Abir Karmakar | Within The Walls,2008

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Within the Walls


October 1 – 21, 2008

Gallery Espace, New Delhi

N o v e m b e r 8 – 2 2 , 2 0 0 8

Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai

Within the Walls

Gayatri Sinha

Maybe in that earlier phase I was painting the

woman in me. Art isn’t a wholly masculine

occupation, you know.

Willem de Kooning

Abir Karmakar’s primary intention is confessional. He lures

the viewer into a secluded world where attitudes of erotic

desire are performed before our gaze. The domestic

space or the nondescript hotel room becomes for a brief

period of time a stolen habitation which reveals the performing

desiring body. Let us briefly compare his paintings

with the larger body of practice by male contemporary

artists, which tends to move up and out from the private to

the public domain, assuming a powerful masculinist view

of cities, building sites, symbols of growth and the urban

landscape in transition. Here the Indian artist appears to

be grounded in responses to mediatic information, global

economy, social discourse. In contrast, among his male

confreres, Abir Karmakar appears to move in and down,

into a psychological space, a miasma of sexual fantasy

and personal expressivity. Locating himself as the subject

of his painting within middle class domestic spaces, he

works with tropes of realistic painting, mannerist portraiture

and the soft porn style of tabloid pin ups.

In this process Karmakar presumes numerous sites of

recollection and association. Karmakar’s inspiration draws

from western painting, its conventions and treatment of

physical states, and the human body. In his incisive study

Emmanuel Cooper identifies a number of titans of the

Italian Renaissance – Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli,

Verrocchio, Pontormo, Bronzino and Caravaggio, who presented

the male body as an arcadian ideal of ambivalent

sexuality. Even within the framework of courtly or church

patronage, such artists drew upon the larger Greco-Roman

tradition of the glorification of the male body but expanded

beyond its conventional rendering. In Renaissance painting

the beautiful and the desirable were male attributes; Vasari

spoke glowingly of Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1496-1497)


as revealing “a certain fusion (milestone) in the members

that is marvelous and in particular – both the youthful slenderness

of the male and the fullness and roundness of

the female.” (1550). In recent decades scholars have described

Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) paintings – The Musicians,

the Lute Player, Bacchus and Boy – as homoerotic.

However his biographer Maurizio Calvessi argues that the

works reflect the tastes of the patron and not the artist.

By an extension of this argument, Karmakar compels us

to examine the nature of the gaze as it is directed on his

body, and herein lies a vital clue to how we read his work.

What is of interest is that unlike the Greek and Renaissance

model of sexual indeterminacy, of the androgynous

Ganymede, Karmakar emasculates but does not beautify

the male body. Instead, he allows us to recognize its

awkwardness, its passivity and its desire for self-expression.

Again while the ambivalent sexuality of the male body

traces to Renaissance painting it is in the modern 20th

century psychological rendering of the nude that the artist

appears most vested. Contemporary understanding of

sexuality presumes the exploration of a variety of acts and

behaviours that were in traditional cultures or in 19th century

Europe defined as ‘perverse’. It is in the articulation of

these that we gain an understanding of individuality. What

Karmakar demonstrates is that masculinity is made and

not born; when freed of social constraints it can be unmade

or subsumed in a different gender. In this sense, the

spirit of Egon Schiele is recalled, for his vaunted effeminacy

in his painting as much as the melancholy and angst

that he was known to possess. Arthur Danto, writing about

Egon Schiele – who like Karmakar used photographs of

his own nude body as cues to painting – believed that he

had “found a style that sexualized eroticism.” In Schiele’s

work writes Danto, “the human body expresses its sexuality

as artistic truth.” There is also a stylistic and emotional

connection with Balthus (1908-2001) and the centrality of

a sexual dimension, borne of both lust and cruelty. Karmakar’s

bound and taped body recalls the helpless male

figure of Paula Rego (b.1935) in works like The Family

(1988) with a suggestion of dominance and sexual role

reversal. With Rego, Karmakar shares the propensity to

overturn the conventional order, inscribing the brooding

needs of figures that are not accorded any modicum of


psychological relief.

To unravel his “artistic truth” Karmakar uses several devices

to create a particular symbolic badge of individualism.

By locating his (feminized) body within a private domestic

space Karmakar places it outside the realm of the

public masculine sphere. Through such personal and individual

inflection, space is politicized: the artist’s body, indoors,

reveals and exposes itself, mimicking in this way the

male gaze as it pursues the female body within domestic

spaces. Within these closet-like interiors the body cowers,

poses, and presses itself to mimic the female form. The

perversion of the familial space for the auto/homoerotic

body and the denial of the propagative familial function

hover through the work. The male artist’s appropriation of

feminine tropes is not unusual. We may reference here

the work of art as sexual mimicry in George Chakravarty’s

Olympia where the artist’s male body stretches out languidly

on the couch, while an older male figure offers him

a bouquet of flowers (video, 1997).

