Chennai based artist C. Douglas’ work, by which one also means his life, since the two cannot be separated, is a constant process of negotiation. These include several identities- as an artist from another state living in Chennai; as an artist from within Chennai who lives in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village and as an artist who is an integral part of the Madras Art Movement but creates work that cannot be easily fitted within the nativist ideology of the movement. While such identity dilemmas confront most artists, Douglas is not only conscious of it but this awareness also informs his art. As a result, he sees himself as an insider/outsider in various contexts, with a predominating sense of being the latter.
Douglas’ works contain repetitions of images but in his case these repetitions could be seen as retracing of paths already trodden in order to find the map. But Douglas understands that the journey is the meaning. For him it is the act of trying to map that, which gives him meaning. More literally, maps are composed of lines and it is through lines or drawing that Douglas finds his own place within the context of the Madras Art Movement. In the way the drawings connect to deeply personal yet universal themes of loss, longing, waiting and self-hood, he finds his place within the larger world.
Douglas’ works in this exhibition capture his journey from the 1990s until the last few years. The works from the 1990s mark the time when he had begun working on his characteristic grey works, influenced by German Expressionists. To him, this neutral colour represented a liminal state that embraced vulnerability over heroism and uncertainty over finality. Crumpled and coated with sand and grey pigment, these paintings have an inherent ‘slowness’ as the images, of lighthouses, fetal forms and nebulous figures, slowly emerge into view due to the way they catch light. Unhurried and muffled, his paintings have the quality of an echo where there is both a presence and an absence.
The notion that identity is not constant but evolves – is meant to evolve with time is also reflected in his artistic identity that has been metamorphosing with time. From his dark works of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, in 2008 he moved to a series of works that embraced flat surfaces and colours. This Missed Call series (2008) engages with the idea of presence and absence using the ‘missed call’ as a metaphor. Fragmentation, absence and emptiness are conveyed in these paintings through a non-hierarchical arrangement of disjointed mannequins, broken ladders and phones with receivers off the hook, plastic flowers, toy birds etc. Through these missed call-like representations, where there could be a presence ‘within’ an absence, he creates a sense of expectation among the viewers. As Douglas writes, the series ‘is so much about waiting and simulation. We miss what is original, what is real: the presence’.
Metamorphosis and transformation are constant concerns in these works as C. Douglas makes repetitive use of the images of butterflies, cocoons and caterpillars. The open-ended nature of the meaning-making process is evident even in the dynamics between the poet and his art; the butterflies although originating from the poet, once created, no longer remain only in his sand crusted and tactile world as they glow in the shades of ultramarine and red ochre.