New Delhi

Sujith SN, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on paper, 41 × 70".

Sujith SN, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on paper, 41 × 70".

Sujith SN

Sujith SN’s monumental watercolor And River without a Bend, 2019—nearly seven feet long—seemed uncannily prescient. It depicts a line of people standing on a narrow jetty with plenty of space between them. Adopting different postures and rendered in profile, they appear strangely disconnected—some lost in contemplation, others staring ahead aimlessly, while still others seem to be waiting for some action to unfold. Accentuating this sense of estrangement is the artist’s dexterous use of lighting, his characters illuminated against the murky gloom of the river beside them. The work recalled an earlier watercolor of Sujith’s, not on view, Psalms of an (In)visible River, 2013, in which a stream of people trudge along listlessly and mechanically, each individual seemingly self-isolated from the rest.

This theme of alienation ran through several of the other paintings in the artist’s recent exhibition “Seer-Seen.” In the large Swan Song 4, 2019, and in three works from the small-format series “Prelude,” 2018–, a single building towers over the landscape like a silent sentinel. Evocative of granaries, barns, or even wartime bunkers fallen into disuse, these structures, presented from low-angle views, are eerie, almost ominous. The artist, who draws parallels between them and Foucault’s panopticon, accentuates their character as mechanisms of surveillance by drawing upon his earlier experience as an architectural draftsman.

But it was above all his deft handling of chiaroscuro and a somber palette that helped convey a mood of alienation and dystopia. In Untitled, 2019, a building is theatrically lit from below with blue rays of light, which lend the structure an otherworldly air. In Poet Unknown 2, 2019, an incandescent glow emanates from a security cabin as fairy lights twinkle nearby in a dark canopy of trees. A consummate colorist, Sujith often applies sixteen to eighteen washes of watercolor in a process of application and erasure. The first of these layers is invariably rusty red, and he works out areas of illumination well in advance to intensify their luminescence. Recognizing the immediacy and quicksilver nature of watercolors, he works with speed, emphasizing that one needs to “have a cat’s reflexes” and “to keep listening to the surface.”

Caravaggio’s dramatic use of lighting has been an inspiration for many of Sujith’s works; one of the “Prelude” works on view here, rendered in swaths of inky blue and darkish red, recalled Mark Rothko. In the large-scale watercolor Se(a)e, 2019, dark-blue waters are juxtaposed against a bright-red sky with a crescent moon and a smattering of glowing stars. In another, also Se(a)e, 2019, shades of blue dominate both the moonlit waters and the firmament, while a band of crimson running across the Arches paper turns the moon a shade of luminescent red. But it was Seer-Seen, 2019, the inspiration for the show’s title, that forcefully brought home the catastrophic times we live in. Drenched in a pomegranate red, its denuded rocky landscape might be the surface of Mars were it not for the shrubs that dot it. But the scene is equally evocative of the red haze created by bushfires that ravaged so much of Australia’s forest cover this past January. Sujith’s works suggest that the apocalypse is now.