Lining an Archive: Sunil Padwal

The archive is shaped by multiple perspectives- that of history as understood in its linear, monolithic character and that which manifests through intimate memories. The latter is a personal archive where the reality of an object, place or event is filtered through a lens unique to the beholder. In the exhibition, ‘Lining an Archive’, Sunil Padwal capitalizes on the capacity of the archive to preserve, and creates a decentered network of pulsating stories.

The exhibition comprises formerly discarded objects, like old typewriters, official documents, small hardware parts and cabinet-drawers in disuse, which are reminiscent of a bygone era. The artist makes use of found frames, documents and objects to lay a foundation for his work, on which he makes fine lines in pen. This is evident in the series, ‘Lining an Archive I’; it comprises 78 works, which are framed and placed in drawers of the exact same dimensions, and propped horizontally against the wall, requiring one to peer in to view the details. The drawings in isolated niches across the wall command the viewer’s attention in their austere and reverential arrangement. Each drawing, on perusal, comes across as a trove of stimuli that hint at a synaptic connection across the subjects; the sketch of a human skeleton is drawn in the same breath as the stem of a flower. The drawings, reflecting the artist’s idiosyncratic style of mark-making, show animals, fish, birds and objects of use such as automobiles in playful interactions with the material on which they are based; some of the found papers used as a base for the drawings even carry page numbers and text from their original sources. Formally inventive, the works often evoke emotions by gestalt correlations. Fish and crows are regular leitmotifs in his work, apparent in a series of work that reveals Padwal’s interventions in ink on archival paper. These imagery issue from the artist’s personal vocabulary, influenced by formative memories from his childhood. Each of Padwal’s works effectively becomes a palimpsest of information, and evoke symbolic connections as a map would, across time and geographies.

Here I

Having grown up in the congested lanes and alleyways of South Mumbai in the 1980s, Padwal came to look at the city as a melting pot of shapes and sensibilities, which he captured in his photographs. One of his photographs- that of a busy street in Mumbai- is blown up, divided into different sections and displayed on a wall in different frames. Each frame has lines running across the surface, which, when seen with cumulative intent from a distance, come across as a deliberately absurd labyrinth evoking the heightened chaos of a metropolis. Padwal’s photographs are a fusion of the captured subject and extra-textual manipulations that draw attention to a more intimate cartography of memories. In another of his photographs, the viewer notices a dark patch in a corner, which turns out to be an intervention in isograph pen. Simulating the decay of photographic emulsion in pen, Padwal creates a rhizomatic network of lines on the surface, which interact with the photographic subject in a fusion of dimensions.

A closed cabinet (with glass doors) contains a number of framed, sepia-toned family photographs, which are covered with transparent sheets of paper and drawn upon. The discarded family photos were scavenged by the artist from old bazaars in Mumbai. These portraits mainly carry sketches of animal skeletons and lines akin to borders on political maps; in drawing connections with a primal nature and a shared historical past, the artist insists that the elements constitutive of his work are all part of a single continuum. Drawn to the incomplete histories of the portraits and absent identities of their subjects, Padwal uses the interventions to manipulate time.

Lining an archive

The artist’s memory of Mumbai follows labyrinthine channels, populated with objects, people and experiences that reflect in his work through formal experiments. In a series of drawings, Padwal is fixated on the anatomy of a barber’s chair (complete with a towel hanging from one of its arms), rendering it in different profiles and makes. Drawn from a personal memory of the chair, he documents it in drawings that capture its weathered look and history of use. The sketches carry the effect of ink spills as they occurred in analogue printing machines; Padwal thus often actively engineers an archival look for his works. The exhibition is an extension of this desire on the part of the artist to intricately document, and reproduce his memories in the documentation.

At a time when we are confronted with a continuous barrage of information, the archive can come to bear a more authoritative and authentic value, where its subjects are seen to bear meaning. Padwal is aware of the import of the archive, and repurposes material culled from different sources to rehabilitate them in a new context. The interplay between the history of the found objects and their reconstitution into works of Padwal’s making that hark to a different memory, results in an interplay of dialogues which defy any linear narrative of reception. The exhibition then also becomes a way for the artist to extend the life of the objects foraged (some of which still carry markers of their origins), while crafting a language in the process through which to make the associated memories legible.

Cover image: Lining and Archive continues till 2nd March, 2019 at GALLERYSKE, New Delhi.

Image credits: Sunil Padwal and GALLERYSKE, New Delhi.