Great Western Studios,
February 8 to 22, 2003
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.
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 whole.
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.