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J Chuhan Recent Paintings

J Chuhan Recent Paintings

Introduction Matthew Clough Inner Body — Outer Body — The Dynamics of Visual Aesthetics in J Chuhan’s work Alnoor Mitha The Body Undone Dr Rina Arya




Notes on contributors




Introduction Matthew Clough

The University of Liverpool is delighted to be hosting this exhibition of paintings by J Chuhan at the Victoria Gallery & Museum. Chuhan’s association with the University stems back to 1998, when she exhibited with Laura Arison in the University’s Senate House. In the intervening period contact has been maintained, and the University was particularly pleased to acquire a small group of Chuhan’s works from the Arts Council in 2010. Since the Senate House exhibition Chuhan has continued to successfully explore themes which, as Dr Arya notes, can be read as ‘staunchly feminist.’ There is an intense interest in the female and a celebration of what being a woman means. There is also an examination of origins and racial identity: both these strands bring a fascinating and positive aspect to the works. Of particular note, however, is the great stride forward in technical assurance which the past years have brought. The almost obsessive use of impasto paint has given way to more fluid washes and subtle layers: here is an artist recognising the importance of knowing when to stop. Chuhan is, in the words of Alnoor Mitha, ‘an extraordinary, prolific artist’, and this selection of recent works proves both delightful and fascinating. Minotaur 2010 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm



Inner Body — Outer Body — The Dynamics of Visual Aesthetics in J Chuhan’s work Alnoor Mitha

J Chuhan paints passionately. Her subject matter is often a multitude of reference points within her immediate (urban) environment, e.g. the garden, portraiture, the female body and ideas about conception, birth, growth and life. Chuhan loves to observe nature and absorb its visual effect on the eye, which in turn has a cumulative impact. The memory weaves the everyday experience through the magic of drawing and painting. Her daily practice begins as a ritualistic act — a performance, a kind of inner bodily prayer. It is bold, with an unfiltered visceral intensity. It is the power of paint and drawing that enhances the inner spirit to come alive, her paintings sing songs and dance both in the “inner body” as well as the “outer body.” Chuhan admires a varied line-up of artists spanning cultural phenomena and artistic styles from Britain and internationally. For example, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Amrita Sher-Gil, Jenny Saville and Rabindranath Tagore are just some of the key luminaries that inspire her. Artists have always observed other fellow artists, keeping abreast of the artistic pedagogy. Chuhan’s paintings evoke the senses; they flash through the eye and are a “highly sensual impression of the surface of the skin as well as the mass of the body.”1 In many ways some of her monumental works also acknowledge Jenny Saville’s larger than life paintings. It is this conversation with the subject matter that makes her want to act out a drama through her work. She fills the empty canvas with marks and painterly bodily gestures that encapsulate her journey, or shall we say the many encounters she has whilst making the image. I have known Chuhan for over two decades. Most recently we have started to communicate in detail about her approach to making paintings and the process involved. She prefers to work from home; her studio is converted from a bedroom, with an assemblage of drawings and hundreds of small and larger paintings gathered meticulously. She paints day and night. Images live inside and outside her body, informing the painterly narrative. Chuhan is a deep


