Great Western Studios,
February 8 to 22, 2003
Alec Chanda Bacchus
and Penteus n.d.
oil on canvas, 7 x 8 feet [photos by Robin Chanda]
Alec Chanda studied at Camberwell School of Art from 1979 to 1983. He
won second prize in the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery
in 1992. Twenty years after he left art school, his first one-artist
exhibition took place in a studio space beneath London's Westway motorway.
It was dominated by six large oil paintings, each approximately 200
x 240 cm., that took most of a decade to paint (in succession). Each
of these works had a marked freshness and individual atmosphere, yet
each was also, in a sense, the same work painted, again and again, from
scratch. The effect, however, was not of repetition but of rediscovery.
Chanda's large works are
clearly the outcome of an obsessive vision. His approaches to subject,
conception and technique consistently yield a complex multi-figure group,
rich in painterly vitality, moving in and out of focus, and communicating
a sense of personal psychic necessity. That this exhibition was not
held in a commercial space was consistent with the works' manifestation
of a private, enclosed world.
Each painting builds on a
diverse range of source images. In their original contexts these recorded
situations or told stories. Chanda uses such narratives as a spur in
a work's early stages, but as painting progresses each component image
takes on its own character, and Chanda's. A work's eventual subject
is new and not definable by its sources. Combining images derived from
past art with others made from life, each painting generates its own
independent dream space.
Alec Chanda Park
oil on canvas, 7 x 8 feet
Chanda draws incessantly
from the source images he selects. He transfers the results to acetate,
along with drawings from life, and then projects these individually
onto canvas, providing the initial basis for the marks he makes in paint.
He realises one figure at a time in this way. Over months, the final
composition develops through an unpredictable process of accretion.
Figures are deliberately taken to different degrees of resolution. Paradoxically
(in so closely inter-knit a painterly complex), a central concern is
to give a sense of the distinctness of each figure. The painstaking
process is in conscious contrast to the apparently seamless transmission
of much imagery in today's art and media.
Each painting is about a
range of personal preoccupations, both in the art of the past and in
Chanda's own life. But (in his words) 'the subject is not external to
the work, but is what actually happens within its four edges'. It is
about these figures (metamorphosed from their source appearance), about
their relationships, and about the way they occupy the particular space
Chanda creates. It is also about the very process of the emergence of
each painted figure into palpable form. The passage of time during which
Chanda achieves the image becomes, itself, part of a work's subject.
Chanda's criterion for deciding
when a figure is complete is that it be real to him (irrespective of
how - or how easily - the viewer may read it). It is therefore apposite
that in each picture the figure in sharpest focus seems always to be
a kind of self portrait. The deliberate variety of degrees of focus
between the figures in a single work heightens the viewer's sense that
emergence into form is itself one of these works' key themes. A certain
ambiguity plays a constructive role; it is one means of asserting the
equal reality of a painting as representation and as paint. Each work
communicates Chanda's relish for the pigments of which it is composed.
He makes his own paints, using ancient colours that combine richness
with restraint. With these he both builds form and creates what he describes
as 'a sleeve of atmosphere' of veiled light. Among other things, this
is a legacy of his observation of crowded scenes in the bright but dust-filled
air of Indian cities.
Chanda follows simultaneous
impulses towards the realisation of sculptural form and a partial disguising
of the resulting images. His works contain further creative oppositions.
Each large painting is a hybrid, in that its imagery comes from diverse
sources, each motif having been separated from its original context
before being 'digested', sometimes by re-drawing and always by transfer
and re-creation in paint. Chanda sees the initial uprooting as a kind
of violence, yet his emphasis is on a restorative fusion and unity in
each finished work. So resistant is he to doing violence to any figure
that he cannot bring himself to crop it. This is one reason why the
figures in his large paintings go all the way to the ground (on which
they stand in a 'real' way), and why there is always a margin of space
between the complete group and the canvas edge.
Paradoxically, Chanda is preoccupied at once by space and by flatness.
It is important to him that his figures occupy space convincingly, yet
through his insistence on the tightness of each grouping this space
is deliberately squeezed. Beyond the main figure grouping he establishes
deep space, but he counteracts this by using devices such as a connecting
sweep of paint to tie each group to the canvas edge. Each group faces
the viewer, as if on a stage. The figures are, of course, acting out
the story of their invention by Chanda's imagination, but a stage-like
character derives also from his tendency to look at a painting as he
imagines a sculptor might look at a relief.
Another contrast these pictures
resolve is that between the speed of Chanda's paintmarks and the no
less strongly communicated slowness of the process by which each painting
is created. Unsatisfied till an image has been thoroughly realised,
Chanda is closer to the painstaking processes of Giacometti than to
the appropriation and direct quotation employed in much art today, with
its corresponding rapidity of impact. His own paintings unfold for the
viewer with a slow amplitude. This is so despite (as well as because
of) the constant dialogue between the sense of finality in each composition
and the continuous movement it displays - of people, of light and of
painterly gesture. Chanda's heroes include Hals and de Kooning, no less
than Giacometti; their paintings all show a telling nervous vitality.
But equally important is the stability, coupled with invention, of Poussin,
Chardin and Morandi (as well as, contrastingly, Guston's psychological
freedom within a depictive, painterly process). There is a connection
between Chanda's fascination with synthetic Cubism and his admiration
for the relief sculptures of Dick Lee (one of his teachers), which demonstrated
a willingness to take anything from anywhere, in order to create a new
Alec Chanda Pinter
oil on canvas, 7 x 8 feet
It is important for Chanda
that the viewer be able to believe in the reality of each painting,
both as a pictorial construction and as depiction. Yet he loves accidents
and ambiguities in art and is therefore happy to retain these in a picture
when they are necessary to something that takes precedence even over
comprehension by the viewer, namely the reality of the painting in terms
of Chanda's own imagination and formal sense. This, perhaps, is why
the viewer can feel simultaneously unsure of quite what is going on
in one of these large paintings, yet also that it is satisfyingly complete.
In the exhibition, the large
paintings faced a wall hung with some twenty-five small recent pictures
painted in oil and egg tempera on paper, in a quite different, brighter
palette. These were made swiftly, on a crowded Spanish beach, from direct
observation. They show sharp contrasts of light and shade, the brilliant
colours of beachwear, chairs and umbrellas and figures caught swiftly
as if with the odd but truthful instantaneity of a snapshot. These works
abound in lively and unpredictable conjunctions of form. Unlike the
large canvases, each had to be achieved quickly, often in much less
than an hour, and in a situation where Chanda had much less control
over his motif. For all these reasons, the 'look' of these pictures
is very different, yet the results are revealing of some of the constants
in Chanda's work. Recognisable instincts can be seen at work, toward
the compression of figure groups and toward the creative elision of
figure and ground (and equally of forms that in reality are widely separated
spatially). Reportage and construction are kept continuously in balance.
The paint is applied precisely, yet with a delightful freedom and fluidity.
The works combine the familiar sense of concentrated engagement with
a telling directness - even abruptness - that it would be interesting
to see introduced into future large pictures.