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The Joys of Deception

           The ability to create a sense of illusion and wonder and through that to deceive, depends first an foremost on the sense of sight.  Artists have always enjoyed crating illusions through optical deceptions be it through illusionistic representation in painting that creates the false dimension of depth, or through the false illusion and sensation of touch in sculpture (for instance the touch of smooth marble felt/seen as bare skin of the female figure).  The painting or a sculpture is a constructed reality, and all visual artforms address the nature of visual perception.  Artists both in serious and a lighter tone, have explored the joys of deception through a series of artistic manipulations. 

          In his current series of paper pulp works, Dattatraya Apte evokes the colourful and sensuality of the earth and flora in the city of Delhi.  The structure and the surface in a sensuous entangle spell out his primary engagement that has to do with the intricacies of the visual form.  He documents the identity of the local trees by framing them as a jungle of leaves seen through a window.  In a symbolic sense, nature is glimpsed through the built environment, which edits its presence within the frames.  The banyan, champa, Asoka, peepal, morphanki, elephant-ear leaf etc. are the most visible trees in the landscaping of Delhi and each one is fascinating for the distinct design and structure of their leaves.  The city of Delhi for Apte has proved a potent site that is nuanced with facets of beauty, neglect, urban detritus, tall structures, and ravaged nature. The man-made environment as bearer of meanings, stories and associations has been a recurrent theme in Apte's works.  The focus here has been the juxtapositions of nature and man-made, the entangled existence of the organic and the industrial, the obvious and concealed signs of both life and decay.  Battered walls, fragments, ruptures and fissures, forced entries of nature into built structures are details that for Apte carry subtexts of a larger text – the city that is always changing form and texture. 

          The paper pulp as a medium has become synonymous with Dattatraya Apte who has been exploring the possibilities (and impossibilities) of this medium for more than a decade.  Primarily a printmaker, he has since his college days at the M.S. University of Baroda, engaged with all possible methods and techniques traditionally within the graphic arts discipline.  Over the years, artists have been privileged to work with an array of materials, techniques, formats that allow a mixed media adventure, a shuffling of a formal strategies, often challenging the obvious.  After years of experience in relief and intaglio methods, Apte's mode of working has shifted from an indirect one to a more direct one-where the artist's hand once again becomes the most creative tool.  The elaborate methods of reproductive printmaking with its entire paraphernalia of mechanical presses, chemicals and tools and technical equipment have been dispensed with.  The artist uses brilliantly coloured paper pulp sheet to reconstruct the component parts and compose the extracts from the everyday ordinary, deceiving us with its apparent spontaneity and effortlessness. 

          And there is something to be said about the choice of the paper pulp, not merely in terms of its amazing malleability but in terms of its aptitude to absorb and assimilate nuanced impressions.  Playfully deceptive, it is marvelous in camouflaging identities and the body of the pulp alters its feel and look to become a grainy wall surface when required, a delicate and a fragile body of the giant leaf, a heavy opaque block of brick, or then a dry and frail peepal leaf or a concrete structure.  As he first ventured into paper pulp works, Apte started by taking casts from moulds, appropriating diverse surfaces in wax, plaster of paris and latex.  Now, Apte is physically imbibing his imagery directly from the material available around him in the form of nature and man-made discards.  Wooden ply, cardboard boxes, leaves, twigs and branches, rope, bamboo strips, etc. – little nothing picked up purely for their expressive textures that not only invite touch but evoke a diverse visuality.  There are appropriations of rubble, irregular stony paths, bricks blocks, and the sunken gash in the earth all fragmented details from the environment registered and amplified.  The sensitive colour touches added to the dyed and shaped pulp enhance the play of optical deception.  While one may see a sensuous leaf with its trembling feel, on touch we encounter its altered reality in a hard/dried pulp instead. 

          The puzzle games and legos-building blocks are surely a fascination for Apte.  His methodology is also about arranging the picture, selecting the correct pieces, organizing and reorganizing it till everything falls into place.  And while at the task, he enjoys the sense of discovery wherein the process accommodates a place for surprise and sudden revelations.  The paths, fields, in-between spaces, the spatial maze resonates with games where the player has to find his way home through the maze.  The man made structures are represented by an assembly of wooden planks in their rigid construction, which symbolizes the urban structures from an aerial perspective. 

          Apte's process is quite tedious and requires patience….for the paper pulp has to blend with the liquid dye that is being cooked and readied to dye the pulp….a whole palette of dyes is readied so that he can pick and choose the colours he wishes.  He has to respect the possibilities and limitations of wet and dry pulp.  Once the sheet of fragments is assembled and organized as a whole picture, Apte casts the work in parts, and highlights a certain mood in each one.  There are interesting situations to be tackled in the making of the cast.  For instance, the smooth silken side of the leaf does not yield to the structural details that Apte wishes to transfer onto the pulp.  So he uses the reverse side of the leaf, which has more web-like structures and liner networks.  Also, the image is always in reverse when cast.  In the elephant ear leaf motif, there is a rippling feel in the edges, which is, then contrasted with the thin Asoka leaves which suggest another kind of ripples.  Further, there is also a contrast that comes out in the flappy feel of the big leaf vis a vis the tautness of the dwarf leaf.  The thin string is arranged to get impressed in the wet pulp to appropriate cracks in the walls.  At times, the rusty marks of the nails, the concrete fissures and crevices, the stem separated from the leaf all get assimilated within the trope.  Text and drawings from cargo boxes get transferred to represent the graffiti on the wall.  Deliberate interventions along with some adhoc, random happenings bring in new associations and implausible relationships. 

          For Apte, the thrill is in the new avatara of the object as it is transposed in a new material.  Dislocated from its obvious context, the imprints of collected environmental tidbits take on a new life as they get embedded within the pulp.  Perhaps, it is the after-life of these discards/objects that has been the point of departure for Apte as he picks them up to enshrine their image in the recycled paper pulp that comes the full circle to become earth/tree/wood again.


Roobina Karode

New Delhi, 2007 


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