Aji V.N., Untitled, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 15 3/4".

Aji V.N., Untitled, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 15 3/4".

Aji V.N.


Aji V.N., Untitled, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 15 3/4".

In his 2014 essay “For a Phytocentrism to Come,” philosopher Michael Marder argues, “In a fight against the nefarious legacy of anthropocentrism, the advantage of phytocentrism over the alternatives is in how it interferes with the all-absorbing projection of the anthropos onto the horizons of the world.” Could Aji V.N.’s recent paintings of trees and verdant landscapes be understood as an attempt to upend what Marder calls “the inflation of the human as the measure and standard for other forms of existence?” In the works in his latest solo show, trees were no longer the inconspicuous, marginalized backdrop to the Anthropocene. They became protagonists who asked: What insight can this transfiguration from the cognitive human to the arboreal offer in understanding the nature of existence? This transposition was most evident in Untitled, 2017, in which a tree appeared to rise out of the head of a human figure. Aji calls this an image of mental creation and links it with what in yoga is called chitta vritti, or “mind chatter,” the fluctuations of everyday consciousness. He asks us to wonder: How plantlike are our minds? Marder proposes that “while human bodies are the composites of human and non-human matter, our consciousness is not entirely our own, either.”

Bathed in the stillness and silence of trees, Aji’s paintings speak of our relationship with the world of plants and of how we might live and think with nature. The greens of the foliage dominate the canvas, surrounded by a diffuse crepuscular light. Canopies of tree crowns are juxtaposed dramatically against charged, ominous skies—a detail informed by the Rotterdam-based artist’s interest in weather systems. He says that he is also fascinated by invisible forces such as gravity, and pays careful attention to the spaces between elements on the canvas. This close observation results in a delicate balance in composition and tone. Aji does not follow any reference—real trees or landscapes—in inventing his compositions. Painting is a meditative experience for him. In the works, coconut trees from Kerala, India, where Aji grew up, feature alongside thickets from his adopted Europe. A sense of uprooting and displacement evokes ideas of home and diasporic identity.

The concentrated landscapes are rich in detail, as in the tradition of miniature painting. This achievement is particularly impressive given that Aji, who had been making charcoal drawings for fifteen years, began painting in oils only four years ago. In doing so, however, he retained his long-standing attention to nuance. No wonder it took him two years to complete some of the paintings. He likens his persistent effort in this regard to that of mountain climbing, and rightly so: To contemplate these works is to experience an ascent.

Roshan Kumar Mogali