thinker, a philosopher of our time and generation. She is very serious about her work and speaks softly. “I make paintings and drawings in a reclusive studio, making lines, marks, smudges and so on, relying on a combination of deliberation and accident; allowing the image to arrive and then not overdoing it and thereby loosing it, makes for a precarious activity. When painting a constant process of revising, changing, destroying, re-making, a form of handeye-brain auto-editing goes on, considering the energy of lines, intensity of colour, viewpoints, scale and so on.” 2 Once the idea emerges, like a sound from the flute or the Sarod (a stringed musical instrument, used mainly in Indian classical music) the picture unfolds, very slowly; like a photograph in a mist of colour, swirling marks and rhythms demanding further attention. Chuhan is one of the most significant artists, and arguably the only South Asian female artist, living in the North of England who has dedicated her life to the mysterious world of figurative paintings. Francis Bacon also made figurative paintings, and was also seduced by the act of painting. Bacon in an interview with David Sylvester commented: “Most of Duchamp is figurative, but I think he made sort of symbols of the figurative. And he made in a sense, a sort of myth of the twentieth century, but in terms of making a shorthand of figuration. Well, now, what personally I would like to do would be, for instance, to make portraits, which were portraits but came out of things, which really had nothing to do with what is called illustrational facts of the image; they would be made different, and yet they would give the appearance. To me the mystery of painting today is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so you can catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?” 3 Appearance can also be tricky whilst making figurative paintings, as it requires a particular skill not only to convey it effectively, but also in utilizing new technologies that can provide meaningful aesthetics. Like her contemporaries Chuhan likes to experiment with various new media, her “work relies on a combination of observation and memory, and also references to photographs including photographic qualities such as double exposure.” 4 Chuhan’s daily meditative act begins with layering the canvases with a multiplicity of marks concurrently. She then invests her time in reworking each and every individual picture. The mystery of erasing an image, after another image, is an interesting visual configuration, negotiating with time and the image as an act of searching and finding a visual crystallization of ideas. Sometimes it’s necessary to apply a thick impasto of pigments, leaving the surface exuberant and very colourful. Other times it is important to erase


the thick texture, just like the sculptor Alberto Giacometti whose “paintings underwent a parallel procedure. The figures appear isolated, are severely attenuated, and are the result of continuous reworking. Subjects were frequently revisited.” 5 The skin of the colour can sometimes dictate the final configuration. Sometimes she invests in thin washes that imbue the canvas. Whatever the method, mystery is sustained for a very long time; in other words, the appearance of a portrait sitter or a dancer, tease the viewer thus — captivating ones imagination. Ultimately the aim is to ensure that the image speaks for itself: it does with profundity. The other aspect of Chuhan’s work is about the viewer, and audience engagement. All her paintings and drawings, the latter noted for their diversity of subject, trigger positive responses. They are welcoming sensory images, that appeal at many different levels. In 2007, the work of the distinguished artist Amrita Sher-Gil was presented at the Tate Modern in London. Sher-Gil came from an interesting aristocratic background, with both Sikh and Hungarian heritage. Sher-Gil lived most of her early life in Budapest. After her stint at the École des Beaux Arts, Paris, she went to India to discover her own roots as well as to paint the scenes and the people. Sher-Gil was fascinated by India and the abundance of its subject matter: it not only fulfilled her short life, but she became a legend. This desire to paint surrounding subject matter is crucial and similar to Chuhan’s encounters living in England for most of her life. In many ways, Chuhan’s work also deals with her “South Asian” identity; she too is from a Sikh background, grown up in the Punjab in India, which has its own incredible history and heritage. Chuhan has acknowledged her status living in multicultural Britain and the complexity of our diverse society, “I am interested in singularity, duality and multiplicity applied to shifting identities within cultural frameworks, encompassing pluralistic perspectives and viewpoints (literal and conceptual). The dualities of mind and body, the material and non-material are central to depictions of the body and notions of gender, including the flux between certainty and uncertainty.” 6 Some of Chuhan’s earlier life studies deal with materiality and the idea of women representing women. Interestingly, Sher-Gil, “encountered the paintings of Paul Gauguin during a visit to the National Gallery in London. Gauguin used expressive colour and stylised figures to represent life on Tahiti, and his work influenced Sher-Gil’s own depictions of the non-western body. In Self Portrait as a Tahitian she self-consciously plays on her status as the exotic ‘other’ in metropolitan Paris.” 7


During the early 1980’s and 90’s, this idea of the “other” affected many British artists from a “diverse cultural” background desperately trying to show their work in public spaces on an equal basis. In 1989 the artist and political activist Rashid Araeen curated an exhibition entitled The Other Story: Afro Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, which told a unique “story of those men and women who defied their otherness’’ and entered the modern space that was forbidden to them, not only to declare their historic claim on it but also to challenge the framework which defined and protected its boundaries.”8 The Other Story and many other exhibitions alongside publications such as Beyond Frontiers 9 attempted to present a survey as well as a retrospective overview of artists from the wider diverse artistic communities living in Britain.

