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Innsaei 10, Oil, oil pastel and oil stick on canvas, 35 x 47 in, 2023 

© Preeti Varma 

Upcoming: Solo Show I Maelstorm of Memory
May 3rd - June 16th, 2024
Perry Lawson Fine Art, New York, USA

 

Preeti Varma | Artist Essay by Meg Hitchcock, 2024

 

Preeti Varma’s work expresses the fluidity of forms and space in a constantly shifting environment. Varma has lived across the East and the West over the past two decades and knows what it is to be the other, accepted but not fully integrated into an unfamiliar culture. Originally from India, she is interested in the experience of movement, migration, and how memory plays a role in perception. Her paintings convey the multicultural experience with bold gestures and gravitas, combining the subtle transitions of Eastern aesthetics with the formal structure of Western classicism. Inspired by Asian scrolls and their rich storytelling tradition, Varma paints with calligraphic strokes that sweep across the canvas like visual narratives, suggesting the flow of migrants as they cross into foreign lands and forge new relationships.

In her series Innsaei, a maelstrom of color and brushstrokes creates a landscape that reflects the inner and outer worlds. Innsaei is the ancient Icelandic word for intuition, which translates as “the sea within,” the borderless landscape of the interior world. Varma’s paintings depict a psychological space in constant motion, and we are drawn into the movement like pilgrims plotting a course across uncharted territory. Her paintings possess the magic and mystery of a German Expressionist landscape; indeed, the influence of Kandinsky is present in the dynamic color relationships and interplay of form, line, and plane. Flat areas of color are read as geographical expanses, a destination on the map that offers respite to the migrant and a resting place for the eye as it travels across the canvas. Varma creates a simulacrum of the outsider’s experience, a small taste of what it is to be in continuous transition.

In another series of her paintings, Nefelibata, Varma paints the abstracted body/object as a nebulous form poised against a flat backdrop, standing or stumbling in the shallow space of the painting. The stark figure/ground relationship suggests the migrant’s limitations as a foreigner, invoking compassion for their permanent sense of isolation. But these figures are not destitute, they are hopeful and courageous, reinventing themselves to reflect their changing environment. Nefelibata is a Portuguese word that translates as “cloud walker,” referring to one who lives in her imagination, propelled by the desire to find solid ground in a shifting narrative. Varma paints with the

joy and optimism that can only be known by one who is intimate with the outsider’s perspective; her work celebrates the itinerant nature of human existence.

Varma’s rice paper collages begin with walks through city neighborhoods, where she photographs everyday objects in the urban environment. These photographs are included in her mixed media works, where she delicately combines rice paper and wax to create sublime works using techniques she developed while living in Singapore. This body of work is inspired by the Japanese tradition of wabi sabi, in which states of contemplation may be derived from the rustic, impermanent, and imperfect. Varma shifts our perspective to suggest the poetry in a rusted water pipe, leaky fire hydrant, or crack in the sidewalk. Her collages are snapshots of contemporary city life, where common fixtures transcend their gritty surfaces to become objects of singular beauty. Her works are metaphors of the human experience as we navigate our personal and collective landscapes in search of more profound meaning and connection. Preeti Varma’s paintings and collages express the unique multicultural perspective of the immigrant, a liminal space between inside and outside, the seen and unseen.

—Meg Hitchcock

 

Preeti Varma | Nefelibata, Solo Show Catalog Essay by Deidre S. Greben, 2017

Looking at Preeti Varma’s recent series of paintings, “Nefelibata”—roughly translated from the Portuguese as “Cloud Walker”—the bold colors and forms come off as abstracted maps of the unconscious, though they are in fact drawn from the external world. With a nod to the French modernist Jean Dubuffet, who found beauty in “what lies at our feet,” Varma’s unorthodox representations focus attention on what we do not usually see, what she terms as “physically present, but visually absent objects.”

 

Varma’s fascination with portraying the unnoticed developed in response to dramatic shifts in her surroundings, as she moved first from India to Singapore, and then to New York City. Here, the overlooked objects are Manhattan’s ubiquitous fire hydrants. The India-born artist sees the commonplace hydrants as not just necessary fixtures of the urban landscape, but ones that are worthy of our admiration, with their own distinct patina—peeling paint, dog stains, graffiti—announcing the passage of time and experience. With the same naive wonderment Dubuffet expressed toward such ordinary appliances as the telephone or typewriter, Varma conveys an almost child-like fascination toward the mundane objects, rendering them as vivid, almost primal incarnations of their physical forms. The paintings pulse with life. To be sure, Dubuffet’s biomorphism echoes in their bold shapes and bright hues, particularly in works such as Nefelibata #1 and Nefelibata #11, where flat, single-color grounds help to create the sense of negative space manifested around a portrait subject.

 

The personification of these banal apparatus is conveyed as much through their intuitive character as their throbbing forms and colors. The Surrealist influence of the subconscious mind is palpable in these paintings. They portray a reality that is as much visceral as it is material, an object’s essence as much as its physical manifestation. Varma’s renditions are not literal portrayals, but are more akin to how we actually take in our environment, to how we randomly abstract and process everyday imagery. 

 

In Nefelibata #8, a more narrative element emerges with an expanding jumble of non-figurative and recognizable forms, including a hand in the canvas’s upper-left corner and the featureless face of an animal at the lower left. The diverse mass swells to cover the entire pictorial field in both Nefelibata #9 and Nefelibata #15. By revealing and concealing parts of identifiable images, as she did in an earlier series manipulating paraffin wax over photographs she took of city drain covers in Singapore, Varma simulates in these works our filtering of the visual world; she captures both salient and unassuming fragments of our environment, the myriad images that unfold and define our subjective experience.

 

In this series of paintings Varma continues to shake off the dullness that might otherwise cloak the familiar props of urban landscapes by lingering—just like a cloud walker—in the aftermath of fleeting visions.  

—Deidre S. Greben

 

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Memory Bytes, Rice paper, digital image and  parrafin wax, 6 x 6 inches each

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