The mottled, sagging bodies of the figures in One Fell Swoop who sit by a seaside café carry the freight of decay and alienation. The café is flanked by what looks like the 27-storeyed home of one of the richest men in India, about which Arundhati Roy asked in her essay Capitalism: A Ghost Story, whether it is “a temple to the new India, or a warehouse for its ghosts?” The people in the painting are like self-enclosed cages or empty husks, bodies evacuated of personhood, without any joie de vivre. Their body language is listless and lonesome; some of them are asleep (or are they unconscious?), the moment of inertia highlighting their tired and dejected resting faces. There is an ambivalence about human relationships and intimacy similar to a Francis Bacon portrait. Unnikrishnan was reading novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald among others while making these paintings and the atmosphere of dissipation, moral vacuum and the excess of the Jazz Age has crept in. It’s the hovering presence of the ancient poet Kalidas in the background, known for his sensuous plays about love and courtship, wearing dark sunglasses and looking at a mirror, while teetering on the head of a contorted stag, that seems to evoke the erosion of romance and affect. His presence seems to suggest that blind vanities have replaced genuine emotional values.
Unlike the crowdscapes of early 16th century painters like Hieronymus Bosch, who inspired Unnikrishnan, these paintings do not have convulsive power or frenzied motion; rather, stasis is buried under their surfaces. A group of people can be united into a revolutionary force, has the agency for mass mobilisation, but here subjects are seen incarcerated in their own selves, uncanny landscapes and unchanging climate. They are both literally and figuratively at sea. The sky is airless, the sea seems closed shut, which increase the sense of entrapment and the cancellation of the future.
Through the use of candy colours in both these paintings, Unnikrishnan evokes the pathology of consumerism, and perhaps of the commodification of art too. Images of eating, of food as metaphor, are used throughout the show. For example, in the black and white Absolutely, where the seaside shifts into a scorched, desecrated site marked by shipwreck and dismembered bodies, you spot a group of people feasting on a dining table amidst the debris. The act of eating becomes a metaphor for conquest and consumption.
The teeming population also shows the exhaustion of landscapes through plunder, pollution, food extraction, habitation and recreation by their population. The human population is literally masticating the landscape shown in sculptures with suggestive titles like Extra Topping, Red Harvest and Overbite in which houses gobble and chew the landscapes from within like parasites.
Unnikrishnan employs the structure of nightmare and the strategy of visual discordance, to show the distortions of time. His subjects are often fictional scenarios inspired by real news. Taking recourse to the fantastic and grotesque to illuminate the ills afflicting the society is nothing new in visual art; only in Unnikrishnan’s case the distortions are not shocking.
In a series of paintings, Unnikrishnan depicts the hauntology of the mass media and its power to hound, infect and morph spaces and bodies. In Mirror, an elderly couple sits in a room facing away from each other. The man is reading a newspaper, while the woman has her feet soaked in a tub of water. On the wall behind them is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, and a painting depicting scenes of a riot, which seems to grow out of the old woman’s head. These characters are entangled together in a fraught web of collusion and ambivalence. These are the days and Dressing depict a group of weary people engaged in eating, talking or cooking food against the background of a painting that shows mirror images of people eating and talking. These are ‘People Like Us’ engaged in languid and long discussions over organic food and vintage wine. The effect produced by paintings within paintings is of these characters being illusions, disconnected from the material world, and stranded in the maze of their own self-images.