Woman and Baby 2011 (detail) Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Chuhan’s work was occasionally categorized within these political parameters e.g. in Beyond Frontiers, alongside inclusion in mainstream arts programming in exhibitions e.g. New North at Tate Liverpool (1990), thereby contributing to increasingly pluralistic perceptions of these issues. As part of supporting and mainstreaming “South Asian” artists and nurturing talent through Shisha 10, I commissioned Chuhan to produce a new body of work entitled Parampara Portraits.11 The idea of the exhibition was to celebrate the rich diversity of successful “British South Asians, few of whom conform to stereotypes and all of whom are testaments to how an openminded Britain can benefit from immigration.”12 The Parampara Portraits exhibition was a huge success with a major commissioned portrait of the celebrity TV broadcaster (Granada Reports), So Rahman. His portrait was unveiled at a special launch, making it the captivating evening news story of the night! During 2011, as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM) 13, Chuhan was commissioned to produce a new body of work. The exhibition was shown at the People’s History Museum, entitled Memories, and explored generations and journeys in relation to migrant communities settled in Cheetham Hill, North Manchester. Chuhan spent a lot of time in North Manchester, meeting specific community groups and visiting cultural sites. The ongoing issue around migration and cultural politics is very much on the agenda again. The complexity of migration — the economic migrant as well as the religious refugee — has become a sensational story for the media. Artists continue to be thus identified. Historically, their work was marginalized and not represented as part of the mainstream cultural framework. This consequently, meant that collectors and key British museums did not purchase artists work which left an imbalance for the wider community to enjoy and experience contemporary art from its immigrant artistic community. However, with the advent of the international art fairs, biennials and triennials, international artists from a diverse cultural background are now being “celebrated” with commercial galleries showing their work, and the growth of the collectors circle is also becoming a new buoyant market. More recently, in 2012, Tate Britain presented a cluster of works from its collection in an exhibition entitled Migrations: Journeys into British Art. The Director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis in the accompanying publication candidly stated “I was interested in the way an issue that is seen as especially topical — immigration — has of course a much longer history, and the way in which that history maps very neatly onto what we show here. The different


kinds of migration — which we have become familiar through today’s controversies and can be characterized, most simply, as the economic migrant and the political or religious refugee — are central to the stories behind the works on the show. This particular cross-section of the collections has much wider ramifications, which reverberate with many other works elsewhere in our galleries and our stores, as well as with the story of this island and its historic geographies. Our British collection is un-British, just as Britain is more than British.” 14 So how do we place Chuhan in the context of contemporary art and historiography? She moved from India to the UK as a child and trained at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, London. As a teacher and Professor at the Liverpool John Moore’s University she has supported many younger artists and has participated in numerous critically acclaimed solo exhibitions. In my view J Chuhan is an extraordinary, prolific artist who, through her practice, continues to surprise us and make a difference. The dynamics of her visual aesthetics re-energizes and re-invigorates the imagination. She paints with passion and touches the soul, but also sits within the “inner” and “outer” body of art, which is both compelling and compassionate.

