Of painting and erasing
Samir Aich's socio-esoteric Proposition
We often mask our actual concerns about this world to pose a picture of serenity, wellness and happiness, yet there comes a point when we are inadvertently thrown into the very turf from where reevaluation/rethinking begins. Samir Aich's paintings explore this subterranean phenomenon that keeps pushing to the surface to expose hidden emotions that are not always easy to express, and Samir sort of gets around to doing just the impossible through a mode of art which operates from within a somewhat 'unreal space'. And his aim is to arrive at a scenographic model wholly uncluttered, sometimes even to the point of being clinical.
Samir Aich (born 1956) bases his distinct vocabulary on techniques where there are vestigial traces of the Bengal School. As he has been painting almost for three decades now, through the merger of new impulses and known visual elements, we have witnessed a trajectory, one that has grown out of the very fabric of the location specific cultural practices.
For Aich, 1987 happened to be a defining year; his work really began to gain widespread recognition from this point onward. He graduated from the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata in 1978. He had been through hard times when he was in his early teens. Falsely branded as a naxalite, he and many young men like him were subjected to the well orchestrated brutality of the then government whose excesses were aimed at defusing the ultra-left outfit which launched the Naxalbari movement.
Finding himself at the receiving end of unwarranted torments and miseries, Samir experienced, for the first time in life, the state endorsed violence. If we are to pin down the menacing stillness enshrined in Samir's reductive figuration, one will have to take into account the escalating violence in West Bengal during the early years of the 1970s. The impressionable mind of young Samir was visibly shaken by the violent events that affected the social fabric; but, his personal reaction to these developments was kept on hold, until he could speak out in the language of art.
The issue of being socially conscious is not the main point as far as Samir is concerned. As an artist he has always felt that it is also necessary to retain his critical vision coupled with an interest in the entire humanity – the moving, advancing earthlings guided by intuition and knowledge. That he aspired to send the current of his thoughts and ideas across other human spaces, is clearly detected in his actions. He founded 'Shilpi Astha' with Jogen Chowdhury and Suvaprasanna to promote art and artists.
Samir Aich was destined to become a painter, though in his world every art elements come together to form the 'whole,' or at least to transmit a sense of the whole. The artist believes that in order to be a painter of some significance one needs to explore other forms of art to be in awareness to the world which is not built around the sense of vision only.
Though he had trained himself as a commercial artist and set up his own advertising agency, his avid interest in fine arts drove him to experiments and innovations. Deeply influenced by music and poetry, he has always valued exactitude over loosely formed imagery, and unobtrusive, lyrical expression over on-the-face attitude which is the hallmark of many a contemporary artists.
But, art for him was never an esoteric pursuit. Always on the lookout for other avenues to express himself as an artist, Samir tried his hands at set designing, that too for a play on the inimitable Ramkinkar Baij. And his exploratory inclinations also helped him widen his compass – he engaged himself in designing pavilions and Durga effigies along with pendal décor which now redefines the ritual/social architecture which are usually not meant to be permanent. His stint with the film industry too has had some bearings on his development. Samir worked as an art director with eminent filmmakers such as Goutam Ghose, and he also teamed up with Bratya Basu to make a documentary film on eminent artist Paritosh Sen, which could not be completed due to Sen's sudden demise.
As with many other artists from the 1960s and -70s, Samir too is given to 'psychic nomadism' – always trying out new ways to express himself, changing his mode of expression and setting out new directions for his art. From the very idea of flux, his paintings, which are deceptively calm, yet somehow manages to air the malcontent core of this modernist master, are put out in the open to initiate an alternative discourse around humanity and its destination. Perpetually in search of relevance and meaning, Samir's works are cast against a social background that reveals its truths through passionate engagement rather than ideological positioning or repositioning on his part.
Two distinct qualities make Samir Aich stand apart from his contemporaries. Firstly, his saturated self, which is eternally linked with all things that convey a sense of power, a 'qualitative understanding' of the element that builds his surroundings.. Secondly, his artistic language, which thrives on his constant urge for experimentation, transports a certain sense of muteness and a decisive corporeal effectuation. When he declares: “My painting is not for decoration. The owner has to study them over the year,” he is clearly framing his art around the concept of 'revelation.' A work always yields to attempts at interpretation in phases and in references to these revelations the artwork attains longevity in the social/aesthetic sphere.
