When one enters Shruti Gupta’s studio space, one is inevitably struck by its inhabitants- the large-scale human images, central to the anthropomorphic world of her canvases. They do not look at us, and in fact they do not look at each other. Intrigued by the sense of indifference, one could ask why there is no exchange, not even a shared glance between these human images.

On probing Shruti’s works further, there does come to mind reminiscences of an old fashioned engagement with the now seemingly lost tradition of models and props in a studio setting. Nevertheless, her art school academic realism has but taken on a personal dimension in her deliberate figural ambiguity. I see these large sized canvases of Shruti Gupta as `structures of visuality’ –as intended negotiations between human figures and neutralized spaces. Her figures, both male and female, are boxed, positioned, blocked, placed and displaced, but within the geometry of spaces that act as her confining frames. Within these various framing propositions, she has opened the possibilities of re-looking into the otherwise banal and stark world of human presences.

The termination of continuous experiential space and her dismissal of easy fittings and viewings of figures in the pictorial space is quite eye-catching. These grouped and at times solitary figures have no intrusions from the outside but appear precariously placed in the moving in and out of space, with no outward distraction. In their static poise, there is a narrative passivity as these figures are more constructed through the body rather than their facial features and physical details. There is staginess to the composition.

Though fully unclothed, her figures are neither confrontational nor provocative- their bare state revealing their structural frames. They are treated as anatomized bodies shaped with clear contours and tonal flesh to hold their corporeality. But again the question that comes to mind is – in their nakedness, do these figures support or counter voyeurism? Personally, to me, these figures dismiss an erotic response towards them. The exposed body is not bared primarily for the pleasure of the gaze. To a great extent, in its treatment, the body has been de-sexed, and one observes nuances of a sublimated visual sexuality. Contours help read the gender, but much is left ambiguous as the artist wishes to de-categorise the figures. Shruti intends her figures to lose their social, political and cultural identity and be placed as bare images, stripped of all artifice and personal markers. In her impersonal narration there is little place for any emotional overtures and sentiment.

For Shruti, expression is more in the body- form or more precisely in the body –posturing. Often the heads of figures are excluded while framing the composition, and even when figures are painted with heads, they are painted unfocused and blurred of their facial detail. In the yellow canvas Divide-it seems the same model has been drawn from different angles. Hands and feet extend to grow into paths of vision that guide our eye to move within a freshly assembled world.

This exhibition begins with the trace of human existence, the presence of a curtain used as a symbolic feature of human environment. The realistically painted nuclear motif of the unspread gathered curtain, is activated by the precise black and white line pulled towards the lower end of the painting to create the necessary depth. The artist is engaged with the idea of how parts can reference wholes. There are works where the figures have also been treated as plaques, placed within the ornamental composition as a component of its design.  In Disassociations, sharp darting lines shot in all directions in an energetic moment, fill the red color field area with a violent animation and crop the figures by razor sharp edges that translate them into truncated motifs. Shruti also brings out the visual contrast between the curvaceous contours and the clear straight lines. If one were to imagine all the figures in their complete form, one would realise the deception that they could never inhabit the canvas space in any other way, and that right from the start, the artist in fact planned the truncated parts strategically. 

In another painting Beyond Boundaries, the twisted rope is used as a divider to create smaller frames within the pictorial frame, heightening the drama with the loops of the rope missing and opening out, making the silhouette of a female figure faintly visible from within the dark earthy surface layers. There are some technicalities invented and enjoyed by the artist with a spontaneous gesturing, for instance splashing colors over large areas, spraying some parts and transforming the blank spaces of the canvas with obdurate paint.

In her treatment of the figures, Shruti blurs categories of a study, of drawing and of painting.

Her paintings begin with an acrylic base as the artist is in a hurry to overcome the unease of facing a blank canvas. There are transparent layers of oil that start building up the canvas. Shruti enjoys using metallic colors for the body, enhancing variations on bronze, copper, gold and silver In the pronounced geometry, almost composed as a picture frame with divisions, silhouettes of figures emerge in their faint appearance. Now an oblique line, now an ellipse, this void is at once a space- one encounters divisions and limits of an architectural script. The painting is played out between- geometry and gesture, repose and movement, factual and the fictionized

Trained at Triveni Kala Sangam and mentored by Rameshwar Broota, Shruti learnt to draw and paint with a model posing in the studio. She loved drawing human figures in 4B and 6B pencils, fleshing out tonal gradations, the play of light and shade on forms. She seems to carry this obsessive liking into her paintings and attempts to evoke similar effects of pencil tonal variations in her painting process, attempting the immediate soft smudge feel and tonal volumes in her oils. Her open admiration for Anupam Sud, the eminent artist/printmaker is visible in her figures placed before us in their quintessential humanity without any extraneous distractions.

Often in her paintings, the plain terrain is inscribed with some flowing drapery or radiant linear traces. The drapery interestingly is introduced to behave around the figure and not on it, concealing not the body-space but the space around it. For instance, in the Green Interlude, the figures stands poised amidst the pronounced geometry of the interior space, the glossiness of the surface creating the atmosphere of light and air to animate everything except the figures. The posed figure in the rear is anatomically culled out with the use of props –drapery folds, knots and tangles. Shruti is of now more challenged by the possibilities of compositioning- the abrupt cropping of figures in their frontal and rear views, editing and deleting all that is irrelevant to the focus. Visual artists encounter artistic problems, which they resolve through process strategies. Shruti has been trained after all these years to resolve some while she still struggles with the others. She is exploring the possibilities of how figures can be used without explicit and obvious signification. How ambiguity can be used positively by a figurative painter to whisper a story, if there is one.

A painting does acquire life beyond the optical and the intended. In the act of drawing on her canvas, the measured proportions of her figures with preciseness, Shruti is aware of the invisible forces and inexplicable urges that lead to transmutations and revisions of the form in her paintings. Shruti oscillates between partial and full views of her human figures that stand unadorned in a shallow projected space, close to the viewer’s vision and yet so distant, aloof and alienated. They are caught in the in-between spaces, where both objectivity and subjectivity crisscross and foil each other so that a single meaning cannot be read into the work.

Roobina Karode
October 2003