Ritu Sood was born in Hammersmith Hospital. Her work takes as its premise the idea that it is not likely to be understood in the specific. Such a premise is rooted in the belief in a universal understanding of something beyond description, if only the will itself to understand and communicate that something. By this account, what can’t be understood are the specific paintings themselves. The paintings instead function as a kind of example of something that is little to do with their detail and much to do with their impenetrable desire for privacy. Much like the American poet Laura Riding who warned us that we have very little chance of understanding her body of poetry, these very private paintings paint themselves out, developing a complex and difficult relationship with the viewer in which the one has to find some way to sit comfortably with the other. This kind of relationship is a form of dignified accommodation - under the circumstances - rather than a comfortable experience.
It is this relationship that one is left with, and, given that such privacy claims a many layered opaqueness, the only way to approach the work is by admitting and coming clean about one’s inevitable misreading. John Ashbery, writing about Riding felt that trying to make sense of her work via a misreading would be the last thing Riding would want.1 Her work, according to Ashbery, was hedged about with caveats of every sort and presented us with something like a minefield. He describes reading it with a sensation of sirens and red lights flashing in the background. These same red lights I believe are flashing somewhere in Sood’s work but not in the background, more like earlier last week or maybe tomorrow, flashing as a troubling possibility based on an earlier fact. And these paintings are coping with that earlier fact as best they can. But there is only so much energy to go round and sometimes there is not enough to spare for a communication as direct and open as hoped for in an ideal world. In this sense, Sood’s work expects a misreading and generously offers that as a space, but with the caveat that the misreading sits next to the work rather than getting closer to it.
This almost pre-booked or pre-planned accommodation for a particular space of misreading leaves the work in a strange state of isolation not unlike, and indeed producing, a person locked in their own intensified moment that is so concentrated that it dissolves its own surroundings into an opaque mist. The colour of this mist can change but it always feels like a product of concentration upon the body rather than of meditation upon the space, and this concentration leaves the work only vaguely aware of viewers as ghostly shapes gathered around its edges. For the viewer there is both a second-hand relief that can be imagined but not passed on and a reminder of the dignity of looking at paintings.
That the figure in Sood’s painting is both life-size and sharply focused does not alleviate the sense of uncomfortable exclusion underlying such a space but exaggerates it due to the very private nature of the figure’s activity, behind closed eyes. The human scale serves to remind us that there is very little we can do or say. The figure is highly visible and defined, unlike the viewer. It is defined in an act of its own self-absorption, feigning relaxation on the one hand and gripped in a rheumatic deadlock on the other, both creating and dissolving its own space through its twisting contractions. The figure is strongly defined and descended upon, with uneasy inevitability, by the colour of its own making.
As a further layer of its own privacy and limits, in certain works the figure is absorbed in an exercise system designed to work on the physiological and nothing more. The language here of the body is spelling out its own coping mechanism in another attempt to communicate something, slowly and patiently, letter by letter, each letter effacing the last in a stronger desire to concentrate on the matter at hand rather than the formation of a word. Each figure conveying nothing beyond itself and falling, for instance in The Theatre (1997), into a dead and dreamless sleep.
The stubborn persistence lodged in the work is not something to be alleviated, if that was possible, but is embedded in the work itself. It is lodged in the process even to the point of the physical activity of making a large painting, the slow and time consuming process aided at times by a stepladder.2 The massaging of paint into the fibres of the canvas follows the form of the body, picking out the light inside, rather than a light upon it. In the series etudes (2003) the figure is itself embedded in a primeval and halting amber glow, airless and final. Perhaps, this light in its translucent solidity represents relief instead of beauty, this side of terror. The light is generated by the fibre that is the weave of the canvas, itself screwed flat against the wall supported by eyelets. It becomes an exercise in itself, the straighter and flatter the better, but imperceptibly sags under its own weight and raises itself slightly off the wall by its own fold. The gravity is both poignant and pronounced in the context, and pulls on the fibre of the canvas.
The process of the broader aspects of these paintings result in an almost migraine-blinding colour field in work such as the stoically named Awaiting (2004), and also functions to soften itself by referring obliquely and strategically to recognisable painting traditions, our only point of reference in trying to understand the nagging hum that backgrounds the work. A veil of colour built up in layers serves not as depth or light in some cases but as making transparent what was originally intact and opaque. In the painting Mood Indigo (1999) for instance (a title that sounds more like a security alert than an emotion), this veil appears not only as a result of intense coping but descends upon the life-size figure as an x-ray to try and locate the precise problem. This colour in turn is dark and functional with a feint whiff of heavy-duty rubber. Established conventions and procedures can be used to ask the viewer to stay a while despite the privacy of the thought collapsing the moment inward with a jolt followed by a large clunking sound. The viewer is left to be there but little else and witness the short but effective passage of time that is inherent in the moment and built into the work through its making.
© David Mollin 2005
This essay was originally commissioned by Unit 2 Gallery, London Metropolitan University