‘Jenny Saville’, Wikipedia, 2nd paragraph (accessed Dec 2012) Extract from Shifting Identities, an article by J Chuhan, for the ATM11 publication, Time & Generation, forthcoming via Manchester Metropolitan University and Third Text 3 Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester in The Proper Study, Contemporary Figurative Paintings from Britain, British Council, London (1984) p. 34; catalogue for the exhibition presented by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and British High Commission at Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi (1984) and Jehangir Nicholson Museum of Modern Art, Bombay (1985) 5 ‘Alberto Giacometti’, Wikipedia, 4th paragraph (accessed Dec 2012) 7 Amrita Sher-Gil, Tate Modern exhibition text for Room 1, Early Years in Paris (2007) 8 Rasheed Araeen in The Other Story: Afro Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London (1989) p.9 9 Beyond Frontiers, Contemporary British Art by Artists of South Asian Descent, edited by Amal Ghosh and Juginder Lamba, Saffron Books (2001) 10 Shisha (The International Agency for Contemporary South Asian Crafts and Visual Art) was founded by Alnoor Mitha, the artistic Director, and funded by the Arts Council of England during 2001–2011. 11 Parampara Portraits, initiated by Alnoor Mitha; a Shisha touring exhibition 12 Amelia Hill in Asian A List shows best of Britain, review of Parampara Portraits, The Observer newspaper, London (2 Nov 2003) 13 Alnoor Mitha, Artistic Director of the Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM) commissioned Chuhan to produce a new body of work presented at the People’s History Museum. The ATM11 artistic theme was “Time & Generation”. For further information on the ATM visit www.asiatriennialmanchester.com 14 Penelope Curtis in Migrations: Journeys into British Art, exhibition publication, Tate Britain (2012) 1



The Body Undone Dr Rina Arya

With their encrusted layers, combination of loose and detailed brushwork and modelled rendering of the flesh, J Chuhan’s figure studies communicate a sumptuous sense of embodiment. ‘Embodiment’ is a complex term that conveys the paradoxical situation of both being and having a body. Here we experience the sentient surfaces of the outer flesh and the transition into the inner aspects of the body: the private spaces of sensation and feeling. The figures gravitate towards the inner sanctum where we retreat into introspection and let our bodies undo and unfold. Her studies are characteristically of singular figures that are located in bold but stark interiors that both isolate and support them in their call for privacy. These are not delineated spaces that can be identified as specific locations but instead they impart a generalized feeling of rooms in households. The richness or tone and density of colour is also spatially enveloping. The eye moves between the indeterminate and saturated background and the strenuous movement of the figure in the foreground that is exquisitely layered. Once closed off from the outside world, the figures slump, recline and collapse on cushioned chairs and bed surfaces that support their body weight. We see the folds and creases of the fleshy bodies as they take rest. Sometimes the body is in a state of calm, whilst at other times there is a sense of unease — the contortions of the limbs and gestural expressions articulate turmoil. Lying on a bed against a blue and purple background, a figure is deep in thought — the body is still but the thoughts are far from composed. Away from the public gaze and the pace of modern life, the figure cannot yet find solace but seeks to attain a sense of harmony in its environment.


I am continually drawn to the forms and shapes that the figure makes in space. Many figures are in crouched or hunched positions with bent knees and seem as if they are in anguish. There is also a sensation of convulsion imparted by the female forms that look as if they are about to give birth. It is this area, concentrated around the stomach and genitals and framed by the bent legs, that becomes the focal point of the paintings. Ordinarily the head is conceived of as the intellectual seat of reason but here the head is no more than an extension of bodily sentience. It is worth adding that whilst Chuhan is more preoccupied by the living body rather than with any particular aspect of its identity, most of her figures are resolutely female, which raises the question about the importance of a gendered reading of her work. If we pursue that line of enquiry then we can feasibly arrive at a staunchly feminist reading. The women exhibit robust frames and exert their bodily presence. Another issue involves pinpointing the legacies and artistic traditions that have exerted an influence on her work. Drawing from a history of Western painting of fleshy forms, Chuhan combines two aesthetic traditions — the carcass-like forms of painters like Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon with the intricate expressive dance configurations of Indian classical statuettes. However, her work is unique in that it overrides cultural differences and is a statement about the living body and the plurality of experiences that are comprised by this state. One of the most captivating works is The Dancer who is suspended upside down. Her undulating and rhythmic forms exude an energy that animates the canvas. There are other such figures whose articulation is more subtle because rather than being hung upside down they are lying upside down. Many figures are also featured lying down, which is a recurring conceit in the work. The Dancer is striking as well because it is one of the most context-laden works where the viewer is able to construct, or at least imagine, the life of this dancing girl. The notable absence of definitive titles in other works prevents this from happening and is a deliberate strategy by Chuhan who does not want to create self-conscious narratives that deflect attention from the power of the paint. The schematic titles are also fitting for the organic nature of the figures that are in an ever-changing state of evolution and never reach completion. They also prevent the works from being closed off from one another and help to create a dialogue between related works, such as the upside down figures, reclining figures and other images that share similar motifs. The figure studies reflect the passage of time, where movement and ageing inform the body and tells of the existential predicament of solitude.


