Goutam Ghosh’s exhibition at Standard (Oslo) points not only to what painting has been, but also to what it is becoming.

Goutam Ghosh, Waltz in A minor, 2021. Crayon and colour print on wax coated plywood, 152 x 244 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Standard (Oslo). Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Microprocessors exert an adaptive pressure on art as they do on everything else. Goutam Ghosh has included three tablets in his exhibition Purple Park at Standard (Oslo). They feel insistently foreign in a situation that is otherwise steeped in material tactility, dominated by unfired clay and airy compositions on untreated plywood. But they also come across as logical appendages to an oeuvre that has a genuinely open and exploratory attitude toward the image.

Based between Jharkhand, Bhuj og Kolkata in India, Ghosh is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, and this is his third exhibition at Standard (Oslo). As in his previous show (2018) and the one before that (2015), Purple Park sees Ghosh combine the dimensions of painting with the gesture of drawing. The compositions could be described as off-centre. Porous and sparse, they often leave the texture of the substrate clearly visible. It is not surprising that images feeding on the formal reservoir of modernist painting are all-over. It is the tablets – inserted into groups of small, flat clay sculptures on low, unpainted wood plinths – that ensure this trend not only points to what painting has been, but also to what it is becoming.

Five of the seven wall-hung works are on plywood. Most are made with kite paper and crayon with only a few light touches of paint. The three largest are diptychs. Waltz in A Minor (2021) comprises a field of simple repeated figures in blue crayon. It kind of echoes Cy Twombly, but Ghosh’s ‘writing’ is more dense, a result of repeated inscription with a smaller, harder tool than Twombly’s loose brush. This is not handwriting enlarged to a painterly gesture. Ghosh repeats a figure five to ten times before moving on to another. The result is an energetic swarm of unfinished ornaments, overlapped by a pair of printed rectangles in a soft purple. Below is a purple multi-pointed star shape. In Volt (2021) Russian Constructivism looms in the background. Rectangles in orange, green, and purple kite paper with dabs of green paint form a cheerfully unstable structure a little below the centre. The semi-transparent rectangles overlap at the edges like virtual building blocks. Surrounding them are delicate ornamental fields in blue crayon, similar to those in Waltz, but more scattered.

Goutam Ghosh, Volt, 2021. Crayon, kite paper and paint on plywood, 152 x 244 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Standard (Oslo). Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Green marine (2021) stands out by being made of cotton fabric glued onto unevenly cut brown paper that protrudes at the edges. Scattered across the surface are amoebae-like figures in dirty yellow and blue-green that tip their hats to Miró, surrounded by crayon scribbles that repeat their outlines to suggest movement. Narrow rectangles and lines that read as print marks run towards and parallel to the edges, attesting to images in transit. In the much smaller Floor (2021), circles of yellow and green kite paper overlap something that looks like a draft for a floral ornament. A few lazy flower outlines have slid onto a pale green rectangle higher up in the picture, indicating a garden; below some uneven dotted lines form a slight arch. The board’s ragged upper edge indicates that it is leftover material.

The untreated and at times roughly chopped and cropped supports testify to a processual pact with the object. Ghosh’s images have a distracted quality, as if they were screen dumps from an ongoing compositional activity or pages torn from a (large) sketchbook. Ghosh quotes Painting with a capital P, but not verbatim. His invocations are effortless, so subtle that I don’t know if they are accidental products of a painter’s muscle memory, or even just in the eye of the viewer. I see this as Ghosh restricting his efforts to what is needed for his paintings to convey themselves. It is smart painting in more than one sense. The network and phone screen impress a new economy on the image, which must affect and/or activate without context or mediation. Ornamental and haptic qualities, which appear in the image’s foreground, take precedence over deeper, conceptual ones.

Goutam Ghosh, Green marine, 2021. Crayon and kite paper on cotton cloth, glued on brown paper, 150 x 185 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Standard (Oslo). Photo: Vegard Kleven.

The screen puts images to use; they become interfaces for tactile action that either take us to the next image or send the image forward. When remediation or transport replaces semiotic contemplation, taking the image offline and into the gallery looks like some form of aesthetic mysticism. Ghosh’s images concede to this levelling of their status. For example, it seems to be a point that the rough surface of the plywood is not covered with primer. Painting that becomes materially non-specific loses distinction. This loss anticipates the alliance with the screen or it is a product of it. The three small tablets feature animations that resemble the pictures on the walls, but with moving elements that make their restless surfaces more pronounced.

The relief sculptures in unfired clay fold this stress into the object and home in on image creation as a physical and tactile event. Their bases are mostly rectangular or oval; they vary slightly in width and height, but the dimensions approximate those of the tablets. The technique used for the group Explain (2020) is described as “thumb impressions” in the checklist. Traces of fingers that have worked the clay are everywhere and the shapes remind of natural forms such as fossils and landscapes, perhaps drafts or ruins of some makeshift architecture. Is the clay’s mission here to record the whims of the hand, a sculptural automatism inspired by the touchscreen? Automatism divides the body into functional systems that are not under conscious control. We usually imagine a hand drawing or writing, but understood as a general technique for producing deviations, automatism also includes the gaze (selecting objets trouvés from the surroundings) and the feet (carrying us around the city on aimless excursions). Historically, automatism as practiced by the Surrealists served as a utopian subversion of bourgeois rationality, but it can also be seen as a programme for adapting behaviour through direct feedback rather than the systematic application of existing models – a sort of aesthetic pragmatism. This is how I understand it here, as the mode of a receptive artist.

Goutam Ghosh, Air bags, 2020. Unburned clay, 15 x 27 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Standard (Oslo). Photo: Vegard Kleven.