File Note 149: Matthew Krishanu - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Bidisha Mamata

Quote Waiting for the Bough to Break Credits Biography References

‘The collective unconscious is not dependent on cerebral heredity; it is the result of what I shall call the unreflected imposition of a culture.’ Frantz Fanon

Waiting for the Bough to Break

Matthew Krishanu’s paintings soothe the eye and disturb the soul. In a bare Christian church hall, in a rural South Asian landscape, a diffident White man acts out religious rituals on a stage while Bengali devotees look up at him with…bemusement, is it? The man’s sons escape into the surrounding landscape, exploring the heat bleached terrain as a club of two. These boys are privileged and delicate, not hunters, warriors or pioneers, and they interact with the landscape like children in a playground. It’s the 1980s, not the 1880s. Across dozens of paintings, the boys change in age but never reach adolescence.

The works in this show seem at first to offer the viewer a serene subcontinental holiday, a spiritual retreat in a litter free fantasy of bottomless blue water, boundless sun-bleached sky, heat baked terracotta, soft sage trees, blackish green undergrowth and smooth yellow ground. This is deceptive. The compositions have a pared-down elegance, but they pulse with unease. The nuclear family of Krishanu’s mother (an Indian theologian and academic), father (a White English priest) and two young boys is ripped through by his critique of colonisation, patriarchy and missionary delusion. These are family snapshots developed in acid and coloured in with spiritual scepticism, fraternal bonding, familial claustrophobia, cultural displacement and paternalistic folly. The wary boys in the paintings look as if they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop—or the bough to break.

Krishanu’s paintings are organised into career-long series representing strains of thought and lanes of memory with no end. Another Country, Two Boys, Holy Family, Mission….the series titles echo and overlay each other and the paintings could belong to any or all of them. While he allows plenty of graceful variation in terms of scale and composition, he maintains an absolute consistency of hue, paint texture, subject and theme, with a tightly controlled pressure gauge of atmospheric disturbance. The mood may be still, but it is never calm. The only time bodies lose their tension is in sleep.

Both literally and sentimentally, the paintings often express aversion. In most of the crowd scenes, the figures have their backs turned, their faces averted, their gaze downcast. The ‘narrator’ of each scene is apparently invisible at the back of the group. In the church scenes, those on stage are depicted with cool distance, as if they’re amateur actors taking their Nativity play too seriously. In Communion (2017), the ministering priest is far away—literally, a distant father—while the painter appears to be one of the crowd, facing lots of backs of heads while everyone stares up in awe.

The boy and his brother frequently escape to roam the landscape. Nature does not always provide either succour or a hiding place, but it is a wide expanse to explore and in which to lose oneself, even though the lack of detail, mess and litter give Krishanu’s outdoor scenes the look of flashbacks from a sinister, spotless dream.

Real nature does occasionally muscle its way in with messy majesty, nowhere more so than in the rapturously painted thick brown limbs of Banyan (Boy) (2023). Krishanu represents the typically Asian banyan tree on a grand scale, with large, dripping, watery swirls of appreciation, as if the tree can carry all the wild emotions the boy can’t. The tree bursts with a hefty, deeply rooted authenticity that is patently absent elsewhere. The boy sits on a bough with no fear, perfectly held in the veiny, benign embrace of the branches.

Real transubstantiation happens not in a church but in nature, where the sky looks solid with heat, while stone is bleached to an airy white by the sun. Krishanu paints water frequently, as if it’s a comforting friend. As with the banyan tree paintings, the boy seems happiest and strongest when smallest in the frame. In Boy Swimming (2023), he is a dash of black hair and a quick stroke of shoulder, swamped by turquoise water, which bunches up in front of him like thick silk. The similarly titled Pool (Boy Swimming) (2024) presents an entirely blue field, darkly intense in the depths, light in the shallows, a boy’s tiny figure frogging about in the middle.

Comfort comes most reliably from the presence of the boy’s near mirror image, the other brother in the club of two. The blazing, blood clot burgundy of the two boys’ bedspread in Bedroom (Last Supper) (2021) holds them with obvious symbolism as they nestle symmetrically like twins in utero. The mirroring boys appear again in Sofa (Two Boys, Cornwall) (2023), where once again they are fast asleep at opposite ends of the sofa, wrapped protectively in puffy jackets, mittens and scarves. Their usual untrusting stiffness has vanished. Only when they are together and asleep, literally bundled up like babies in protective covering, can they finally relax.