These generalized studies of the human condition are counterbalanced by a body of work produced at about the same time period. Let us call the second strand ‘portraits’ which emphasize the opposite traits encapsulated in the figure studies. These are individualized observational studies that respond to the influx of information seen in the environment. This could be the detail of a plant pot, a window ledge or the distinctive features of a face. Here the figures are clearly under inspection, under observation and are not privy to the unadulterated privacy experienced by the nude figure studies. Whilst the emphasis here is on the formulation of a portrait — a representation of an actual figure in space and time, rather than the more timeless symbolic figures discussed earlier, there are common concerns. The figure is still alone and is once again contained in an interior space. These more representational studies meet a different need in the artist, one that is fuelled by her capacity to depict individuals, to focus on their unique mannerisms and are responses to specific people and places. Chuhan’s figure studies are, by her own admission, more subconscious and intuitive. They involve a precarious balancing act between chance and control in abstract terms, and more concretely between negotiating the figure in space. If the balance tips too far in one direction, the image is lost. In the third strand of the exhibition Chuhan indulges her passion for the natural world in her studies of the movement of forms, but the fields of colour are strangely evocative of the beaten surfaces of flesh. With their iridescent colours and high contrasts, we are led back to the body, and so in that respect they are not a departure from the figure studies as much as a continuation of concerns about the rendering of flesh. In Minotaur we have the reconciliation of the different themes in Chuhan’s work: a fleshy bent-over form emerges from the watery depths and rises up from the bed of water lilies. An apocalyptic figure perhaps. Chuhan’s recent paintings are fresh and vital forays into the corporal. Overwhelmed by urges to shift the focus away from the human and the bodily in the contemporary digital age, we appreciate the simplicity and primal stamp of such a strident aesthetic that reinforces a sense of naturalism and is a welcome reminder of where we have come from and to where we are going. Sleeping Flowers — Rain 2009 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm



Figure in Interior 2011 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Figure I 2008 Oil on canvas 75 x 90 cm


Drawing I 2011 Gouache and pastel 120 x 180 cm


Dancer 2011 Oil on canvas 120 x 170 cm



Dark Figure 2010 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Woman and Baby 2011 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Dancer 2012 Oil on canvas 120 x 180 cm


Girl 2012 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Bride 2012 Oil on canvas 120 x 170 cm


Room I 2013 Oil on canvas 150 x 210 cm


Room II 2013 Oil on canvas 150 x 210 cm


Morning 2008 Oil on canvas 150 x 120 cm


Study of Figure II 2012 Oil on canvas 120 x 150 cm


Reverie 2002 Oil on canvas 120 x 180 cm


Levi 2007 Oil on canvas 90 x 75 cm


Bus Figure I 2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 105 cm


Head of a Man 2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 105 cm


Notes on contributors J Chuhan

Matthew Clough

Alnoor Mitha

Dr Rina Arya

Jagjit Chuhan is an Indian born artist, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. She is based in the north-west of England and London, and is a Professor at Liverpool John Moores University.

