Hamburg, Germany

Goutam Ghosh, Glycerin, 2018, kite paper, gouache, and cotton on plywood, 48 × 55 7⁄8".

Goutam Ghosh, Glycerin, 2018, kite paper, gouache, and cotton on plywood, 48 × 55 7⁄8".

Goutam Ghosh

Kunsthaus Hamburg

The Kunsthaus Hamburg and its director, Katja Schroeder, pulled off a coup in presenting “Reptiles,” the first institutional solo show in Europe by the Indian artist Goutam Ghosh. The generously spaced hanging of the exhibition, designed together with the artist’s help, gave his paintings (and a 16-mm film, PAARA, 2017, made in collaboration with artist Jason Havneraas) ample room to unfold their subtle visual idiom. The works were mounted unusually low on the walls; the artist wanted to keep them deliberately close to the ground and to emphasize horizontals rather than verticals. “I found it comfortable to be a reptile at this exhibition,” he commented, half in jest. Yet the aside is illuminating, evoking a sort of private mythology that was also adumbrated by the title he chose for a show at Standard (Oslo) in 2018, “Morph, blend and flatten (space) of Bird, Reptiles and Flower,” which intimated a similar concern with the manifold forms of life and offered a clue that Ghosh’s approach to abstraction always articulates an existential perspective, a state of being.

To a beholder reared on the Western abstract tradition, paintings such as Trick in the Tent, 2018; Nuri, 2016; and Tethys, 2018, may bring to mind Cy Twombly’s handling of text and texture, or perhaps Richard Tuttle’s more object-minded but no less nuanced use of materiality and color. But this art is nourished by entirely different pictorial traditions and is firmly rooted in Indian culture, without exploiting it to anecdotal or folkloristic effect. Ghosh’s paintings weave a delicate web of painterly gestures, fashioning an abstraction that is emphatically subjective while steering clear of merely individual expressive impulses as it fluctuates among freehand gesture, writing, and pictography. More generally, an all-pervading fluidity defines his signature painterly style—and contributes to the impression that his work eludes interpretive disambiguation. In his writings, Ghosh draws connections between his practice and the teachings of tantra. Another source of inspiration is Indian classical music, which lacks true polyphony and emphasizes, instead, the succession of tones and their relation to a keynote.

Ghosh’s pictures are marked by an unerring sense of rhythm and a keen eye for colors and materials. For instance, in Glycerin, 2018, a work on cotton glued to plywood, unevenly shaped purple circular elements punctuate an abstract grid that appears to be a kind of mathematical coordinate system, although it is executed in cursory freehand lines. This basic pattern recurs in three loosely similar yet considerably smaller aggregations of shapes, two near the bottom edge of the picture, one on the upper left. To the sides, two prominent rounded marks painted in fluent brushstrokes with a less-opaque bronze-brown gouache—Ghosh often works in watercolors as well as pastels, usually making his own pigments—anchor the composition. Sparing painterly marks in light blue complement the carefully balanced constellation of divergent features to give rise to a deliberately sober-minded kind of beauty. A closer look revealed that the purple circles are not painted but, rather, pasted-on bits of ultrathin kite paper, a material sold everywhere in India. Where the artist has pulled some of them off again, pale stains of the same color remain, forming a sort of monotype.

Tethys, too, is a tableau with a distinctly musical air: A basic grid indicated by perfunctory pencil lines serves as a scaffold for the multi-farious rhythms of curling horizontal lines. Their undulations cradle watery, pale agglomerations of color. The work is nearly monochromatic, the palette dominated by a sort of gasoline green. The only exceptions are several series of small patches in various blues and greens along the bottom edge, as though the artist had sampled a range of hues. Adding to the general impression of improvisational openness, they bring the picture to richly articulated acoustic life.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.