RETROGRADE REALITIES: Sunil Padwal’s Intuitive Line (An essay by Urshila Mehta)



Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone.


- September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden



Sunil Padwal cuts a quietly studious figure in his spacious New York- style studio. If anyone told you that his well-known meditative, muscular men were selfportraits, you’d do an internal double-take. Yet, this is exactly how we start our conversation on his newest body of work.


Padwal began his career not as a painter, but as a man of the press, illustrating for The Sunday Review’s lead stories. In 1993, he first began to paint his well-known protagonist: brooding, somber, his defined musculature and shorn profile lost in reverie. Padwal explained how in these early years, he began to paint a physical ideal of the man he wanted to become: toned and healthy; an epitome of physical fitness. He achieved this part beautifully, but this perfect rendition of himself still had to wrestle with the issues that plagued him internally: the dystopic state of the surrounding urban situation that an everyday man in India grapples with.



Art critics like Ranjit Hoskote and Georgina Maddox, and, Columnist Anil Dharkar who have written on Padwal’s work from this time detected an emotional catatonia in these images. “…[his] paintings are completely still, the solitary man made completely inert by the human condition”, wrote Dharkar, “…[he] is no longer a witness: he is past seeing, feeling and hearing. And what he has seen, felt and heard has put him in a state of catatonic angst.”Hoskote identifies “his subjects [as being] those fugitives of crowded metropolitan life, whose identity is rubbed away in the glissitude of traffic and the onrush of pedestrians. It is Padwal’s purpose to seize the aura of these intriguing faces, to commemorate them in that moment between vision and erasure.”3

Padwal’s man was a self-inspired protagonist of a mundane urban story. In spite of appearing physically capable to take on the world around him, Padwal’s early protagonist was always depicted without any defining facial features and, therefore, bereft of any means of communication. Although he contemplated the urban predicament, he was not given any tools to express his concerns. This makes for a frustrating conundrum: He is eyeless but not blind; mouth-less but opinionated. He becomes a silent spectator to the goings-on around him as well as an involuntary participant.

Padwal introduced colour into his works between 2000 and 2004 as an emotional signifier. His urban man remained his main tool of communication but he started allowing for more symbolic devices. He began to draw heavily on photo references and graphic design elements and used these to make emotional statements on the realities around him. An agony and helplessness pervades these works as well as a humiliation of his continued inability to instrument any significant change. Nonetheless, this period signified an awakening for Padwal, a time when he began to reach out through his symbolic devices to express what he wanted. He began to find his voice through a multitude of other graphic languages.

‘Numb’ (2007), a show of mixed media drawings and installation, spoke about socio-political realities. Critic Georgina Maddox, in her catalogue essay for the show observed that “these works are similar to a diary and catalogue the artist’s musings over mortality, violence and form…These works are non-narrative in nature and yet they have a story to tell, all they require is a keen eye to spot the reference to larger issues.” Padwal, as observer, implicates himself in the inert and indolent state of metropolitan India; he feels as jaded, as helpless as any other urban citizen. However, as artist and social commentator, he creates worlds and systems that heavily allude to universal narratives.



Padwal’s newest body of work continues his inquest into his personal and the collective psyche. ‘Soliloquies: notes from the drawing book’ consists of two installations and four series of small format drawings made on pages of his diary. 



Padwal’s installation, ‘Digitally Twisted’ (2011) continues his preoccupation with the trauma of erasure that the individual faces in the digital era. The installation consists of a tenuously long spinal column, printed, almost infected, with numbers that call to mind DNA and Binary Codes. As it snakes along, it transforms from an organic structureto a formation that visually alludes to urban sprawl. Padwal exposes modernization to be a flawed system that is literally mutating our genetic natures and causing a degradation of our very basic natures. Fine black threads run across the front of the installation, a graphic reminder that no matter how much order and logic we impose on ourselves, the human mind and body is too far disfigured to be able to adhere to ‘Urban trauma II’ (2007-2011) addresses the trauma of hospitalization. Surgical instruments suspended within a ‘matchstick-house’ wooden framework threaten and titillate in a macabre dance. The instruments glint and clash, creating villainous music that is both melodic but discordant.



For Padwal, the medium of drawing allows for thoughts to be overlapped and complexed. His soliloquies are memories and observations of a city, yet fictional and universal simultaneously. The worlds depicted are surreal, all-encompassing traps for the urban individual. Black and white as monochromes have tremendous strength according to Padwal. They speak clearly, whereas colour distracts. These two primaries combined with a graphic language make for minimal but impactful works. Padwal has used a Rotring pen, an architectural draughtsman’s tool, to create each finely imbricated drawing. Padwal’s lines follow an interiorized, almost intuitive logic to create these surreal urbanscapes. His pen meanders tightly, almost searchingly, lost in the maze of its own creation.



Many of the drawings belie an underlying angst. Some lament a degradation of human values in the rat race for capitalistic power. Others express an urgent fear for the organic body turning mechanic: without feeling, intelligence or sensitivity. Many of the drawings depict a kind of reverse decay. Technology and urban development are symbolic of an alarming anti-climax that is fast encroaching onto Padwal’s worlds. The construction grid, and architectural forms indicate ruination, not evolution and tension, not celebration. This is a far cry from turn-of-the-century western artistic practices which celebrated urbanization, industry and technological speed. The Italian Futurists and British Vorticism both were defined by their embrace of industry and made significant stylistic progress in the way mechanical motion and industrial evolution was changing the way human beings visually experienced a changing world around them.


Urbanization has reached saturation point in Padwal’s worlds and although his lines embroider delicate visual systems that are aesthetically fine, they also belie the artist’s keen frustrations with urban sprawl as much as he tries to map its complexities in a minimal graphic language.



Padwal’s figures now have mouths along with their trademark musculature. They spew circuitous lines, they drown in a riddle of constructivist sprawl but over all they express a complex set of feelings which even the artist cannot articulate into words. These works are brimming with subtext. So much so, that in some instances aesthetic expressions of these physically bypass the restrictive frame. One particular series, ‘DISCLAIMER: the views expressed here are strictly personal’ (2007-2011) features five mixed-media drawings voicing Padwal’s disdain of Western capitalistic and political systems. These works literally have elements that project beyond the frame, part of the drawing, part of Padwal’s inner swirl of thoughts literally spill, bleed, leach and run off onto the wall.


The irony of this body of works lies in the intersection of two tangential artistic principles: subjectivity and aesthetic minimalism. Padwal’s work is firmly rooted in the figurative tradition. Yet he has made it his very own. Padwal has infused his individual preoccupations with a unique graphic language developed from various influences: maps, architectural drawings, Japanese graphic design and British editorial design as well as drawing on the art of Christian Boltanski, Marlene Dumas and the Chapman Brothers. Padwal’s new works are his most intimate and simultaneously most geopolitical yet.








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