The 'Other Art' of Vallery Puri

The 'Other Art' of Vallery Puri

The lexicon of Contemporary painting since the twentieth century would be incomplete without an understanding of the role played in the evolution of its language by certain recently-acknowledged schools --- 'Other Art', Naive and Primitive Art, Tribal and Folk idioms, Kitsch, 'Camp', 'Outsider Art', and Grafitti. It is in such genres that painters like Vallery Puri represent one of the credible barometers of the actual times we inhabit.

Before the twentieth century, the term 'Naive Art' was formally seen as that done without any formal artistic training or an art degree. However, in current times, there exist academies for 'Naive Art' as a recognised art-genre that is represented at many art institutions as one of the relevant psychological mirrors of our milieu.

In India, such senior artists as Madhvi Parekh, Naina Kanodia, Jogen Chowdhury and Jamini Roy have consistently applied the Naive Folk-art idiom in their oeuvres with considerable panache and originality, evolving new manners of contemporary seeing. In the west, this Naive genre has been represented in a vast variety of stylistic manners by a pantheon of modernists, including the Fauvists, Henri Rousseau, Diego Rivera, Grandma Moses, Marc Chagall, Edward Hicks, Paul Klee, Pollock, Matisse, and such Grafitti-inspired urban 'pop' artists as Keith Haring.

In order to understand the painterly language of Naivete and 'Other Art,' we must first be aware that the formal classification of this stylistic genre involves certain specific aspects which might, at first glance, considerably disturb an eye schooled in Classicism and Renaissance templates. By stark contrast --- in fact, almost as an act of rebellion against Classicism --- the Naive genre is characterised by an apparently 'childlike simplicity', as opposed to subtlety in content and technique; the use of illustrative narrative devices as in the folk-art mode; a discarding of 'formalised and academic' parameters of painting; an application of distorted perspectives and 'symbolic' colour-schemes, rather than realism, in a manner often used by children, the unschooled, or tribals; the repeated use of pattern-making and the aspect of art- decoratif involving folk motifs and design; and a subjective absorption in one's own inner mindscape, or the personal psychic realm. In Art, this is a realm that visually illustrates extreme mental states, elaborate fantasy-worlds, and unconventional notions.

A self-taught painter, the Pune-born Puri, born in 1964, worked as a flight attendant for Air-India for nine years, but says she had "painted ever since she can remember and has been a Caricaturist throughout school and college". After a long hiatus, Puri resumed painting and exhibiting from 1998 at such venues as the Holiday Inn in Pune and at Gurgaon galleries, with intuition guiding her imagery.

The first impact of Puri's multi-hued, crowded and intense oils on canvas conveys all the elements of a shockingly-vivid palette and psychic self-absorption that are so intrinsic to the schools of Other Art and the Naive. The painter describes "re-beginning her painterly career on the morning of 8th January 1996 after a dream that literally told her what to do". She views her artworks as fluctuating "from busy-ness to blandness, depending on the mental state one is in... they are simply a form of communicating the varied emotions one feels as life unfolds with all its twists and turns. Sometimes I use colours opposing what I am actually feeling: bright tones when I am really in a dark space, and so on. " Her entire approach tallies uncannily with the theories delineating the genre 'Outsider Art'.

The term Outsider Art was coined by the art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for the French 'Art Brut', notably 'raw art,' or 'rough art': a terminology created by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to define "Art that is created outside the boundaries of official culture." Interestingly,

Dubuffet's analysis of Art Brut, Outsider Art, as a contemporary art-genre, initially centred around art made by individuals who have no real contact or awareness of the mainstream world; many of whom were interred in hospitals for treatment of psychological ailments. In many cases, such meaningful and spontaneous artworks that were disregarded during their psychologically-troubled lives were only discovered and analysed after the artists' deaths.

This raises the pertinent query: What constitutes entrapment and 'institutionalisation' for human beings? Are not all social mores and expectations merely elements of such enforced 'institutionalisation' --- formalities that aim to fetter the human soul, leading the mind towards the steep edge of disturbance? Therefore, what are the boundaries of visual acceptability in art?

Clearly, there is something within the painter Vallery Puri's mind that longs to break free of claustrophobic constraints, ironically, VIA her tightly-boxed, breathless canvasses --- and, by escaping into a primitive paintbox-palette, to undo the terrible loss of innocence in adulthood; to re-enter a childhood realm or a fairy-tale world where raw, primary, un-blended colours can perhaps 'simplify' the far darker, more complex codes of life's bitter truths and tragic experiential realities.

