“THE RIVER SEES, AND THE ARTIST FOLLOWS, INVITING US TO ENTER A CONTINUOUS CONVERSATION BETWEEN LAND AND WATER, A CONVERSATION THAT IS INFORMED BY LIGHT, AND TRANSFORMED BY MEMORY.”
Frank Stella once said that the aim of art was to create space — a space that is not decorated or compromised by illustration, but a space in which the subjects of the painting can live. In Oommen’s Kerala paintings, he pays homage to a beloved homeland. He does so with a near-virtuosic perfection of his signature drip technique. Yet these paintings are as much about desire and reverie as they are about landscape: the longing of an exile to recreate and return to his homeland, the creation of a space that is both real and imagined, both elusive and tactile.
The archetypal motifs of Oommen’s Kerala series are the palm frond, the horizon line and the river. Swinging from the purely figurative to ephemeral abstractions, Oommen’s canvases evoke two ends of a spectrum and everything in between. On one end is Kerala’s rampant tropicality, the near predatory zeal of its foliage. On the other is the ethereal, fleeting quality of reflections in rivers like mirrors, and the sheer emotional resonance of nature at its stillest and most silent. Languid palm groves lean into a shoreline, flooding the water with their image. Water and sky are companions, traveling with each other until they resolve into one, as if on a quest to unite and obliterate the horizon. Rows of palms and plantain trees spill into skeins of greens, yellows and browns, skeins that change into reflections, and then again into different hues.
In the end, Oommen’s rivers are vessels for recollection. The river sees, and the artist follows, inviting us to enter a continuous conversation between land and water, a conversation that is informed by light, and transformed by memory. The artist sees not the tree, but his sense of it. He captures not the water, but that infinitesimal moment of calm before the ripple shatters. The space he creates is filled with sensory detail; the broad leaves of the plantain and thick fan-like palm fronds anticipate the squelch of wet soil. Yet one longs to remain in the visual solace offered by tall skies of pouring color where a single, stylized palm leaf evokes a hundred more.
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.
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 life-world.
Dominique Nahas, art critic