New Delhi

Jeram Patel, Untitled, ca. 1960, burnt wood, 19 × 25".

Jeram Patel, Untitled, ca. 1960, burnt wood, 19 × 25".

Jeram Patel

Jeram Patel, Untitled, ca. 1960, burnt wood, 19 × 25".

“Black has always fascinated me,” said Jeram Patel, who passed away earlier this year at the age of eighty-six. “It seems that black in itself carries many things, no one knows deposited by whom, and when.” This preoccupation hovers in the air throughout “the dark loam: between memory and membrane,” a retrospective of Patel’s work curated by Roobina Karode; it snakes its way into the various rooms of the museum, settling as soot on wooden surfaces, or as dense, dark masses on paper, or blurry, bleeding, elongated forms in Chinese ink paintings.

Patel’s black does not evoke the oppressive darkness of despair so much as the smoldering heat of burning charcoal. That fire was very much a part of his repertoire is evident in his works from the 1960s, when he traded the softness of the brush for the blue flames of the blowtorch. A major section of the current retrospective is devoted to these burnt offerings. Mounting a fiery attack on planks of wood, he singed and scorched the skin. He would then paint any untorched portions of the surface with his preferred brand of Black Japan. In Untitled, 1960, the flames create dark whorls and circular forms revealing and accentuating the grain of the wood. At times, the heat of his inner fire appears to spread to other parts of the wood, licking it in shades of vermillion or green.

In other works from the same period, the artist crucified tin sheets by nailing them to wood, then surrounding them with indentations evocative of bullet holes. The viewer is tempted to ask: Were these attacks cathartic? The answer can possibly be located in Patel’s words: “Nobody can create anything. The only thing that one can do is to destroy things. By way of destroying or destruction I want to forget something.” This destructive urge loses its sharp edge occasionally, as evidenced in two works, both Untitled, one painted red and dated ca. 1960s, the other green, from 1973. Here we discern a more considered excavation of the wood, with curved hollows revealing terraced, sedimentary layers. This is Patel the geologist rather than Patel the anarchist.

In paintings rendered in Chinese ink, the artist’s black becomes soft, fuzzy, and commingled with shades of gray. Nebulous forms float on white surfaces, often enshrined in the center, in a play of negative and positive spaces. In some works from 2007, attempts by layers of purple to peek out from under an inky blanket are quickly nipped in the bud. But limbs do manage to break free and emerge from a dark anthropomorphic form in an untitled paper work from 1990. In a room devoted to works executed in 2010, large white canvases sport the dark silhouettes of hybrid machine-men.

Patel’s inner demons are not confined to abstract visions. In his “Hospital” series, ca. 1966, ghoulish creatures and anatomical parts, which he sketched using a crow quill and ink, are unleashed on paper. They are often surrounded by scalpels, scissors, and syringes—surgical instruments that possess the power to hurt or heal. A top-angle view of a prostrate woman transposes the viewer to the position of a doctor bent over a patient etherized on a table.Remarkably, it is not these incisions in the mortal body that linger in one’s mind long after the show, but the acrid smell of burnt flesh emanating from them.

Meera Menezes