Whose faces are these, that look out at us from the darkness of old windows? They do not always confront us boldly; more often, they look furtively away, or prefer the company of their own strangeness. It seems as though nothing we can do will draw these men of mystery from the private universe of their thoughts. Possessed by a quiet desperation, the subjects of Sunil Padwal’s paintings tenant a shadowy region; a region filmed almost entirely in a somber palette of umber and sienna, relieved only by an occasional flare of golden-ochre.
Sunil Padwal first achieved public notice thorough these very columns with his striking illustrations: in these, he combined the classical elements of collage with an inscriptional technique, to produce images that were quite autonomous of the articles to which they were ostensibly appended. Trained as a graphics designer at the
Sir J. J. School of Art’s applied arts faculty, Padwal brings an acute sense of compositional effect to his illustrations; often enough, his creations have seemed to be executions in miniature, of more ambitious pictorial projects.
Curiously, Padwal, on his own account, seems not to have speculated on these possibilities inherent in his art. Since he does not regard illustration as an inferior or incidental form, he has been content with operating on the scale it sets. On the other hand, the format does breed a certain discontent, as does the fact that the limited shelf life of a newspaper illustration is no reward at all for an artist’s labour. Indeed, it is not surprising that many artists who have worked as illustrators should have, in recent times, pulled away to concentrate on their own painterly aims.
Sunil Padwal’s paintings certainly flourish in this freedom: not bound by the parameters of an assignment, he freely explores sensuous experiences to which he is attracted, articulates his private figural obsessions. An inventive collageur, he makes no distinction between the frame and the framed in his work: his is an art of total surface, its forms slashing every which way across divisions, so that the entire rectangle of the painting is legitimately picture space. A votary of Chor Bazar baroque, Padwal picks out old, ornamental frames with relish from the welter of the junk shops; his propensity for the mixed-media mode allows him to deploy a range of materials in diverse permutations: tarpaulin sheets on a grand scale; emulsion paint juxtaposed with Touchwood varnish; colour xerox output overlaid with acrylic paint; sections of stenciled cartons; wooden planking; an old academic certificate dated April 28, 1930, in an interesting brush with time.
In this last work, especially, numerous poignancies surface: the names of an institution and a student, each obscured by dry-brushed ink and the outline of a brooding figure; the document with its curlicued Gothic script and its effaced markings, suggests an excavation of things past, a séance with reluctant ghosts.
Who, then, are these men in trench coats, crisscrossed by searchlights, storm-shadowed? Meditative and prayerful, Padwal’s art permits us access to astonishing transformations, as when the mug shots of wanted criminals give way to saintly icons: the same faces which seemed to belong to Dashiel Hammett or John Le Carre characters, now seem to be the tallowstained, candle-soot-covered portraits of martyrs. Padwal’s theme is the city as dwelling; his subjects are those fugitives of crowded metropolitan life, whose identity is rubbed away in the glissade of traffic and the onrush of pedestrians. Faces rise up, are held for a moment in the mind’s eye, and then vanish. It is Padwal’s purpose to seize the aura of these intriguing faces, to commemorate them in that moment between vision and erasure. Amphibious spies, double agents, Sunil Padwal’s protagonists negotiate between the invisible and the light.
May 1, 1994
The Sunday Times of India