Nataraj Sharma: Travel Log
June 12 through July 10, 2021
By SIBA DAS, June 2021
It’s not often that an artist contributes something significant to changing the way we see the world. Nataraj Sharma is one such artist.
Look intently at the selection of Sharma’s paintings that Aicon Art has put on display by way of Travel Log. Take your time, as philosopher-art critic Richard Wollheim urged viewers of painting to do. Paintings don’t instantly divulge their meanings, he said. As you become engrossed in Sharma’s works, the enigmas they embody will cast a spell on you. His subdued palette creates a subtle effect, conjuring a brooding resonance. Feelings at once lyrical and haunting ensue, bringing to the surface myths and symbols embedded deep inside your memory. Correlate this with the graphic edge Sharma gives to his works. From this co-joining arises a compelling and complex array of meanings, an ever-widening communion between the artist’s intentions and your responses.
Born in Mysuru (formerly Mysore), India, Sharma grew up in Egypt, the U.K., and Zambia, and has lived a peripatetic life. Travel Log includes seven paintings set in India and two inspired by a trip to Iran. Sharma keeps a personal travel log. Describing a common sight in many Indian cities, he writes, “Thousands of kites and crows circling, rising and falling over the upward thrusting City. Filling the skies with their cries of lament and warning.” Note the clear seeing of his visual sensibility and its permeation by disquiet and foreboding.
Consider Adani Thermal Power Plant, a painting portraying a coal-based enterprise in the Indian state of Gujarat. Immense, far-flung activities seem to be underway, but not a soul can be seen. Set against ocean and earth scenes pictured in a few, muted colors, the plant’s gigantic structures seem earth-dominating, charged with an overwhelming presence. They symbolize the scale of India’s economic activity. But, gazing at the painting, you cannot escape the many premonitions it also seems to embody. That coal-carrying ship perched on the horizon line, isn’t it an ambiguous thing---at once sinister and a siren song?
Look also at View from Room 653, Byculla, another enigmatic painting. It synthesizes two genres; it’s a still life and a cityscape. The curtain edges framing the window and the shadow-casting mug on the window sill tell you of the presence of the viewer, possibly the painter himself. On the roof of a mid-rise building immediately in front of the window is a menial domestic worker, sweeping with a traditional Indian broom. You might think of him as embodying the essential problematic of the Indian social situation---the epic scale of its inequities. You can’t miss him, the solitary human in the painting. That mug on the window sill is also a compelling pointer. Beyond this scene, ranged far into the distance is a shining high-rise city, illumined in slanting natural light. This upthrust city---is it abundance shining on a hill? Or a vision built upon sand?
At first glance, Sharma’s Dungarpur may seem a painting quite unlike Cezanne’s prismatic landscapes. But the Cezanne drawing show (June 6-September 25, 2021) attracting great attention at the Museum of Modern Art tells us things that might illuminate Sharma’s work. Like Cezanne, he finds virtue in staying within a small range of colors. Dungarpur mostly employs black, grey, earth-brown, and some subtle pinks and yellows. Consider also Cezanne’s tendency to leave things unfinished and incomplete, and then see Sharma’s depictions of houses in the lower three quarters of his painting. Most are shadowy, spectral, translucent---and nearly abstract.
Cezanne was anguished by the gap between what he saw and what he painted. This took him into an unknown beyond figuration---his achievement setting the stage for abstraction to emerge. Today, we know Cezanne’s unknown as the liminal space between figuration and abstraction, and you see that liminality shimmering in Sharma’s Dungarpur. His landscape painting is that of a twenty-first century post-abstractionist who has internalized abstraction’s achievements.
In the twentieth century’s second half, landscape art began to be seen as irrelevant to contemporary needs. Industrialization, urbanization, photography, and abstract art seemed to render obsolete the landscape painting that developed in Europe and spread to the Americas in the three centuries that preceded modernism. This even influenced the thinking of geographers. Beginning his career after World War II, one of these, John Brinkerhoff Jackson, removed the term “landscape” from its linkage to painting and garden design. Inventing the concept “vernacular landscape,” he persuaded his American and global audiences to think of landscape as their day-to-day surroundings, including the time and social change embedded in them.
Thinking similar to Jackson’s permeated the photography of Joel Sternberg, who traveled widely in the United States to publish American Prospects in 1987. He not only placed color photography on solid ground as an independent art medium; he transformed landscape photography by bypassing natural wonders to focus on ordinary things and inhabited sites.
In 2018, Sternfeld curated Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime, a Hall Art Foundation and Grey Art Gallery show that spanned not only photography, but also other media. Addressing the Anthropocene’s impacts on planet earth, Sternfeld suggests in a catalogue essay that, in today’s world, the sublime imagined by Ruskin and other nineteenth century figures is no longer a viable idea. In our time, only a calamitous sublime could be real.
Sternfeld also suggests that more than photography, painting may be better positioned to respond to the Anthropocene. “Much of pollution and its consequences are invisible to the camera, but a painter may use strategies to reference them.” By garnering subject matter with enormous contemporary relevance and applying ideas of the sublime seen anew, Nataraj Sharma is reinventing landscape art in the gap between figuration and abstraction. He is rising to Sternfeld’s challenge. WM
Siba Kumar Das is a former United Nations official who writes about art. He served the U.N. Development Program in New York and several developing countries. He now lives in the U.S., splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art more globally. Recent articles have appeared in dArt International, Arte Fuse, and Artdaily.com.view all articles from this author