Delhi-based artist Puneet Kaushik delves into the inner and outer realms of the human mind and body to create intimate portrayals of an array of responses and emotions. Using a wide range of mediums, his works shine with versatility and a subtle sense of celebration of the human spirit. Red, the colour that binds humanity together, is therefore quite prominent in his works. Puneet has widely exhibited his works at Gallery Espace, Alliance Francaise de Delhi, Takashimaya, Tokyo, Kala Art Gallery, San Francisco, Modern Primitive Gallery, Atlanta, and many more. He received the Junior Research Fellowship, Department of Culture, India (2000-2002) and was Nehru Research Associate, Jawaharlal Nehru Trust (1998-2000). In this email interview, Puneet offers a candid insight into his art practice, his activities during the pandemic period, his bond with artisans, his skill with varied mediums, and more.
You have a diverse academic background. From Jamia Millia University where you studied fine arts and even designed for the Handicraft and Handloom Corporation of India and Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India, to Berkeley College in California where you studied mixed media art. How did this training help you in your art practice. Any standout advice from mentors that you recollect or any anecdotes you would like to share from those days?
Studying between Jamia where the approach and the environment was more conservative and very traditional, UC Berkeley gave me an open hand to what I wanted. The decisions were mine and the approach was “the choice of my thoughts”… The beauty lies in imbibing traditions in a conservative Mamet and then flying high in the open when you feel you have absorbed enough to let it flow .
How did the pandemic affect your arts practice? Are there any significant trends because of it that you perceive are here to stay?
The pandemic has left an indelible mark on human history. Loss of human lives and pain of those left behind to mourn them will inevitably have a resounding effect on all creative processes, be it literature, music, theatre, poetry, dance, and of course the visual arts. The current body of work on exhibit is a result of my going back and forth to my studio at various points of time in the last five years. It is a guttural impulse to keep going back to them. I find that every time I revisit them, I am able to see better, distill the form, weave, and add when needed. The final composition is not meant to be perfectly balanced as perhaps that of a Da Vinci painting or a Chola period bronze sculpture… My work is imperfect just like the world I inhabit and draw inspiration from. Hence I continue to work and reflect on my works even after exhibiting them: adding, removing, cutting, and pruning them, when they get back to my studio. The pandemic has allowed me to extend my repertoire and understanding of materials in the studio. For example, due to the nationwide lockdown, I was unable to travel and procure material for my studio practice. I started using coffee residue, tea bags, charcoal, and graphite on paper and fiber. I think this time to oneself that the pandemic literally imposed on all of us, really helped me work without any social distractions.
Your paintings and installations are characterized by a fascination with lines and flows. Tell us more about it.
I do not like to be bound by conventional mediums of bronze, canvas, or paper. I have always strived to carve out my own artistic vocabulary and boundaries that rely more on my creative impulse. I often use, stitch, weld, mold, weave and mesh different materials. The material and medium master me rather than me trying to master them. It is an intense process. Unlike conventional studio practice, my compulsion to express myself determines the material, medium, and scale of my work. Line drawings and organic dyes that bring to the surface histories of tension that exist just beneath the ordinariness of everyday lived humanity. Through my work I capture the spirit of human fragility and the ability to transcend it.
The colour red finds significance in your work. What draws you to it?
The constant human struggle between instinct, reality and morality unifies humanity across civilisations. We are all one, regardless of our distinctions in terms of gender, religion, caste, nationality, or race. We bleed crimson. The colour red is the universal colour under our skin, and what better way to bind us all together universally than through my art practice.
Memory and imagination play a vital role in your works. What are your earliest influences that prompted you to create in the way you do?
My earliest memory is of working with my father making Christmas and new year cards but it’s an ongoing process the journey has been of learning every day something new. My work is the result of my ongoing investigations into gender, identity, sexuality, stereotypes, violence, cultural history, and abstraction. I impress, strain, stick, cut, fold, layer, stitch, warp, stack, embroider, crochet, weave, stretch and wrap different materials onto mediums such as paper, canvas, metal, fibre, wood, and ceramic, such that my eyes can see what the inner eye knows.
