The Street

Yusuf Arakkal at Art Alive.

There’s something very theatrical about Yusuf Arakkal’s “The Street” series. Culled from candid photographs that Arakkal took of people in London, Lisbon, Singapore and elsewhere, and transferred via silkscreen to canvas before painting over them, the works round up a cast of everyday characters, each one unaware that he is participating in an artistic moment.

The dim backgrounds of the large paintings heighten the sense of a minimalist stage set with only the central figure illuminated and visible in detail. A man sitting on a chair has only a few props — a table, a glass of red liquid— that constitute his reality. The rest of his world is an abstraction of white suffused over a wall into yellow, beige and every shade of brown imaginable, painted in long planes of short scratches. Subtly, the red glass is echoed in a tinge of red in the white background.

Like characters in a play, Arakkal’s figures always seem to be elsewhere than where they actually are. They are either talking on the phone, looking at something that the viewer cannot see, reading a newspaper, riding a bicycle to an unknown destination, or have their backs turned to the viewer. In this way, the subject’s story remains a mystery to the viewer, just as the viewer is a spectator, hidden from the subject. The voyeuristic nature of this relationship is most direct in a painting of an old man standing in front of a blank wall (“lost in front of a shop window”, according to Arakkal). Staring at a patch of brown paint, the old man becomes a reflection of the viewer himself standing before the painting.

Repetition occurs in a different sense in these paintings with recurring figures, sometimes in the same painting. Often this seems to imply the chronological progression of a story. In one painting, a man reading a newspaper appears three times. In the first and second figures, only a stroke of red brushes the paper, but in the third, the entire sheet is filled with red, perhaps mirroring the absorption of information by the reader.

If Arakkal’s work has a staged quality to it, the occasional thin coloured line that bisects some of the canvases is like a marker of the separation between the subject and the viewer—an indication of the “fourth wall”, in theatre terms. Some of his subjects — like a man on a bicycle riding into the foreground — seem almost to sense his lens, but keep their eyes averted, drawn instead to the artificial thin red or blue line.

Two triptychs stand out as examples of a character breaking through the wall between viewer and subject: the same young boy is seen from multiple angles in each one, staring directly, accusingly, at the viewer. Unlike the other paintings, in which each subject is talking to, looking at, or moving towards an absence, the interaction here is thrust out of the frame and takes place directly between the boy on a brown background and the viewer. This painting of a cornered child is a striking soliloquy about existing on the street with nowhere else to go.

The exhibition is only on for two days before it travels to London, so catch a glimpse while you can.

This story was originally published in Time Out Delhi.

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