Anju Dodiya, Judgement Day, 2012, watercolor, charcoal, and pastel on paper, 72 x 45".

Anju Dodiya, Judgement Day, 2012, watercolor, charcoal, and pastel on paper, 72 x 45".

Anju Dodiya

Gallery Chemould

Anju Dodiya, Judgement Day, 2012, watercolor, charcoal, and pastel on paper, 72 x 45".

In Anju Dodiya’s recent show “Room for Erasures,” eight life-size watercolors, which she calls “studio-dramas,” commandeered the exhibition space, turning it into a kind of theater. The paintings, depicting the artist’s alter ego as a robed and coiffed samurai painter, like a figure out of the works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, staged a serial melodrama projecting the internal conflicts inherent in artistic practice. In some, the heroine is pitted against her own worst enemy: a fractious, resistant self. In others, she succeeds in moving toward her vision, realizing a sense of fulfillment, a taste of perfection. Beasts (all works 2012) finds her splayed on the studio floor in front of a red-spattered canvas as shadowy black beasts menace her body. The scene here seems to imply that painting is a blood sport, but the desire to take part in it is elemental, not to be denied. In Orange Chorus, the heroine stands in the guise of a Greek goddess, a tree of life bearing luscious ripe fruits emerging from her body. Elsewhere, in spiderlike gossamer attire, paintbrush between her teeth, she gazes up at the web she has created (Arachne). In Relay (for Mike Kelley), dedicated to the artist whose suicide was news as Dodiya was working on the piece, the heroine collapses, breathless, at a finish line, holding out a rolled painting toward a looming void. The works mingle lush hues and subtle tonalities with harsh charcoal incursions. Darkness, smudges, and watery blurs loom at the edges and lurk in the interstices of these images. They are reminders, perhaps, of the fragility of the painter’s enterprise, which is a matter of marks so easily obliterated. And in case we were liable to forget this peril, on the wall adjacent to the suite of paintings, Dodiya mounted Altar for Erasures. In three large charcoal drawings, the artist’s alter ego looks out, directly engaging the viewer. In front of these, Dodiya provided step stools and erasers. Signage invited visitors to participate, to experience, in the making of erasures, the powers of creation and destruction.

Watercolor and charcoal have been the vehicles for Dodiya’s trenchant reflexivity for more than twenty years. An impassioned watercolorist who rejects the medium’s relegation to the margins, she admits to being seduced by its process, its demand for concentration and precision, and its promise of refinement and elegance. And Dodiya, who lives and works in Mumbai, has the Indian modernist lineage behind her. From the early twentieth century, many Indian artists resisted the sway of oil painting as a colonial imposition, favoring water-based paints, which have a venerable pedigree in India going back to the ancient frescoes of the Ajanta caves. In Bengal, pioneers including Rabindranath Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and Nandalal Bose chose to work principally in watercolor, tempera, and ink, aligning themselves with not only the painters of Ajanta but also local vernacular artists as well as contemporaries in China and Japan, conferring a political weight on the choice of water-based colors that is partly responsible for keeping the practice surprisingly fresh and experimental in India.

Dodiya’s allegories of the terrors and wonders of her calling draw on her long fascination with Japanese ukiyo-e prints for their thrilling combination of violence, eroticism, and beauty. She appropriates their scenery, costumes, and props for her own flamboyantly dramatic masquerades. But even if this is playacting—hyperbolic, idealistic, romantic, comic—it is also dead serious, a life-and-death battle with her creative dreams and demons.

Susan S. Bean