Nityan Unnikrishnan’s works on paper and sculptures are reflections of visual incompatibility. In Quiet Times (2012), formless figures relax on a balcony like an old married couple. In Untitled (2012), a creature with a boar’s head is dressed in a fancy outfit. In Figure and Cub with Dog (2012), a disfigured gorilla-like beast cradles an infant with maternal ease. Titled ‘While Everyone is Away’, the exhibition – the artist’s second at Chatterjee & Lal – included 15 works on paper, which combine ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and acrylic, and two wood sculptures propped on metal supports. The paintings allude to the artist’s childhood and previous vocation as a designer in his native Kerala, although the references are largely opaque.
What is clear, however, is the phantasmagoria of biological composites, whose potential to shock is defused by the harmonious mongrelizing and restrained palette. Rather than monstrous, this world feels weirdly ordinary. Despite their otherworldly appearances, the figures seem familiar – seated and socked, they’re phlegmatic, almost bored – as if they’re one of us.
Although they evoke the shapes of clouds, fog and smoke, the figures in Unnikrishnan’s paintings are rendered in animal-like textures: fur, filament and lint mingle with amphibian leather. Some of these figures are posed against backdrops that function more as abstract design elements than actual spatial context. Looking closely reveals an intricate rapport between control and free will. A porous weave of scratchy wisps and wiggles traps gauzy colour. Corralled into units, tracks of pink, grey, green and brown are enlivened by swathes of wan blue. Head in Red (2012), however, changes pace with verve. This work depicts a moving but vague figure engulfed by what appear to be large reddish flames. Here, the presence of colour is relatively free of linear mesh, and obscures rather than clarifies the central entity. Fiercer and more vivid, it is also the liveliest in a panorama of creatures that could be easily mistaken for unlikely heroes.
Whether depicting half-human half-animal creatures or formations that resemble clouds and haze, most of the work showcases a central protagonist. Take Untitled (2012), in which five implausible landscapes stack around a human form that is credible as a body while missing a head – in its place is what appears to be a sack or an animal. The faceless figure’s identity is arguably insignificant. What seems to matter more is that even a slight introduction of mystery can turn a prosaic body into an arresting character. In a work from the series ‘Man with Wings’ (2012), a peacock-tailed pseudo-bear poses cheekily with his anus to the viewer – a kind of energy source or hot spot articulated by the emission of feathery vapours. In the lower half of the picture, the animal protagonist joins two fields of colour, whose token nod to physical context – a visual strategy that pervades the exhibition – seems designed to heighten the enigma of crossbred form.
The show’s two sculptures – both Untitled (2013) – also reflect a play between a protagonist and a non-specific context. Each composition represents a broken bridge raised over a base plank rendered with iridescent strokes suggestive of water. Whereas dynamic sculptural details distinguish the bridges’ dilapidation, the water feature is comparatively less expressive. It is in this capacity as physically flawed but remarkable entities that the bridge sculptures replicate the magnetism of the figures in the paintings; the heroic effect in both cases is made possible by de-emphasizing a physical setting. The strength of Unnikrishnan’s images lies in his fascination with the relationship between portrait and gratification, namely our capacity to relish mutations of organic resemblance, which are neither overly grotesque nor delicate. John Singer Sargent’s observation is apt here: ‘A portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth.’