When awake they are equally serious, dark eyed, slender and always next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, as in Skeleton (2014), where they are paired on a bleached green field with a bony white cow skeleton at their feet. The boys’ eyes gleam with Lord of the Flies-like relish in this comfortless non-paradise. In Two Boys on a Horse (2024), the pair seem happy to ride away for good. In Two Boys on a Boat (2017) the brothers’ unity takes on a sinister dimension. They appear as co-conspirators scheming against the viewer, who is at the other end of a wooden boat. The boys sit close together and send a smirking glance over their shoulders as if they’d like the interloper—us—to jump into the lake and be gone.

The overall tone is of a spiritual abeyance: waiting for a judgement to fall or a presence to make itself felt. This apprehension is never vindicated or fulfilled and that missing piece is the compellingly dark core of Krishanu’s work.

Only one scene—unique out of all the images in this show— expresses total pleasure, trust and delight. This is Hotel Bed (Delhi) (2023), Krishanu’s painting of his late wife, the writer Uschi Gatward. It shows Gatward sleeping, her face soft, her figure relaxed, her hair loose, the headboard rising like the back of a throne. The piece displays a marked tenderness in its softness of line, the glow of warm colour, the painterly gaze that hovers around the face of the subject, the fluffy texture and the caressing brushstrokes.

I wonder how this tenderness relates to gender and skin colour. The White priests in Krishanu’s paintings are presented satirically as ludicrously solemn, overdressed and pompous. The Indian and Bangladeshi priests are shown with a certain regard and dignity, especially in the lovely Priest and Baby (2016), a newly configured Madonna and Child in which a young soft eyed Bengali priest tenderly cradles a pale-skinned newborn.

Four Nuns (2020) shows four women in immaculate soft white cotton saris, with plain crosses on cords around their necks. They are arranged in an unsmiling group, yet fit together with such tenderness, familiarity and respect for each other that they inadvertently vindicate the colonial-religious masterplan of converting the natives and heathens into one family of devoted sisters and brothers united under God.

In Preaching (2018), a rebuke to the male pantomimes in the other church paintings, Krishanu’s mother is presented as a figure of doctrinal authority while male and White figures are pushed to the sides of the frame. A woman of colour leading within a patriarchal Western tradition is subversive, relatively speaking. But in all other respects she is represented with positively pre-Raphaelite conventionality, as a classical goddess—the personification of Learning, perhaps—beautiful, grave, gorgeously attired, accompanied by handmaidens who brazenly direct the viewer’s gaze to her face with long candlesticks. I have no doubt that Krishanu is in on the art-historical joke, in addition to paying tribute to his mother.

Generally speaking, however, Krishanu prefers subtle string-plucks of ambivalence. The Mission series church paintings are large, dominant, brooding: big works, cinematically composed, the principal figures prominent and well lit, the painter lurking in the shadows to observe the charade. The scenes throb with dark satire. We know from all the other paintings that it’s blazing hot outside—so much so that the boys are in shorts and T-shirts—yet the priest and bishop are in full costume indoors.

True communion with ‘God’ is absent from the church scenes, no matter how hard the priests try. In some of Krishanu’s medium sized works all that is left of ‘Him’ are tawdry looking accessories: the skinny crucifixes which pop up comfortlessly on bare walls; a couple of brass candle holders; and, in an amusingly large painting, a small pulpit like a school debate lectern, standing on one spindly leg.

Scale is Krishanu’s wildcard, his zone of experimentalism. His mid-sized works are often elegant trials of realist abstraction, planes on which to enjoy the lustre and runniness of the medium and to indulge in colour. Often, a plain wall or massive mono-coloured shape will absorb the gaze completely, as in Shrine (Candles and Christ) (2022), in which a line of candles burns in front of the giant pitch black maw of a cave which takes up three quarters of the frame, with a thin stone lip and a tiny, out of focus religious icon at the top. The cave mouth eats up the painting with much more compelling ferocity than the hungriest spiritual seeker and the candles and icon look laughably fragile at its edges.

