Pooja Iranna’s recent works recast the invisible forces of nature with complex enigmatic meanings. Her interest still remains in the consequent exploration of resilience and resolve while confronting the drab and decadent in human experience. One can vividly recall the engaging contradictions she has presented before. For instance, the intricate compositions of building-like forms, of “structures” constructed with delicate crushed paper and fragile networks of painted threads and sticks. In a similar vein, her large watercolours here, exhibit a palpable gravity and a timeless monumentality despite the fragile looking (but resilient) membranes of her painted structures. Held in precarious relationships, the structural filaments and shadowy spaces subvert the stereotypical notions of nature and environment.
The compelling ambiguity of her painted image is indeed intriguing- it is neither the image of a thing nor a specific object nor without a reference to it. It is neither abstract nor representational, nor merely structural or sculptural. Yet there are facets that belong to each/all of them. In negating the notion of the outward spectacle, the artist oscillates between arrays of pictorial possibilities.
Notice here the typically transparent watercolour is layered to exude effects of viscous lava, the burning colours of intense fire. Employing a sparse vocabulary, Pooja creates poetry that whispers; yet the strength of her voice resonates in the stony ambience. The dark and haunting specters evoke unnerving presences that humble the human intellect before the forces of the sublime. The viewer is made to sense the awe of nature without making an explicit reference to it. While the work does not qualify either as landscape or architecture, the quest intends to go beyond the scaffolding of space and structure. Even within the precincts of abstraction, Pooja is able to weave her subjective experiences that reveal emotional and psychological states using the barest economy of color and form.
The Intimacy of Perception
Having travelled extensively for the last three years, Pooja admits that for the first time she has experienced the vastness of nature indeed more intensely than ever during her metropolitan upbringing. In the city, nature is enclosed in pockets between buildings, or then framed and bounded as a manufactured backdrop. To Pooja, it is the unframed, unbounded and deterritorialized nature that evokes a sublime mystery. Through selective details that are amplified or subdued, she accentuates the coexistence of contradictory forces in a suspended tension.
An exquisite vision is in play here with an uncanny capacity for visual communication. There is an elusive introversion embedded deep within these restricted colors and textures that heighten the volatility of spaces. The most stable forms are made unstable through the experience of displacement and disequilibrium. In between the tilted views, steep slopes and arduous hostile spaces wherein vision is blocked and points of contact lost, Pooja plants a pocket of concentrated light or a rim of kinetic energy, touching on aspects of the surreal, the minimal and the lyrical. The painted image is potentially wedged between anticipation and fear.
For the last decade or so that I have been looking at Pooja Broota’s works, I have consistently noted that she is never in a rush to create. She assigns ample time to mulling over ideas, observations and sensations that draw her attention. She clarifies her conceptual image with innumerable preliminary drawings before she initiates the appearance of the image on the paper. Every detail regarding colour, shape, length and thickness of shapes is pre-meditated and yet all is not measured or based on pure empiricism as it may empty it of all its mystery, and reduce it to a mere quality. The inevitable “unknown” of the desired form unfolds through the worked layers to translate the intimacy of perception.
While contemplated through architectural spaces, Pooja’s images are not about buildings as much as about vibrations, frequencies and relationships that are realised through them. The human is absented but only to become a witness to the changing face of the earth. This is accentuated by her passion for photography that has made her see the world with more alertness and engagement than ever before. The bulging stresses of heaving forms, the pressured load bearing columns, the out-of-joint edges, neglected nooks and corners, all stir her imaginative powers and elicit psychological responses closer to human feeling and experience. Often the insignificant details hold pictorial potential and spring surprises to gain magnified presences in Pooja’s works.
There are many conventions broken here. Encountering her recent watercolours on paper, one is struck by an expanded metascape that is seen from no where, an experiential vision that does not need to be enclosed in a linear perspective. I was instantly drawn to the unusual choice of her medium, her preference for watercolour to paint her large, stark non-representational imagery, the largest being four by eight feet on paper. Relinquishing the ascribed attribute of immediacy with the watercolour daub or its liquid brushstroke, Pooja works in dense layers, veiling different colours by gently tending the surface of the paper with short and rapid hand movement, bringing solidity to the fragile membranes of her structures. As a result, the forms do not remain static but exude a silent energy.
“This is the biggest I have ever gone (4ft. x 8ft.)”, says Pooja, who is known for her works in small format celebrating the intimate touch and warmth of her hand as transferred on to the various materials that she works with - paper mache, straw, sticks, threads, crushed paper and paints. Interestingly, in these paintings, the large expanse of the surface has gone even sparser, erased of all cultural markers, suggestive of physical energies that endlessly circle the vistas of infinite time and space. Rejecting the ease of a thick impasto stroke in acrylic or the viscous sweep of oil paint, she gets adventurous with the watercolour medium known to be more suited to intimate paper sizes and indulged for free spontaneous dabbling of paint. Another revered attribute associated with traditional watercolours is its effect of transparency that brings light and airiness while retaining the white paper base as part of its final image. Pooja has instead laboured the medium to work out a new language. Her rather dark and dense paintings use watercolour to sculpt the image, turning as it were the liquid into ice via her process, transforming it into a solid substance. The hand-drawn structures with their pressured contours and irregular edges capture the hand painted variance in a blanket of minute strokes.
In the many layers that coat the paper, the artist seems to be testing the resilience of the medium itself. For Pooja no other medium would have effectively worked to simultaneously convey both vulnerability as well as the resilience that characterise human existence.
In her words,
“I have always liked treating my material differently, taking on the challenge of its unpredictability while working. For me seeking my own language has always been a struggle and continues to be. Initially I start off with many sketches that are basic drawings of nature and structures that I respond to. With the rudimentaries in place, it proceeds rather intuitively within self imposed restrictions.”
The perfection of geometry is negated in her imagery to address the crooked and zigzag contours that go out of shape either bearing weight or then confronting irresistible force. She is averse to using the straight edge, which she feels pulls a dead line without vibrancy or force. “My lines never go straight…if they go straight they will go dead”. Certainly, there is no straight line in nature as such. Nature by itself is not geometrical though artists like Cezanne and Picasso have investigated and deduced its basic structure through a formal geometry. For Pooja, it is important to evoke varied emotions through her hand drawn forms. Compressed as if by time and history they acquire a weathered look, but in their imperfections and inflections, they carry the vortex of energy, the regenerative powers of the womb.
Starting from swaying a thick brush soaked in the fluid colour, the paper is veiled with earthy colours and made relatively opaque. Gradually, the size of the brush shrinks and from broad bands of colours Pooja arrives at drawing linear textures with a fine brush. The quick drying tendency of watercolour allows working in a rhythmic flow. Using a consistent modulation of the rapid feather touch strokes, Pooja alters their routes to suggest surface undulations. Her colour palette is a deliberate choice as Pooja believes that while working on earth colours, they get more and more mysterious with each layer and draw out the stored forces of nature. There is however one work that shifts to shades of aquamarine and brings to mind the colours of the deep sea. The attempt is at capturing the flowing sea and its rhythm within the imaginatively sliced forms. One may ask- how do we hold the sea in a form? For Pooja, it is never through direct transcription but through vibrant colour and gestural mark making that symbolise its mystery.
Finally, we come to the ultimate paradox. Pooja intricately paints, filling the entire surface in order to create emptiness. This emptiness but overflows with primal energies that help realize the mute meanings of existence.
(Roobina Karode is an independent curator & historian based in New Delhi)