Karmakar speaks about a continuing referent in his painting,

of the “loss” of masculinity especially about the “ordinary

male body”, such as he sees his own. He speaks of

this body as the marginalized body – one that is marked

by its unexceptional, nondescript ordinariness and which

is never distinguished by recognition. No bill boards, advertisements,

poems, films or paintings are ever dedicated to

the unremarkable male body. By turning the gaze upon

himself Karmakar empowers his (own) body with mutable

desire. The imperfect body gains attention, even celebrity

as an unexpected subject of art. Here then is an argument

for the expansion of masculinity through the trajectory of

the ordinary into the feminine, one in which Karmakar assumes

his wife’s role and enacts both persons through a

mirrored performance. In this way, the gaze and the (desiring)

bodies are split into two halves. The image of a nude

man gazing at himself lifting his skirt is the most graphic

representation of this role playing – a what-if possibility of

cross dressing as a stimulant. Karmakar pushes suggestive

sexual ambiguity to a consummate level. That he is

both the figures, who seek and reveal, complicates this

tableau of libidinal excess. The nude male figure crouching

in the toilet with a discarded doll suggests fetishistic


behaviour, longing and guilt. Acts of domination appear to

be invited on the prone figure, bound and gagged on the

bed, the room’s perspective careening as if with an assault

of an excess of vertiginous desire. In the triptych (Within

the Walls 1, 2008) the walls reign in, compelling closure;

they suggest closeted space, which allows the enactment

of psychological difference, and which simultaneously

makes this difference unbearable. In such a performative

narrative, Karmakar evacuates a sexual self; by locating

it outside the masculinist body he allows it to attract the

speculative homoerotic gaze. By conferring such attention

he also restores to its bruised ego the recuperative power

of wholeness.

Through the compelling, even difficult encounter with the

paintings the artist forces another realization; that the body

stripped and brutally exposed is the site for psychological

expressivity removed from the erotic. In postures that infantilize,

or even degrade the body he assumes a protective

foetal state, one that allows for the return to primary

innocence. In this reversion to an earlier state maleness is

abandoned – what is emphasized is rejection and guilt that

stands in contrast to erotic flagrancy. Karmakar presents

these postures as if on a continuum of sexual behaviour.

However in every case it is a gesture of excess, of exaggeration,

that serves to emphasize its unnatural state. In

this condition of physical and psychological closure, the

drawn drapes and indoor lights confirm his isolation from

the larger world.

How do we compare this suite of paintings, Within the

Walls (2008) with earlier bodies of work? I particularly have

in mind the series that lead up to the present works, the

2005 paintings titled from my photo album which image

a woman figure, presented like a mannequin. That series

stands in comparison to a later body of paintings titled Interiors

where Karmakar consummately appears as his own

doppelganger. Here the figure appears to split – between

his own clothed body representing the urban, heterosexual

normative male figure and the other/self seen in postures

of flagrant seduction or feminized role playing.

Through their enactment we are being drawn into the intimacy

of domesticity, the sharp details of living and bed-


room spaces, the bathroom or the remnants of a meal. It is

against the predictability of the humdrum that the intensity

of this fractured self image is played out – for Karmakar

wants to play out an alternative self before his own gaze.

Here our reading of Karmakar’s paintings, their sexual

and by extension moral content is determined by his artistic

choices. The western painterly style that he adopts

is closely allied to the value system of the Judeo Christian

tradition, of associative deviance and guilt. Michel Foucault

elaborates on the earlier Greek tradition of accommodation

of sexual difference, and of the nuances of pain in

pleasure in sexual relations. He writes about the admixture

of these states “for the Greeks there could not be desire

without a certain amount of suffering mixed in, but the appetite,

Plato explains in the Philibus, can be aroused only by

the representation, the image or the memory of the thing

that gives pleasure.” He concludes that “there can be no

desire except in the soul, for while the body is affected by

privation, it is the soul and only the soul that can, through

memory make present the thing that is to be desired…”

(p43). The desiring and desired body, as alternately bound,

gagged or abjectly rendered is uncompromising in its

sexual location. More recent examples in postmodern

practice exploit the tropes of shock and difference. While

the sexual confessional photograph has gained currency

– Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin’s images of the

gay and transsexual communities in Boston are significant

referents – the deliberated sensuosity of oil painting

delivers images of psychological abjection and sensual assertiveness

and links Karmakar with an older tradition in

art. However in Karmakar there is posited on the same

body both the maleness and the femaleness of experience

– a mutual cathexis that allows for a narrative of selfplay

to unfold. In this dialectic there is the separation of ‘nature’

and ‘culture’ even as the viewer’s sexualized gaze is


Abir Karmakar’s forebear in homosexual images in Indian

art is of course Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003). In response

to the masculinist heroic models of his modernist

Indian forebears, Khakhar presents for the first time a domesticated

model, of gay bonding. Khakhar’s work which

reached an efflorence in the mode of the self- confessio-


nal painting helped elevate the homoerotic body to the level

of an iconic articulation. Stylistically Khakhar drew from

the linear style of pop graffiti of New York of the 1960s,

but inspirationally turned to India’s class fragmentation to

elevate the middle class and middle age as typically the

iconic subjects of homoerotic love. Khakhar is also a celebrant

– the acts of passive frottage and surreptitious sex

as observed and participated in are pasted into the conventional

sites for Indian celebration.

