George Oommen: The Image as the key
Born in Munnar, Kerala, India, and educated in India, Mexico, and the United States, George Oommen continues to derive artistic inspiration from the lush green landscapes of his homeland. Every winter, Oommen visits Mankotta, a small island in the inland waters of Kerala in southwestern India, ten miles from Oommen’s ancestral home. The weeks spent there fuel his painting year round.
What follows is a series of questions and answers by Oommen about his work. The conversation took place over a series of days but reflects a lifetime of thinking about the meaning of his art.
Q: What is the goal of your art? What inspires and motivates you as an artist?
A: My painting is fundamentally about communicating what I see in my mind’s eye. While verbal expression is the predominant form of communication, from early childhood, I have had a facility with visual expression. Painting is my vehicle for this.
The specific goal of my art changes with each series I embark upon, but the general objective is always to transfer the image in my mind to the canvas There are many sources of inspiration for me—it could be a situation, a landscape, or a figure that catches my eye. However, it must be an image that stays with me.
Q: Yes, your homeland, India, and specifically, Kerala, obviously have special meaning to you. What is it you are trying to capture in your work?
A: Yes, it is a very special place. My aim has been to capture the essence and the spirit of the visual Kerala .
I want to serve as an ambassador for this region, recreating this special place for the vast audience that has not had the privilege to experience it first hand.
Kerala, one of India’s twenty eight states, is a narrow strip of land lining the South West corner of India. Physically, the region is characterized by numerous rivers and backwaters that are quite panoramic. The network of waterways is lined with dense, verdant foliage in some places, but in others, there is an open latticework of fringed palm trees. Serving as the primary mode of transport, the channels are heavily trafficked during the day. However, very early in the morning the waters become perfectly still. When the waters are that placid, they become mirrors, reflecting the sky, greenery, and tranquility that abounds. This is my favorite time of day and scene to paint. In fact, some of my paintings have been hung inverted in galleries and printed upside down in publications because these mirrored images appear to be so real.
Q: What artists or genres have influenced your work?
A: My earliest and most formative influences were introduced to me through my Aunt--who was a Bengali. These influences include Sanyal, Shanti Niketan, Nandalal Bose, Subramanyam, Amrita Sher Gil, Jamini Roy, and Satyajit Ray in films. North Indian artists include Gujral, Pai, De, Kulkarni, Raza, Omprakash, and Hussain. Western artists include Touisiant, Molinari, Hertubise from Canada, and Klee, Miro, Mondrian, and Bauhaus artists. Among contemporary artists, I have long admired and been influenced by the work of Sir Howard Hodgkins.
What is interesting about Hodgkins work is how he captures the essence and the spirit of Kerala. His layering of paint captures the light and glow of the rural Kerala without resorting to any graphic representation. Kerala summer is live in his painting.
Indian music and textiles serve as additional influencing genres. In India, many forms of art are intertwined, such that practices in sculpture, textiles, drama, and music influence each other’s development. There are many traditions in all of the above. My effort has been to be aware of them while creating my own vocabulary.
Q: Your work has evolved through several series, can you describe the evolution of these phases?
A: Yes, I work in series. Series last with me until the image is resolved, about four to five years, sometimes longer. My paintings over the last decade or so, fall loosely into three categories: a series of large-scale landscapes; a series of small-scale expressionist works called Sacred Places Within You; and my most recent series of miniature paintings.
The large-scale landscapes are characterized by strong composition and vivid colors. Color very much reflects the place where I come from and is an important compositional element throughout all of my work.
The Sacred Places Within You series is evocative of a Hindu temple. In contrast to western ecclesiastical architecture, the eastern temple is designed such that as one proceeds into the temple, natural light begins to disappear—the farther one goes, the less light there is. This environment feels dark but intimate and somewhat mystical. The lack of peripheral vision encourages one to be introspective and to look into oneself to find "the divine", rather than to look for "the divine" in something external to oneself.
This newest series of miniatures is an idea borrowed from Northern Indian miniatures. In these small works (approximately 4"x4"), I am attempting to recreate ideas from my larger works in a smaller, more concentrated format. When one first looks at these miniatures, there appears to be a limited vocabulary used to create the painting. After an extended period of exposure to the image, the viewer experiences the visual energy that I am aiming to create through the use of layering of paint, and luminescent paint. It makes for an unusually dense and dynamic image. Layering for me is an important devise.
Q: There is a spiritual and/or metaphysical component to your art, can you share something about this?
A: Yes. We touched upon it when we discussed the Sacred Places Within You series This fascination with intensity, whether through image, color, or line, is something that permeates my work. ...