Themes and Variations
Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery | Galerie
November 19–December 31, 2020
All through 2020 Ko Bhamra worked with ardent commitment on her paintings which culminated in the 30-piece exhibition at the Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery in London, Ontario.
Bhamra was born in India and her family carried forward their cultural traditions when immigrating to Canada. As a young person growing up in Canada, Bhamra lived between two worlds, navigating between the cultures with a discerning intelligence. For Bhamra, on one level, that meant pursuing a professional career in Law while still holding on to her deep desire to be an artist. In this exhibition we see the interplay between Indian and Western culture on another level as Bhamra finds ingenious ways to bring her Indian heritage into modern abstract painting.
In the entrance to the large space at the back of Jonathan’s gallery is a group of small, ornately framed abstract paintings. These studies for the larger works in the back gallery stand as a prelude to the main exhibition. “Prelude” is the correct word here, as is the title of the exhibition, Themes and Variations. A strong affinity for musical composition underlies all of her work. Bhamra writes in the introduction of her exhibition catalogue, “Musical ideas found in an original theme can be repeated, altered or transposed to create different variations.” She takes that concept of musical development and applies it to her approach to her abstract painting. With this prelude of eight studies, she sets the tone for the main body of work presented in the rest of the exhibition.
As you take in the bold brush strokes, the liberal application of paint and the attention to flat areas of colour you can immediately see a strong connection between Bhamra’s large non-representational paintings and the art of the Abstract Expressionists. Bhamra readily acknowledges the influence of those New York artists of the 1940s and 50s. But she quickly points out that she is not trying to replicate the art of the Abstract Expressionists. Rather, she sees herself as continuing to express herself in a language that they began, “They invented the language, and I am using that language.”
Bhamra follows the style of some Abstract Expressionists more closely than others. For example, in the large painting, N1, the canvas is covered in thick black paint in an application that expresses rhythm and movement. In this work she loosely replicates the French artist, Soulages, known for his non-figurative paintings of black and light. In her other works, Bhamra uses the language of other artists in less overt ways. In her application of colour and interaction with her material, parts of her paintings recall the work of such artists as Mondrian, Klimt, and Picasso. Like the Abstract Expressionists, she allows emotions to play across the canvas, letting the unexpected happen. Even though Bhamra may be using the gestures of Abstract Expressionism, the result is uniquely hers. This is where her Indian heritage becomes part of the art. Her brushwork magically conveys grace and light as the strokes seem to dance across the surface of the canvas. Her colour sense, similar to that found in the traditional paintings of northern Indian is sensual, vivid, and surprising.
Several of the works are similar in form to the large paintings of Mark Rothko. And it is with these works that we also see the strongest separation between Bhamra’s approach to painting and the techniques of the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko’s paintings are heavy, heady and somber, whereas Bhamra’s work is more robust and feminine, expressing a sense of openness and liveliness. This is most apparent in the work, N3, where she uses hot pink and sensual orange pastel to form areas of colour that appear to float on the surface of the paper. With this work, as with several paintings in the exhibition, Bhamra has added a heavy, golden coloured frame, giving the work a more formal feeling of dignity which underlines its importance.
Bhamra is not the first to bring an Indian aesthetic to Western modern art. In the 1920s the influential and scholarly Indian philosopher, Ananda Coomarswamy, brought Indian art – particularly the art found in northern India – to the New York art scene. Now a hundred years on Bhamra has again taken up that dialogue initiated by Coomaraswamy. We see this most strongly in her painting, N29, which was used to promote this exhibition. In this work a connection can be most readily traced between the effects Bhamra achieves in her use of colour and movement to the traditional paintings of northern India. In future works by Bhamra we look forward to seeing a further exploration of her Punjabi roots in her work.
Nida Home Doherty, Senior Writer for Centred.ca
Images courtesy of the artist.