You frequently use handmade paper and textures on the same. Share the process with us.
My process is very much spontaneous, I meander with the concept and work with my thoughts that flow endlessly. Works on paper reflect upon the notion of time and its effect on “paper-like skin”. Often, the paper is stained, embedded, stitched, sculpted on, and sometimes filigreed with lines to form a universe of their own – each complete in their redefined abstract form. On these visual testimonies of time, I pair the dead with the living, remains of nature with drawn or stitched lines, my dreams with history. I hunt down sensations that are already there, as yet-unnamed, such as the impulse that makes me create.
Can you share with us about some of the projects that are closest to your heart? And why?
Working with artisans and crafts clusters is a humbling process . I love to work with grass root simple craftsmen. As explained before, my studio necessitates interactions with traditional craftspersons. I learn, teach, work, and sometimes collaborate with them in my studio. The works on exhibit were completed during the pandemic. The genesis of most of the works however took place sporadically over five years, often upon my return from travels to the interiors of the country. Sometimes, I rediscover a material in my studio and that inspires me to begin work or perhaps rework a completed work of art.
There is also to be seen a series of perforations, stitching, beading, sequin dust, woodblock printing, ink wash, gold and silver pigment, acrylic, and watercolours. Elaborate on your facility with varied media and what draws you to them.
The medium always has worked like a muse, I love to explore different techniques and medium to its maximum potential. To render cultural history visible in a contemporary practice, an artist must be conscious of the twists and turns of the medium, and the technique’s history, mythology, and cultural meaning. All that the world impressed upon me, I reconstituted my studio in a plethora of mediums: paper, flower, vegetal matter, metal, leather, skin, hair, threads, textiles, marble, glass and ceramic. The term “impresses”, like “stitches”, “weaves”, “cuts” and “inserts”, holds value in my installations as I incorporate material alien to primary medium, creating a mesh of fibre, stitches, nails, stains, embroidery and crochet, thus infusing, embedding and layering the final product with new meaning and form. The final installation, though intimate and visceral, disrupts the viewer’s understanding of the linearity of time, history, and lived experience.
In your capacity as one of the directors of Dastkar, did a project in Bidar to revive the Bidari craft of silver inlay in metal alloy. Another element you have often used is beadwork, derived from the almost extinct embroidery style of Tibet and Burma. You have also experimented with different traditional artforms, including sanjhi stencils, shibori dyeing, patachitra beading. Share how you incorporated these innovations in your art. The handicrafts and handloom traditions of the Indian subcontinent have informed my practice since the past three decades, leading me to engage in an intense manner with the master craftspersons of the Indian subcontinent and the world, focusing on equitable working conditions, reviving traditional techniques through innovative materials and technology, sustainable production processes, and above all, an effort to bring about a transition in the crafts sector in the Indian subcontinent. The choice of abstract subjects, ancient craft techniques, and challenging media perhaps signal my refusal to be bound by the existing prosaic parameters of art reception and the restrictive notions of contemporary Indian art practice. I like to create work that cusps tradition and antiquity with the modern and contemporary. Balancing high art and indigenous craft techniques, my works are depictions of aesthetic and material cracks underlying the visible reality of urban life. They are abstract, neo expressionist, collages of all kaleidoscopic materials and techniques… Wire mesh, paint, sewing , embroidery, tufting , line drawings and organic dyes that bring to the surface histories of tension that exist just beneath the ordinariness of everyday lived humanity.
Tell us about your participation in the Kangra Art Festival. How was the experience co-curating it with Frank Schlichtmann and Ketna Patel while also working on art projects for the festival?
Rema Kumar and I have many projects where we fuse contemporary art and urban living to the folk and tribal crafts. We did similar stuff in Orissa. It’s always good to get more people involved!
What is the advice you would like to give to emerging artists? As they negotiate to get back to normal after the pandemic, are there some things that” they should be mindful about?
To me, doing nothing or merely tweaking the status quo means certain death for the arts. I would share just one piece of advice here that the moment you are in the studio, just be honest to yourself, rest will follow.