New York gallery showcases the work of Kerala artist Tom Vattakuzhy

Tom Vattakuzhy’s solo show ‘Song of the Dusk’ on at a gallery in New York captures the loneliness and uncertainty of the pandemic times

Tom Vattakuzhy’s solo show ‘Song of the Dusk’ on at a gallery in New York captures the loneliness and uncertainty of the pandemic times

A gradual sense of disquiet begins to build as you gaze into artist Tom Vattakuzy’s stunning painting, ‘Song of the Dusk’. A burial is underway — a mound of soil occupies the center of the frame with a wreath laid beneath it. The church looms behind, its imposing white walls contrasting the tangerine tones of a setting sun. People, wearing masks pulled down to their chins, stand around in sepulchral silence.

The 2020 oil-on-canvas work pits the staggering beauty of life against the transience of it. It captures the fear, the uncertainty and the festering sadness of pandemic deaths. Although he does not usually paint a series on a preset theme, he is moved by situations and experiences that he encounters. Tom’s works often carry untold emotional resonances of such experiences. This particular work could have originated from a sense of personal loss, says Tom, who lost his father around the time, though not to COVID-19.

The work is currently on show at Aicon Contemporary, a gallery specializing in works of emerging Indian and Pakistani artists, in New York. Six of Tom’s works are on show at his first solo exhibition abroad.

‘Girl with Bubbles’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Isolation and loneliness seem to be the thread connecting all his works at the show. A profound sense of silence pervades each painting. “In a sense, loneliness is our living reality today,” says Tom. “Pestilence or not, we live in solitude, distant and adrift in our own worlds pushed further apart by technology.” In the ‘Girl with Bubbles’, a little girl is shown playing with bubbles, the air around her is wordless and heavy.

Inspired by the surroundings

Tom is continuously inspired by his immediate surroundings and memory. “The church in the painting is inspired by one of the oldest churches in the area where I live. The hilly landscape in the painting is inspired by the sight I see from my house. Although it used to be green in my childhood memories, it is abused by rock quarrying today. My works are an abridged and evocative compilation of memories and realities,” he says.

As a voracious consumer of early Renaissance art, memories of it often seep into his practice subconsciously, says Tom. “Although you could call my works realistic, it aims to go beyond, transporting the viewer to worlds beyond. I am moved by emotion and my work is a constant exploration of the inner realms of being.”

Yellow Sky

Yellow Sky | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Art for Tom is a meditative exercise; he prefers to work in solitude. It is also as political as it is personal. The ordinary and those in the fringes find space in his narrative. He questions religious concerns in subtle ways — he paints the angel atop the spire with a broken wing, with concrete and metal sticking out.

Tom graduated with a degree in printmaking from Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan in 1991 and completed his masters degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, in Baroda in 1998. His close association with iconic artists KG Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar and critic R Sivakumar shaped his early artistic influences. He worked in Qatar as an art teacher for several years, and now devotes his time entirely to art.

Tom Wattakuzhy

Tom Vattakuzhy | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Tom’s visual language is known for the way it engages with light. He uses light and shadow freely, yet with immense restraint. In ‘Yellow Sky’, the door of a semi-dark room opens out into a final golden glow of dusk. In the burial painting, evening light smears the top of the church, illuminating the top of the church and the faces of some of the people gathered for the funeral. “Although I use light, it is often not the physical aspect of it, but the intangible quality of it that attracts me,” says Tom.

Out of the six works on show, three have already been placed into the collections of Indian and American collectors, says Projjal Dutta, director of Aicon Contemporary art gallery. “Tom combines a classical and timeless painterly aesthetic with very contemporary subjects,” he says.

The show is on at the gallery in New York until July 16. Tom would also be showing at the Delhi Art Fair next year.

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