Matthew Clough has been Director of Art & Heritage Collections, Victoria Gallery & Museum (VG&M), University of Liverpool since 2005. He is responsible for the strategic direction of the VG&M, which opened in 2008. It is housed within the Victoria Building, the University’s flagship building and the UK’s first ‘red brick’ university building. The VG&M showcases the University of Liverpool’s extensive collections and offers an extensive special exhibitions and education programme. A graduate of Lancaster University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, he joined the University of Liverpool in 1996 and has undertaken a variety of roles within their museum collections. He has worked on many exhibition projects; of particular note are: Crafty Thoughts: Contemporary Sri Lankan Art (2002), Memory and Perception: Tom Palin and Pete Bonnel (2002), Charles John Allen 1862–1956 – Sculptor and Teacher (2003), Peter Corbett – a Retrospective (2004), Earthly Delights: Mary Adshead 1904–1995 (2005), Tony Phillips – a Retrospective (2006), Stuart Sutcliffe – a Retrospective (2008), Astrid Kirchherr – a Retrospective (2010) and Dormitorium – films and decors by the Brothers Quay (2011). He has published a number of exhibition related books, including works on C J Allen, Mary Adshead, Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr.

Alnoor Mitha was trained as an artist under the world-renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor during 1980–83. Mitha was awarded scholarships to France (1980–83) and to India (1983–86) where he successfully completed his Master of Arts.

Dr Rina Arya is Reader in Visual Communication at the University of Wolverhampton. Her primary area of research is in art theory. She has published articles on Francis Bacon, Georges Bataille, and art and theology. She is author of Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (Lund Humphries), Chila Kumari Burman: Shakti, Sexuality and Bindi girls (KT Press) and editor of Francis Bacon: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (Peter Lang). She is currently working on a monograph about abjection and disgust entitled Abjection and Representation, which is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

Exhibitions of paintings by J Chuhan have been staged internationally and at UK venues including Tate Liverpool (1990); Galleria Civica d’Arte Contemporanea, Marsala, Italy (1990–91); Arnolfini, Bristol (1991–92); Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery (1993–94); Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London (1995); Pitshanger Gallery, London (1998); Orebro Castle, Sweden (2000); Shanghai University, China (2002); Wetterling Teo Gallery, Singapore (2004). Solo exhibitions since 2002 comprise: A long way from home, The Lowry, Salford (2002–03); Parampara Portraits tour including to Watermans Arts Centre, London (2004–5); Journeys, Cartwright Hall, Bradford (2005); The Body Inside, New Hall, University of Cambridge (2007). Recent exhibitions include contribution to the Memories exhibition for the Asia Triennial Manchester (2011). Paintings by J Chuhan are in collections including: the Arts Council Collection; University of Liverpool Art Collection; Oldham Art Gallery; Leicestershire Schools Collection; Usher Gallery, Lincoln; Cartwright Hall, Bradford; Grosvenor Museum, Chester; Tameside Museums and Galleries.


In 1999, Mitha was invited to work with the Arts Council England, where he developed and founded Shisha (The International Agency for South Asian Contemporary Art and Craft, 2001–2011). In 2008, Mitha founded and collaborated with six organisations in Manchester to present the inaugural Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM) festival. In 2011, Mitha was appointed a Research Fellow (Asian Cultures) at the Manchester Institute of Research Innovation in Art & Design (MIRIAD) based at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is developing the first Asian Centre for Visual Cultures and sustaining the idea of the ATM. Mitha has presented critical papers at prestigious conferences and produced seminal publications. His name is synonymous with the global contemporary art circle.


Acknowledgments J Chuhan: Recent Paintings is edited by Matthew Clough and published to coincide with the exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool, 1 February to 27 April 2013. Photography by Jonathan Keenan Photography, Manchester. www.jkphotography.com Design by Mike Carney, Liverpool. www.mikesstudio.co.uk First published in 2013 by Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool. www.vgm.liv.ac.uk Š Images copyright J Chuhan Š Texts copyright the authors A CIP catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by means, electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, including photocopy, recording or any other information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. ISBN 978-0-9563595-2-0 www.chuhan333.wix.com/paintings#

In Recent Paintings by J Chuhan issues of gender are implicit in representations of shifting identities in contemporary intercultural contexts, whilst a sense of intimacy combines with a fascination for observation of the figure, often presented in isolation and retaining a sense of privacy.