By Janaka Samarakoon –
A refreshingly new art show is now on at the Paradise Road Gallery Café. It’s refreshing for several reasons. First of all, the young artist hailing from the District of Kurunegala is almost an unknown entity in Colombo (despite a first solo exhibition he held at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in 2012). Then comes the highly personal and constant style of this new prospect who makes a strong statement with each of the 23 paintings that hung on the Alfred-House-Road-Gallery’s walls. Not to forget the nonchalance with which he puts into question the contemporary society and its waywardness through his art as a senior campaigner.
Vimukthi Sahan is a compulsive artist. The starting point of his paintings is a physical confrontation with his easel. His canvases look like battlefields. When one sees his multi-layered, mix-media, multi-technique and cosmopolite compositions, he/she feels the resonance of this confrontation in which the artist engages himself with his canvas. What is undoubtedly most interesting about his recent works is their relentlessness. He draws his figures freely (at least with an apparent ease) and colours them even more freely. When neither lines nor colours seem satisfactory enough to express his ideas, he would not hesitate to use words and phrases within the composition. Some of them are handwritten in graffiti-like manuscript and the others are printed on the canvas following various forms: circles, spirals etc. Sometimes he would even bring, right into the middle of his compositions, impertinent objects from the real world: pieces of plastic or cartons. Even if this practice of collage / assemblage has nothing new in contemporary art, the way he assimilates and masters the technique is prodigious. His use of these unconventional elements is so natural. They fit into form and content of his paintings so much so that you would hardly notice, at the first glance, that there are outside elements incorporated within the paintings.
Above his technique, though, what is startling about this young artist is the way he renders his figures. Trapped in a historical line of Expressionist aestheticism—one, which expands from Van Gogh (1853-1890) through German Expressionists up to the likes of more recent Georg Baselitz (1938-) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)—his distorted figures reveal a human condition, irrevocably doomed to fail. Through these adroitly distorted figures flaws the social criticism of his art. This is the practice of a young matador who is poised to deliver via his art the coup de grâce to a system he despises. And this system, he claims, deserves only beautifully crafted “Bad Paintings”.
Some compositions are directly vindictive of the political aspect of Vimukthi Sahan’s work. There is this canvas in which a seemingly savage person holds to his MacBook© like a prehistoric hunter would do to his piece of raw meat. Slogans of multinational companies are written all over the surface of the painting whereas a multitude of corporate logos, all but too familiar to us, are screen-printed on the canvas. The accessories of the ancestral life—the bows and the arrow, which are the last remains of his old identity—are “For Sale”.
However, not all of his paintings are this directly rancorous. The composition with a figure of a God—he is equipped with a multitude of heads and sits on a peacock—who is supposed to be a formidable guardian of this Island seems to be totally defenceless and distraught. Each of his panoply of heads is more dismantling than the other, very much like the other divine body the artist brings about in another painting: Ganesh. In that pathetic representation, the Patron saint of Wisdom is left to rot in his own dismay. Nobody is interested in searching Wisdom anymore. The deity himself is hapless and cry for help.
The parallel that one could draw between Vimukthi Sahan’s figures and those of Basquiat is all but evident and even more assumed by the artist for he places the Brooklyn Master of Irreverence right on the top of his personal pantheon. Both of them share the same irreverence vis-à-vis Academic art, a calculated nonchalance for colour and form, which gives an undeniable spontaneity to their art coupled with a sense of impatience in their practice as if the time left was pressing (for the American rebel, this assertion turned sadly to be prophetic…). But, if the schizophrenic figures of Basquiat were the emanation of his inner demons, pathologically distorted figures of Vimukthi Sahan’s are more extroverted: a narrative on the society as well as of himself.
A triptych, which is hung at the end of the itinerary of the exhibition, epitomises the artist’s claim and operates as the Ariadne thread of the whole exhibition. The three paintings in question denote three representations of the same individual. These are human faces suffocated in a very tight framing. In the first, the man’s eyes are shut like one would tighten up his/her shoes with a lace. In the second, the ears are sealed with what seems to be corks. In the last, a zipper permanently seals the mouth of the individual. This is a free and—even comic—interpretation of the famous story of the Three Wise Monkeys. When one sees this triptych at the end of the exhibition, it gives a new perspective to all the paintings he/she just saw. The narrative of this exhibition is thus like the inner turmoil of this individual whose orifices are tightly sealed, making him inapt to any social interaction. In that sense, the whole Paradise Road Gallery Café seems to be the place where ended up all the debris of a Big Bang that the aforementioned turmoil has produced, when come to its paroxysm.
This discursive coherence of the show is dearly refreshing.
*Janaka Samarakoon is the curator of www.cultura.lk.
 Bad Painting is also the name of an art movement which prevailed in the 1970’s. These artists put forward an art of a deliberate bad taste as a criticism to conventional attitudes on art as well as its appreciation.