sequence confined to a short duration. The Ripple Abstract too is a play of light\ colour in the split-time continuum keeping the space the same. Each point of space-time phenomenon can be a spot of objective vision having a potential of visionary element in it when something is watched there contemplating on the motion of its sequence. Leaf Abstraction and Sound of Universe are the silent music of nature felt by mind. The well defined solid sound of the human-made bell with its hanging tongue resonates with the tiny water drops suspended on plants. Water drop is a symbol of universe at micro level, the macro manifestation of which shows the reflection of the cosmos philosophically. The chronicle of the events in the life of miniscule drops displaying their existence to vanish in no time is a vision which has both objective and subjective features having reflective, meditative and metaphysical dimensions. The leaf having a Zen-like contemplative mood of ‘aloneness’ on a textured surrounding is a mendicant whose solitude holds that the truth is not in scrip tunes but in human mind if one will but strive to find it by meditation even in adverse circumstances. Leaf is an image, imagery and a sign in Unni Krishnan’s photographs. The grasshopper that sculpts patterns on leaves is keeping its existence creating new visuals of symmetry in the natural rhythm of forms of organic nature whose ecological balance of dialetics of construction and deconstruction is natural. The horizontal and vertical patterns of growth of leaves and the ever-growing wound on them are the paradigm of inflection of the language of nature. The enigmatic and problematic existence of the simultaneity of freedom and captivity is signified in the narrative sequence of the bird.

Unni Krishnan’s photographic dissemination is painterly in execution with philosophical suggestions of the phenomenal existence of nature, creature and human being. With suggestions, signs and metaphors viewer’s orientation is channeled and the misconception of fine art photography is erased. The qualitative elements of technical progress and artistic substance connected with photography are fused together nowadays by photographers to make it a process and also filled with concepts. The aesthetic levels of fine art photography are finer than a “straight photography” that is more documentation in nature, vision and execution. The realistic representational aspect of camera is excelled to move to the arena of painting and sculpture where the mechanical art form of photography establishes a pictorialism of forms, events, contexts and narratives. Indian scenario of photography has started accepting fine art photography, but the difference between the “machine art” and “creative painting” still persists in the social psyche. The pictorial composition and also the ‘framing’ of what is seen are the main features of visual language that make photography more painterly. ‘Fine art photography’ and ‘straight photography’ are narrowing down their differences as very few ‘creative photographers’ use this language to express their inner thoughts, feelings, moods and concepts rather than just record what their outer eyes can see. Fine art photography is “art mechanics” and also “photo-mechanics”. The division as fine art photography, painting, cinematography etc is so feeble now that it is the unfolding of ideas by artist that is given the prime importance. The “photographic photography” and the “fine art photography” are now becoming two aspects of thought where the language and diction of “photographic photography” becomes the ‘style’ in the conceptual “fine art photography”. The pictorialism of fine art photography is conceptualism having individual, social, philosophical and aesthetic traits in Unni Krishnan’s works. Human eyes have many wider, closer and deeper angles of vision, but the inner eye is more philosophical, meditative, aesthetic and idea-filled.

As painters are interested in ‘photorealism’ fine art photographers are preoccupied with ‘painterly realism’ at conceptual levels. The “self image of the concept” is art and through photography the inter connection between space and time is articulated to make the “photo-art-product” a visual text with apparent images of the self of the artist. The individual image, individualized imagery, encoded sign and programmed symbol make the photographs look like a series and picture sequences. They are metamorphosed into pictorial motifs to instigate the imagination of the viewers to read the visual text saturated with the concepts of the fine art photographer. Individual pictures\ photographs are meticulously combined to make them a composite visual text having meaningful montages of “seeing vision”.

Vijayakumar Menon
(Art  historian and critic from the Baroda school, and author of many books on Indian art history and aesthetics)

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