Such art indicates that beneath all the trappings of modern living lurks a silent scream: the angst of Edvard Munch's painting by the same name, The Scream. This angst lurks beneath the painter's determined effort to 'keep up a cheerful front and smile'! As an observant art-analyst for over two decades, I detect, beneath Puri's seemingly-'bright' child's-paintbox oeuvre, outpourings of a turbulent, tumultuous, crowded palette --- another injured, searching urban voice crying out for re-beginning, as if with a new alphabet.

Interestingly, since 1993, New York has hosted an annual 'Outsider Art Fair', being a metropolis that harbours the furtive imaginations of thousands of wounded souls. New Delhi and Mumbai are no less inhabited by such angst-laden spirits longing for creative expression. Manhattan has recognised the aesthetic language of the 'outsider' and the 'stranger,' as embodied by previous European Existential writers such as Camus and Kafka. Such critical examination and aesthetic categorisation has not yet been applied in India, to generate a deeper understanding of many recent works in Indian contemporary-art language that are resonant with disturbing nuances. It is towards such a greater definition of Indian-Outsider and Naivist Art that I am making this analytical beginning via Puri's oeuvre.

Of the three categories in Puri's current exhibition called 'ONE BILLION PLUS', it is the group 'URBANESQUE' that is the most original and impactful. Its visualisations of crowded, breathless, multi-religious Indian cityscapes manage to formulate a credible metaphor: they accurately mirror the painter's own turbulent mindscape. Tangles of dangerous electric wires criss-cross these canvasses, disturbingly enmeshing all the entrapped trees, skies and buildings of a jagged, jostling, neurotic environment where cows must tussle with cars; where humans, piled upon each other, en masse in impersonal crowds, must bear the added burden and pressure of box-like buildings enclosing them even further within their inescapable urban confines.

These quaintly-intricate paintings with self-explanatory titles such as BURSTING, COWS CARS & CONDOMINIUMS, HUTS & HIGHRISES, GRILLING, WIRED, and TRAFFIC JAM express this anxious urban claustrophobia most effectively with their Naive intricacy and graphic intensity. Their neon-like palette --- deceptively folksy --- mirrors a Millennial frenzy of a multitude of forms whereby the painter has documented all the kitschy, mad mayhem of Indian cities. In one of her renditions, Puri graphically incorporates shop-signboards, bus-numberplates, tilting auto- rickshaws and crash-helmeted motorcyclists along with plaintive cows and striped road-markers, all thrown together on the canvas in a vivid kind of mayhem.

Second on the scale in terms of painterly impact is Puri's segment of artworks entitled 'DREAMS', where her BIRDS, BUTTERFLIES AND BEES seem to echo the Fauvist wildness of Henri Rousseau in expressing a trapped soul that longs for release from all this urban grime into an imaginary but elusive Eden.

Here, peacocks, parakeets and domestic cats co-exist peacefully with solitary, free women in Pagan gardens. The painter's visualisation of these spectral gardens bears the hallucinogenic effect of Pop art, transporting one away from the ominous, neurotic entrapments of her previous sharp-edged, closed-in GRILLINGS and HIGH-RISES.

Puri's 'GODS AND GODDESSES' section depicts Radha and Krishna in 'human' forms who seem to struggle and cavort playfully like all-too-HUMAN beings, within frames too densely-crowded to arrive at distant meditative realms. Divinities, too, seem entrapped here by our urban nightmares, employing humour as a tool to deal with all its incumbent traumas! These quirky figurations of the 'Divine' seem to merge into their earthly backdrop and become design-elements, rather than stand out as Divinities. The 'Divine' here, in a sense, becomes 'Design'!

Playfulness remains integral to many fine folk and rural depictions of divinities; however, the delineations of the actual icons represented in Folk-religious art are always sharper and more focussed than their backdrops, in order for the viewer to experience transcendence and repose. In this series, however, Puri seems to wish to bring Indian icons down to earth.

In summation, the painter has embarked upon a rather challenging oeuvre that calls for discipline and rigorous experimentation in order to fully manifest all its Indian-Fauvist potential. However playful the apparent tonalities, communicating in a contemporary visual language is a serious matter. The artist is therefore to be encouraged for her experiments in a modern, urban and personalised visual language --- one that departs from conventional and outdated notions of the painterly. What we would look forward to in the future from Vallery Puri is the evolution of a more mature 'Indian-Urban Naivist' idiom.

Srimati Lal
Artist, Writer, Columnist & Curator
April 2012, New Delhi