“I consider myself to be an abstractionist at heart,” Shibu Arakkal has written, and the greater proportion of his earlier work bears out this declaration. Making his objectives clear, one series was entitled Abstract Notions, in which manipulation of the imagery transformed objects into linear networks, patterns and light-dark contrasts. His two recent series, Constructing Life I and II, however, reveal Arakkal to be enlarging and enriching his range both in terms of subject and emotional resonance. Both parts of Constructing Life include subjects that Arakkal has previously dealt with: human figures and simple backgrounds, often old walls. But the past work was more determinedly formal in intent; the series Skin, for example, used people as props, depicting them obliquely and anonymously through extreme close-ups, cropping, and reversed duplication of imagery; the final visual effects stressed overall composition, surface texture, and light and shadow.
In Constructing Life I and II, the individuals are featured by reason of their occupation; they are construction workers who ply their trade in the photographer’s neighborhood. Arakkal has noted that he wishes to challenge conventional notions of beauty and “what is widely considered interesting or appealing.” In part I, the workers are shown frontally, with blank backgrounds, with an inherent dignity derived directly from the viewer’s confrontation with a serious human presence. Arakkal’s longstanding interest in formal structure and geometry is also strongly present. The workers’ images undergo various alterations; some are shifted asymmetrically, or abutted by black areas, or even divided.
Part II of Constructing Life shows the photographer investigating his subjects at an even deeper level, plumbing human experience and emotion, though doing so in a way that simultaneously echoes and reinterprets his formal approach to imagery. Here, the workers’ faces are the focus, sometimes completely filling the images. Superimposed on the faces are the cracks, peeling paint, and other textural irregularities of weathered walls. Through this overlay of face and wall, of flesh and façade, an appreciation is offered of durability and resistance, whether expressed through the animate or inanimate.
The suffusion of the figure with the visual properties of stone brings to mind the words of the poet W. H. Auden, who in his Letter to Lord Byron stated:
To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
In Arakkal’s photographs, the visual facts of the double imagery – the rugged faces and the distressed wall surfaces – flow together logically, a natural coincidence that Arakkal reinforces through the technical means of superimposition. By their oneness with the architectural surfaces, these workers – as “human clay” – become a synthesis of foreground and background: conceptually, the makers and occupants of walls, and physically, the bearers of the visual effects of aging.
But Auden continues:
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.
Here Auden proclaims his preference toward a humanistic approach to art, rather than a formal one. While Arakkal is by no means leaving his abstractionist tendencies behind, Constructing Life II represents a thoughtful and intriguing extension into the realms of emotion, human vulnerability, and the passage of time. It will be interesting to follow the further development of Arakkal’s creativity, to see which aspects of the visual and narrative potentialities of photography are next explored.
Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University