Nityan Unnikrishnan: The Way Out

Nityan Unnikrishnan: The Way Out

Nityan Unnikrishnan’s work sits in the same open train compartment as the work of Indian painters such as Bhupen Khakhar and Sudhir Patwardhan. Unnikrishnan has a valid ticket for the compartment but he sits at an angle from his elders, his knees sticking into the corridor, looking out through a different window and telling very different stories.

Unnikrishnan paints cityscapes teeming with people, the quirks of individual men and women, interiors detailed with the minutiae of domestic life. A keen sense of observation and the skill to image the world around are obvious in his work. The silver-haired men at their desks seem comfortingly familiar; so also a middle-aged couple in their home surrounded by the messy paraphernalia of domesticity. However, the sense of the familiar ends almost without us realising it. Unnikrishnan branches off from conventional representation, adding a surreal visual vernacular that takes us into mindscapes and emotive states.

In some of the paintings and many of the sculptures, impossible architecture is frozen on the verge of toppling. In a couple of images, the poet Kalidas rides the undulating branch, his axe working away between himself and the tree trunk. People sunbathe on a beach under dirty grey skies. Others drink wine and prepare salads beneath paintings of people sitting down to lunch. There is an upside-down horse balanced on a plinth, its legs flailing like those of an upended beetle – perhaps it’s a warhorse, perhaps the great warrior hero or heroine who rode it has been plucked into a neighbouring plane, where they continue to ride empty air, or perhaps a tree branch.

Unnikrishnan’s work offers multiple views of heterotopia – with figures, objects, places and spaces painted and sculpted in an approximation of the world around us, where the details are precise, yet somehow always askew. What is this place in which men comfortable in their nakedness lie relaxing, oblivious to cockerels larger than themselves? Where is this that rocky outcrops appear to squat like humans, where in the far distance we spot a listing see-saw and, in another black and white painting, a doomed city and a shipwreck?

Looking at these images we are forced to ask – is it this world and this time we are inhabiting or are we trapped in someone’s nightmare, caught in the maze of somebody’s regrets and longing?

Nityan Unnikrishnan: The Way Out will be on view at gallery Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai from March 14 – April 27.

All images are credited to gallery Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.

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