Samir started out as a neo-realist and gradually moved into figurative themes that, in essence, toggle between appearance and disappearance. Since the turn of the last century he has been constantly experimenting with new pictorial motifs and ideas, hence his progression towards the twilight where the wall between conscious and unconscious is brought down. And this occurs in most of his astutely done pieces, which are figurative representations brought forth with a strong suggestion of his imagination and emotion. If his objective is to give them an unreal aura, a quality that plumbs at once sentimentality and executional rigour connected to expressionistic and minimalistic approaches, Samir's imagery are forceful and his 'expression' reflective of his past groundings in design, realism and other modes of expressions. One recognizes the fact that these are unrelated to high art achievements. It is the quality of changeability which he infuses in a well defined space, or the play field that is a painted surface, which engages the viewer's at a primal level, giving them a sense of unease at first and then dawning an understanding that the body is affected by the tide of time and/or history.
His current body of work is moving more and more towards simplification, a clear indication that the artist is given to a reductivist tendency even when he dwells on the chaotic goings on of our time. His sparse painterly gestures and structural economy with surface, or what lies beneath it, delineated in single form, voices discontentment in the subtlest of form. His conviction that an artist's environment is the primer of his work, thus, gets reflected in a somewhat silent manner, and the dissonance of urban life leaves its trammels in his work in the form of a faint resonance.
How he treats 'space' apparently determines the end results. Unobtrusively textured surface of his canvas is usually inflicted by a single, moving line, thereby creating a sense of the eternal space which, from the viewer's point of view, seems more akin to a positive delineation of the negative work surface. Though, critics have remarked that 'humans float through his works in gay abandon,' his propositions are not really a way for him to play hide-and-seek with the viewers as some may surmise, but a way to make visible the transformation the body goes through in the inhospitable atmosphere of the city. The figures, sometimes, apparition-like, emerge from behind the layers of colour, not to take the viewer by surprise but to initiate a communiqué. It is rare to have witnessed a combination of figural presence, or its vestiges, in the midst of a quiet backdrop – abstract in its constitution. Aich favours breaking down the formal difference between the figurative and the abstract. He resorts to 'figurate' abstract concepts to dwell on the primordial force of 'nature'.
When Samir Aich chooses to voice the fact that he is facing up to the reality of his time, the results are often depressing. His series called Bubbles, or his earlier pieces entitled Chaos and Orde and, The Voyage and Glow in the Gloom, give the impression of an artist who has impulsively ventured into a murky world; they are what one may call 'anger images'. Though the darkness he invokes helps transform his pictorial motif into a vehicle for his romantic self-understanding it also colours them with metaphorical meanings. Thus, the eternal human odyssey, along with the travails and turmoil associated with it, inform his language of expression.
The other part of the oeuvre reveals his nuanced play with tint and shade, to speak of the way he manipulates the technical aspect of painting. After having reduced his colour to no more than a scale of values, he pursues tonal variation with the fervour and discipline of an ascetic, constantly evaluating, weighing and balancing the relative strengths of all that it encounters in the search for order. The erased areas take on a new dimension that assists in understanding the gestures his figures bring into view. The paintings work best when the salient elements are all held in tension on the same plane, with no single element appearing to overpower the other. This lends his work the quality that we may refer to as 'suspended in a simultaneous presentness of being'.
Considering his entire oeuvre, one is never surprised to encounter works distinct in individual character and presentation, and yet they retain his unique mark as a painter. The turmoil in his own life, the decay, the destruction of the society in its deepening crisis and the conflicts that arises from that crisis have shaped his art and all this invade his canvas time and again. Through his work he tries to assimilate the experiences that have left him wounded. A critical reading of Aich's paintings, drawings, sculpture or fiberglass installation however might lead one to delineate as well as define them as being symbolically expressionistic.
An artist of repute, Aich's significance lies in his ability to re-invent his pictorial vocabulary and language, which, in its formal purity transcends the sense of location and time. In its mysterious presence, each painting becomes the symbol of a dream or, perhaps, an awakening at the level of the unconscious reckoning. The temperance, the calm and the coherence of thoughts is the result of a magic that comes from a heavenly realm, one which is also visited by a pall of doubt pushing the boundary of his predicate symbol.