Ways of unseeing: The art of overanalysing art 

A kind of criticism dwells in the distance created between art and meaning. Why is the obvious so suspect? Why is the surface not nourishing enough?  

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

“Embrace” by Gieve Patel (2016)

“Embrace” by Gieve Patel (2016) | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

You are looking at a painting, say Gieve Patel’s Crows With A Debris (1999)—two crows are pecking at the remains of an animal flattened and decapitated by the tyre of a car or bike; the tyre mark is embossed on the grey surface of the tarred road, the grooves of the tyre outlined in blood; there is a used condom in the foreground and a fence with broken barbed wire in the background.

An image of casual brutality and life being lived alongside it, feeding off of it. Imagine, then, the gaze of a critic that looks at the used condom and theorises its presence on the canvas as one symbolising “the transience of pleasure”; looking at the fencing, the wiring, and gesticulating excitedly its meaning, “the abortion of quest”. The kind of cauterised gaze that takes a thick, slippery image and forcefully attaches it to meaning, to a stone-anchored symbol, pulling your gaze away from the image, towards that symbol. This gaze, unable, uninterested, or incapable of sinking you into the image, distracts your body away from it, creating, instead, an alternative, parallel, otherwise, otherplace site of fixation. In some sense it proliferates the image, but in a more palpable sense, it bankrupts it.

Ranjit Hoskote, the prolific poet, translator, art critic, curator, cultural theorist, and a general fixture in the Mumbai arts circuit, penned essays for exhibitions over the years on the late artist Gieve Patel; they are pooled and pulled together in To Break And To Branch: Six Essays On Gieve Patel. Hoskote’s friendship with Patel gleams through the essays, in the intimate details that are strung in.

Otherwise, these essays offer a kind of criticism—if you want to call these that; they read as art catalogues generally do, uncritical, contextualised, and overwrought embraces of the artist—that insists that art needs to be read, because it often imagines the surface as “annotated”. To be fair, many of these essays come from a previous decade, the earliest from 2000, and in Amit Varma’s podcast The Seen And The Unseen, Hoskote did caution against his early criticism which “tended towards a certain kind of arcane expression”.

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The title comes from one of Hoskote’s essays where he sees breaking and branching as “crucial movements that captivate [Patel’s] attention: nodes of pain, but also of growth.” This is also the crucial movement in Hoskote’s criticism, holding the paintings in his hands, and theorising away from it. The interpretative movement of these essays is not dialogic, but digressive. You can feel the vapour of thought rising away from the canvas; nothing settles. This might be the architecture of thought that comes most intuitively to Hoskote, for even on the podcast, when he was asked questions that required him to be concrete, substantial, and specific, he would ruminate instead in abstractions, metaphors, and “brutal” generalisations.

This posture is strange when deployed on an oeuvre like Patel’s because of the thick, inviting materiality of his surfaces—not just his paintings but also his poetry; they ask you to be intensely present.

So thick that when both Hoskote and the poet Arundhati Subramaniam remark about Patel’s poem “On Killing A Tree”, which was part of their school syllabus, they refuse to indulge the metaphors and prescriptive morals of the poem. Hoskote’s fixation on the “sharp-edged tonality… survived [his] teacher’s valiant efforts to domesticate it into a… cautionary tale”. Subramaniam writes: “It was my first realisation that a gaze unclouded by sentiment could evoke something truer than sympathy… that poetry could lie in a simple unblinking intensity of attention.”

It is in pursuit of that intensity that we consume criticism—to transcribe that intensity, to contextualise it so as to make the intensity more clear, less clouded, to make the cloudedness more productively ambivalent, and to provoke further intensities, to be in a recursive dialogue with it. For the questions to never feel settled. I suppose I am asking for a criticism that brings you closer to the surface of the work of art.

To transcribe that intensity is to give shape to a feeling. When we see the paintings of Patel’s wells, an exploration of his childhood at Nargol, Hoskote writes movingly of the paradox of looking at these paintings—“to look down is to look up and indeed, to look into a depth is to risk falling or being disoriented, losing oneself.” This poignant observation, even if it overstates an “attack of vertigo”, is padded by a peacocking, undoing this moment of repose: “It is a moment fraught with the potentiality of self-dissolution.” How fragile is this self that is dissolved by dizziness? Why are words like self and dissolution and transcendence—in the spiritual sense—being deployed so carelessly, so as to render them toothless?

In a sense, Patel’s art is what art critic Sebastian Smee calls “baroque”—to “transcend… programmatic dictates” by refusing to keep the viewer at a “chaste distance”. To look at Patel’s Crow With Egg-Shell (1999), a crow precariously balancing an egg on its beak, and to see the egg as a “symbol of fertility” and the image as an “allegory of the imagination under threat from destructive forces”, is to see how art criticism can almost un-make the art itself. Remember how most archaeologists of a certain vintage would look at ancient sculptures of women hewn from the debris of time, and think: “fertility goddess”?

This is not to prescribe an allergy to allegory or a mockery of metaphor. There are ways that these fragments of speech can broker and broaden and branch our relationship to the world, and ways that they burden it; ways that they insist on burdening it.

When criticism dulls that intensity, giving into what John Berger in his seminal television programme Ways Of Seeing called “false mystification”, it is not just criticism, but the work of art itself that is washed out.

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Embrace (2016), one of Patel’s images, leaks in yearning. There are two men, seemingly vertical, spooning, the one behind holding on to the one in front in an expression of Josh O’Connor-desire, while the man being held, has his finger pointing upward—tawhid, perhaps?—eyes shut in rapture. Hoskote notes that the painting based on an image Patel saw of football players, could be “read, perhaps quite persuasively, as homoerotic kinship”, only to swerve immediately and fixate, instead, on a more spiritual reading that interests him: “of exaltation, of communion, of intimate exchange transmuted into a sacred moment… perhaps, a martyred saint and his apostle?”

To evade the most obvious, most potent affect of the image—desire—and to, instead, float possibilities of pithy spiritual insight is a tiresome tilt away from the image itself. A kind of criticism that dwells in the distance it creates between art and meaning. Why is the obvious so suspect? Why is the surface not nourishing enough?

I suppose the fundamental question this brings up is how to see art. To state this question itself hazards the realm of the prescriptive. It is not what is right and what is wrong, but what feels right and feels wrong—the objective tainted by the subjective, a fact undone by feeling. To refuse to see Patel using the Telugu script in the letter a scribe is writing in The Letter Home (2002) as “bold”. To be unsettled by the phrasing of Patel’s exhibition Wells Clouds Skulls as a “transit among the three lokas, three domains of being”, seeing in it a cheapening of an oeuvre using flattened interpretations of “Indic philosophy”. To see that meaning can tarnish feeling, just as much as it can flood it. To, as a critic, dance that fragile dance.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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