In the process Khakhar creates a re-gendering of the street,

compelling a realization of public spaces as a zone for homoerotic

contact. The gurus, charlatans and bhaktas that

co-mingle on the street, the passing lumpen elements and

hawkers become in his work a natural and accepted site

for a sexual subculture. Khakhar then presses for a universalism

of acceptance; he appropriates these spaces

and his world subsumes cross-dressing and the simple,

often unremarkable fact of everyday gay domesticity as

welcome pleasures.

In contrast, Karmakar breaks with the universalist position

to withdraw indoors. The twilight hues of Khakhar’s streets

and public parks are replaced by interiors with drawn

drapes. The pop elements so appropriate to the street have

no place: if Khakhar reflected on the unremarkable middle

aged figure – occasionally mutilated – Karmakar obsesses

on the invitational gaze, directed towards his own body,

one that responds with desire. Through this direct engagement

of the gaze, he makes the viewer complicit in the act

as voyeur. If Khakhar appears to paint like a casual diarist,

Karmakar’s painterly style, drawing on a wealth of domestic

detail, is highly mannered.

Here Karmakar speaks of two strains that graft onto the

making of the body: the first is an obsession with flesh,

painted flesh, specifically the deep hues of Rubens figures,

fulsome and fleshly in their presence. In the series I Love

Therefore I Am (2006-07, oil on canvas, set of 11 works,

30 x 30 cm each) there is the compulsorily intense visual

encounter of seeing the artist in close up, as he licks different

body parts in auto erotic excess. The luminous hues

of the surface recall de Kooning’s comment “Flesh was

the reason oil painting was invented.” The other influence


is the realization of his own body as a site for resolution.

The sexual self is not covered away for the acceptable social

gaze. Rather it is rendered with a brutal expressivity to

enact, expose and question its limits. For both the viewer

and the artist, the essential clause of pleasuring the body

will come with acceptance; that all desire is born from the

freedom to enact the self.

Gayatri Sinha

August 2008

New Delhi

Gayatri Sinha is an independent curator and art critic.


The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 years in the

West, Emmanuel Cooper, 2nd ed. New York, Routledge.

The Use of Pleasure, The History of Sexuality Vol.2 Michel Foucault



Within the Walls I, 2008, Triptych, oil on canvas,183 x 366 cm / 72 x 144 inches

Within the Walls II, 2008, oil on canvas, 183 x 336 cm / 72 x 132 inches



Within the Walls III, 2008, oil on canvas, 183 x 275 cm/ 72 x 108 inches

Within the Walls IV, 2008, oil on canvas, 183 x 228 cm / 72 x 90 inches



Within the Walls V, 2008, oil on canvas, 183 x 228 cm / 72 x 90 inches

Within the Walls VI, 2008, oil on canvas, 92 x 122 cm/ 36 x 48 inches



Within the Walls VII, 2008, oil canvas, 92 x 122 cm / 36 x 48 inches

Within the Walls VIII, 2008, oil on canvas, 122 x 183 cm / 48 x 72 inches



Within the Walls IX, 2008, oil on canvas, 122 x 183 cm / 48 x 72 inches

Line Drawing I, 2008, Diptych, oil on canvas, 30 x 60 cm /12 x 24 inches



Line Drawing II, 2008, oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm / 36 x 36 inches

Line Drawing III, 2008, oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm / 36 x 36 inches


‘ I Love Therefore I Am ‘

24 25


‘ from my photo album‘





‘ Interiors ‘



‘ In The Old Fashioned Way ‘



Born 1977 in Siliguri, India

B.V.A. (Painting), Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata

M.A. (Fine Art, Painting), Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda

Solo Exhibitions

2008 Within the Walls, Gallery Espace, New Delhi

and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai

2007 In The Old Fashioned Way, Aicon Gallery, London

2006 Interiors, Galerie Heike Curtze, Berlin

2005 from my photo album, The Museum Gallery, Mumbai

Recent Group Exhibitions

2008 Gallery weekend at the Baumwollspinnerei Factory Complex, Leipzig, Germany

2008 A MAZ ING, curated by Anupa Mehta for Harsh Goenka/RPG Academy of Art

and Culture, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai

2007 1st Anniversary Exhibition, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai

2007 The Harmony Show, organized by Tina Ambani, Nehru Center, Mumbai

2007 Reality Bites, CIMA Gallery, Kolkata

2007 Beyond Credos, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata

The artist lives in Baroda.


Exhibition & Catalogue: Abir Karmakar, Gallery Espace & Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Essay: Gayatri Sinha


Printing: Stusa Mudra Pvt Ltd

16 Community Center, New Friends Colony, New Delhi 110 025

+ 91 11 26326267/ 26922947

art@galleryespace.com, www.galleryespace.com

2 Sunny House, 16/18 Mereweather Road, Behind Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba, Mumbai 400 001

+ 91 22 2202 3030/ 3434/ 3636

info@galeriems.com, www.galeriems.com

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