In Red Church, Green Field (2024) and in Church Tower and Field (2024) the pictorial plane is dominated by nature—a soft sage sweep and a rich ochre wash respectively—not by man-made ecclesiastical edifices, which occupy a narrow horizontal strip in both paintings. While the buildings are loosely sketched, the fields appear translucent with heat, life, and a suggestive shimmer of adventure and possibility. This has an obvious political aspect as Krishanu removes supposed symbols of authority from the centre, makes them small and pushes them to the periphery. But it is also a photography-style experiment that demonstrates the radically different effects of alternative, decentralised and ‘unbalanced’ compositions, and reminds the viewer that expansive foregrounds, backgrounds and seemingly empty space are as compelling as a starring object, a golden ratio, a conventionally directed eye-line or a traditionally signposted central figure. These colour fields additionally enable him to enjoy the watery suggestiveness and delicacy of his application of paint as it seeps, drifts and drips, as well as showcasing the delicacy of his palette. Whether in oils or acrylics, his choice of gentle hues has the organic, hand-tinted feel of natural vegetable dyes.

Prolific yet controlled, ambitious and self-aware, exploratory but faithful to his formative themes, Matthew Krishanu’s show launches at Camden Art Centre this spring with variety, confidence and a sense of arrival. No doubt his formative experiences will make him wary of any ceremonial pomp or a clamouring crowd. Look instead for two boys who peer and play outside, narrow figures with ambiguous expressions, balanced on a bough between a big sky and a wide lake. Maybe they’re about to fall, or maybe take a liberating leap.

Credits

Bidisha Mamata is a British broadcaster and journalist.

The Bough Breaks was made possible through the generous support of: Bagri Foundation

The Matthew Krishanu Exhibition Circle:
Boris Olujic & Katharine Arnold
Taimur Hassan
Alexander V Petalas
Francesca & Carlos Pinto
The Roden Family

Jhaveri Contemporary

Niru Ratnam & Georgia Griffiths

Tanya Leighton Gallery

With special thanks to our transport partner TFA London.

Biography

Matthew Krishanu (b.1980) was born in Bradford and is based in London. He completed an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in 2009. Recent solo exhibitions include On a Limb, Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (2023); Playground, Niru Ratnam, London (2022); Undercurrents, LGDR, New York (2022); Arrow and Pulpit, Tanya Leighton, Berlin (2021); House of Crows, Matt’s Gallery, London (2019); A Murder of Crows, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2019); The Sun Never Sets, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (2019) and Huddersfield Art Gallery (2018). Recent group exhibitions include Beyond the Page; Milton Keynes Gallery (2023) and The Box, Plymouth (2024); Life is More Important than Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2023); Dhaka Art Summit, Dhaka (2023); The Kingfisher’s Wing, GRIMM, New York (2022); Prophecy, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre (2022); Mixing It Up: Painting Today, Hayward Gallery, London (2021); Coventry Biennial, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum and Herbert Art Gallery & Museum (2021); Everyday Heroes, Hayward Gallery/Southbank Centre (2020); A Rich Tapestry, Ikon, Lahore Biennale (2020); and Childhood Now, Compton Verney (2019).

References

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963)

Raymond Carver, Elephant and Other Stories (London: Collins Harvill, 1988)

Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952)

Uschi Gatward, English Magic (Norwich: Galley Beggar Press, 2021)

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1999)

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), (France, 2005), film

Akira Kurosawa, Ran, (Japan, 1985), film

Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali, (India, 1955), film

Billie Holiday, All of Me, Track 2 on Disc 7 on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia, 1933-1944 (Legacy Recordings, 2001)

Tricky, Aftermath, Track 6 on Maxinquaye (4th & B’way, 1995)

Emel Mathlouthi, Mehrrouh, Track 5 on Everywhere We Looked Was Burning (Partisan Records, 2019)

Kate Bush, This Woman’s Work, Track 10 on The Sensual World (EMI, 1989)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I Need You, Track 6 on Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed LTD, 2016)

Low, In Metal, Track 13 on Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky, 2001)

PJ Harvey, Prayer at the Gate, Track 1 on I Inside the Old Year Dying (Partisan, 2023)

FKA Twigs, Cellophane, Track 9 on Magdalene (Young Turks, 2019)

REM, You, Track 12 on Monster (Warner Bros, 1994)

Mogwai, Mogwai Fear Satan, Track 10 on Young Team (Chemikal