Review by Robert Mahoney
GEORGE OOMMEN IS AN ARCHITECT AND PAINTER LIVING IN MASSACHUSETTS, WHOSE PAINTING IS ENTIRELY CONCERNED WITH REMEMBERING HIS NATIVE KERALA, THE SPICE COAST OF SOUTHWEST INDIA. ON THE ARC OF CULTURE AMERICA TO INDIA — ON WHICH OOMMEN’S IMAGINATION DWELLS, MEMORY IS THE PRIMARY GROUND OF MEANING IN HIS WORK. AN ARCHITECT BY TRADE, OOMMEN’S PAINTINGS HAVE AN ARCHITECTONIC CONCERN FOR SPACE, BUT THEY ARE MARKED BY AN ENVELOPING SUBJECTIVITY.
In his Sacred Places series, for example, Oommen was inspired to create dark abstractions, by southern Indian Hindu temples, where worshippers proceed from light to dark, to an interior so entirely devoid of light one becomes acutely aware of one’s own heartbeat. In the same manner, Oommen’s recent landscapes eschew all of the daily interferences of life to mentally get back to a mythical Kerala remembered in abstract essence.
In his work, Oommen uses the visual peculiarities of tropical forests to frame metaphors in paint for the nature of memory. For example, in the experience of tropical forests, one takes in the panoramic whole, but here and there is arrested by, and zooms in on vibrant details. To capture this effect in art, Oommen superimposes onto his paintings a succession of transparent frames that shift visually from one level of seeing to another. The smallest frame-within-a-frame even shifts media—from paint to pen and ink—to render distinctly an abstract icon of a remembered moment.
Oommen seeks at all times to erase the impediments of “art”, to free the mind to remember. This impetus pervades every aspect of his recent art. Oommen’s art has become more abstract lately to get beyond the landscape, to the memory of it. Oommen has switched from oil to acrylic paint, and has in turn begun to spray the paint with water, to cause it to run watery and transparently down the canvas (an effect that also constructs on canvas a metaphor of perception in monsoon-season Kerala), to erode paint down to the act of memory itself. He now only makes use of “Oops paint,” wrongly mixed paints offered cheaply by American paint stores, not to let the tradition, the substance, or for that matter the cost of the paint, come between him and his drive to part the veil. All of his recent canvases are prefabricated, bought found objects all the more easily dissolved by impromptu subjectivity. Finally, Oommen does not belabor a painting for weeks or months, but engages rather in a kind of mental action painting in which the painting is the pure precipitate of an afternoon’s revery on far off places. In making use of cheap materials and expedient techniques — perhaps also reflecting an unspoken sense of the shifting ground of a globalized life — George Oommen reveals himself as contemporary conceptual painter, forever devising new ways to open the secret doors embedded in the architecture of memory.
Robert Mahoney, New York, 2003
Robert Mahoney has been an art writer in New York for over fifteen years, writing for such publications as ARTS (1985-92), FLASH ART (1988-94), Contemporanea, Tema Celeste and Cover magazines. He currently writes for TIME OUT New York, Artnet online, and contributes to edificerex.com and D’Art International.
Kerala as a Proustain madeleine: the landscape of George Oommen
By Dominique Nahas
In his abstracted landscapes George Oommen depicts the area of his birthplace, the Spice Coast of Kerala. He pays at times particular homage to the memory of the feelings and sights of Mankotta, a small island in the inland waters of his favorite region. We are made, as viewers, to participate in Oommen’s re-creation of his native land’s heartbeat: its reflections, colors, light, shadows, natural life and, most importantly, its radiant intensity. In the artist’s paintings and drawings the eye floats amidst a panoramic network of sun and moon – lit waterways and lush foliage. These primordial images are composites pictorially reconstituted from the memories of many years’ real- time experiences in the area. (The artist no longer lives in India, but returns
to Kerala on a regular basis). The images before us depicts the places and spaces of Kerala, in the southwestern Munnar region of India, where the artist was born. This is a fact. Yet there is so much more to Oommen’s world than empirical reality. It is evident that the artist’s journey into the self is mirrored in the landscapes of his beginnings. Oommen’s repeated imagery, with its drenched pools, drizzles and pockets of color, suggests an extravagantly charged vitality reminiscent of the sensual worlds of Henri Matisse and of Howard Hodgkin. Equally important is Oommen’s painterly capacity to invoke as well as to evoke a spiritual (and changeable) center as well as a specific natural habitat in the real lifeworld. In his writings the artist has stated that one of his main considerations is “Whether (images) are retained in the retina or in the brain Also of importance to me is the spiritual self. Where does the inner sanctuary lie?” The artist has also often noted how he has been inspired by this habitat and how he has shaped his ambition to become Kerala’s “chief ambassador” to the world. The work at hand is also a map of Oommen’s ongoing interior and changeable journey into the self and its awareness of such. It is this displacement between what is known of a life-world geographic place called ” Kerala”, actually, by Oommen and what is felt or projected as imaginary, symbolic or real by the artist and the viewer that is at the center of the experience of viewing this penetrating work. What is real for Oommen is the emotional truth that he is drawn to the Kerala area because it is clearly a living symbol of origin as well as of change for him. It is his chief source of inspiration. Cyclic time and linear time poetically intermesh in Oommen’s lush panoramas and intense close-ups. This is sensed through the artist’s syncopated interplay of dominant verticals and horizontals and the effective use of colored, drizzled light and shadow in the work. Perhaps it is the abstract visual expression of one might call intimate distance which is most compelling in Oommen’s work. The artist’s repeated use of horizon lines in his work, for example, anticipates in visual terms what phenomenologist Edward Casey calls ” changing standpoints”, that is continuity and uncertainty combined. Jacques Derrida makes a similar point when he describes the horizon as “always virtually present in every experience; for it is at once the unity and the incompleteness for that experience – the anticipated unity in every in completion”. There is an elegiac wistfulness in the painter’s work, a sense of passing time that is deeply and paradoxically grounded in his works’ luminous depictions of eternal Kerala. It is this unfolding drama which is at the core of George Oommen’s vision. It gives his work humanity, momentum and depth that is rare in landscape work.
Dominique Nahas, art critic, editor for d’Art International, based in New York.