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Kartik Sood's In Thin Air

Treasure, 2019
Oil, acrylic, pigmented ink, wood, artist-designed wooden panel
65″ x 35.25″

I have not read the introduction. There are no titles on the walls, or I do not notice them, so the images stand unto themselves—

A silent ruin recalls an untitled Mohamedi, but the whimsical elements are Sood’s own: a water glass under a tangerine sun, a bare tree in the sky, a small cloaked figure at the edge of a cliff. And past the mist of all that is liminal and inchoate, the artist reaches for an image or then tests his impressions against the master’s fading castle. As in all processes, we are startled by instances of vividness: the black rocks of the foundation are so pronounced! But for the most, a pale wash bleeds over and blurs the edges of the set, like it were all seen through a glass, lightly.

Such elegance and mischief, precision and obscurity. That tiny closed box protruding from a nebulous mountain – what does it hold? An image from a dream, the fading memory of a voice, an insight culled off long hours alone? And this rich interiority is juxtaposed against the coarse flesh of a material likewood, or effects that call to mind the banality of holograms and ruined negatives. Deftly done, for neither feels out of place, and here is another seamless incongruence: that the quaint sadness emanating from the work is wrought in such playful, contemporary colours, a fresh interpretation of cyan, mint green, and candy pink.—Not that we may rest in such ironies; our subtly-hued mountain is offset by a stark black-and-white underworld, a brutal subconscious plied by shadow selves.

How brief our reality and clarity is against the windswept beauty of the unfathomable. There is humility in this artist’s conception of life. But also care; no wild surrender to the madness here, no exaltation in the absurd like it carried no cost. Take, for instance, the delicate, deliberate use of cut-outs: a cinematic eye like the punctum of a traumatic memory, an instant of perfect, almost frightening lucidity against an indistinct and haunting nightscape. And is it not in this care that the works’ pathos resides, but the unusual tints, the whimsy, and curious acoustics keep them from turning sentimental. They remain meticulous and controlled even as they pay homage to the depths inside and beyond us.

The floor above. Two deep red paintings play to the ambient music. Soundwaves fragment as they travel from the boy with the megaphone to the man turning to look over his chair, a broken dog barking in between. In a sister frame, a man is encircled by megaphones, a man trapped in his own voice though all the speakers point one way, perhaps at an unseen other, or in the case of those to his right, at the man himself.

Across, twelve red works like scenes from an event reimagined obsessively, or a series of dreams with recurring motifs: a black coat on a man, the same coat without a wearer, the coat in half or full, being shot at by a soldier, surmised by a dog, growing a leg, even casting a wheelbarrow. The coat has achieved an identity beyond its wearer; elsewhere in the show, a wearer struggles with a cloak. Other details include an ordinary man with a black moustache, a leader’s profile in verdigris, young men supine, hands on a red blouse, a boy lost in a book. I read the images forward and back to make sense of their implications. Here, the colours of the leader’s horse are inverted. There, white lines connect him with two avatars of the moustached man, one of whom is wearing the black coat. But like an Ashbery poem, each phrase only teases us with the promise of coherence. We are invited to seek intelligibility and fail. This is work operating on the lip of meaning.

I round the corner to a serene, too-green wood, and three animated figures in a neon meadow. On a pedestal, a covered silhouette is near motionless; below it, a figure lifts its shroud partially only to cover itself again; triangulating them, this last one strives to stand in a dance of grandiose and spidery gestures that invoke both pity and shame. Like the motifs in the red works, the choreography begins with the promise of a narrative, but no closure comes. We enter and leave a site of struggle, of perpetual becoming.

Alone and no one is watching, so I sit on the floor. The video starts again. By a pale doorway, a woman wraps a child in a cloak. A yellow sun rises in a graphite sky. In the beet foreground, a man lies dead or sleeping. Snatches of sound intensify: eerie flute and cello notes, a throat cleared, children fighting or at play, a woman’s chant, or is it a wail? Again, none round off with satisfaction, meaning remains on the cusp and the artist has the courage to hold it there – interminably.

I am done trying to interpret the show for the maker’s intentions. In a red land then: that man is dead because my father is. By his feet, I am the boy looking away. Beside his head, my shrouded mother stands grieving; closer, she almost claps but the motion remains incomplete. Like the figure in the meadow, she makes to remove her cloak on genderless pants but fails to reveal herself. Above the scene, two small conjoined figures split into three, as if the self were fracturing in the face of death, dividing into selves, or in a tussle with others, siblings perhaps, teenage boys and a girl. Eventually, the figures fade and two white columns grow strong as the dead man moves to the centre and the child edges out. Lights flicker on the griever. Then the body is gone and the griever is also gone.

Darkness. The floor gleams with the reflection of the video replaying. I feel empty of logic and emotion, and in this emptiness, the stirrings of an ancient somatic pleasure come into relief: an unencumbered response to the work’s lyricism. Lush colours wet the roof of the mouth, the pupils soften on the transition between scenes, blood fissions under the skin to the rhythm of that splitting figure, those sibling-selves whose motions convey such vulnerability, evanescence, desire for transformation, inability to transform, to contain oneself and others… and is that not the artist’s struggle in this show? More voices here than in his 2016 work, more classes, ages, animals, and events, though the final images return to a single subject: a young man awakes alone in a meadow; a hawk flies low over its reflection in an outsized, watery gorge.

I wonder if, as the artist grows, he will surrender some of his effort at precision, if he will trust his own dance against the cosmos more fully? Or if it is in this very exertion, this care against the overwhelming and unknowable that he is so aware of being pitched against, that his future triumphs lie? This is that moment, is it not, when at the end of youth, we are still reaching for control though we have seen through its limits. I realize the show as an embodiment of both the innocence and the wisdom of this juncture in a person’s life, or then, this most pivotal reckoning in the course of an artist’s sensibility.

-Devika Rege