The Double Life of Aji V.N.’s Art

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India — Thiruvananthapuram, where the artist Aji V.N. lives and works, is the capital of Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India. The artist, born in 1968, speaks Malayalam, the local language, as well as Dutch, as he lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, and English. After graduating from the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram, he received his MFA from the College of Art in Delhi, where he studied painting. He described his education as traditional, with a focus on Western oil painting. Later, he moved to Baroda, which has a thriving artists’ community, before returning to Thiruvananthapuram to teach. During this time, he met his future wife, the Dutch artist Juul Kraijer, and in 2001, after they had married, he moved to Rotterdam to be with Kraijer, who would not live in India. They had a daughter, Uma, who is now 12. In 2020, after living in the Netherlands for two decades, he and his wife divorced and he returned to Trivandrum. 

Aji’s bifurcated practice reflects his experience of living and working in two different worlds, as well as his profound interest in tradition Western processes, such as charcoal drawing and oil painting, and in materiality: the unique qualities of charcoal, pastel, and oil paint. This division became clear to me as we sat in his studio, looking through drawings he had done when he was in the Netherlands (to which he periodically returns to see Uma) and the paintings on his studio walls, which he made in Thiruvananthapuram. They differ in subject matter and materiality, though both convey his preoccupation with tonality.

Many of the modestly sized drawings are portraits of Uma reading or studying. While Aji seems to have finished them rather quickly, I would not call them sketches. His attention to line and decisive mark making attest to the 20 years he spent in the Netherlands only drawing in charcoal and pastel, inspired, as he tells me, by the Old Master drawings he saw in museums. After he began frequenting these museums, he decided he had to unlearn what he was taught in India and start over by studying the Old Masters and Renaissance drawings. 

It was when Aji showed me his drawings of landscapes, crashing waves, and figures that I recognized his formidable skills as a draftsman. I was captivated by a number of drawings of grassy hills. In these works, he relies on the interplay between the paper’s tooth and the pressure of the dry pastel and charcoal to achieve a field of minutely pebbled marks. In a drawing of the artist’s torso, done in sanguine chalk, he pays close attention to hair, skin, and musculature. Instead of using crosshatching to articulate volume, he has carefully caressed the surface, as if using a brush full of dust the color of red earth. I was also struck by a rendering of trees with roots peeking through the side of an eroded hill. Later, while looking at a painting, it occurred to me that nature and the degradation of the earth are among his recurring subjects.

I learned that Aji made some drawings from observation and others from memory and imagination. In larger pieces on green or blue paper, he used charcoal and colored pastel to draw crashing waves. When I asked him about the drawings, he said he could not make them in Thiruvananthapuram, because the air was often too damp due to the rainy climate. 

In an untitled oil on canvas (2020), Aji depicts a high, bulbous mountain lined with boulders, or smooth clumps of dirt, using a tonal palette dominated by russet and a few greens. Trees extend along the right side of the mountain, ending in front of the hill. The boulders or mounds seem to be hanging off the side of the ridge, like a stack of cocoons. Where did they come from?  

The boulders and russet-colored mountain, wispy clouds or smoke trailing into the sky, and empty house on the ridge, from whose roof trees seem to grow, all add up to an otherworldly landscape. Is it a post-apocalyptic vision, and an acknowledgment that nature has the power to overwhelm its surroundings? Aji’s attention to each boulder heightens the metaphysical nature of this world. 

Erosion and rampant growth are recurring subjects, as this painting and the drawing of the trees with exposed roots indicate. In this way, the damage humankind has been doing to this planet is an underlying themes of the artist’s work. When we discussed his use of color in the drawings and paintings, he said that he wanted the drawings to be removed from their subject by using colors that are not natural to their existence.  In the paintings, the limited palette and the light he gets through tonality enhance the unsettling feeling his views invoke. He is both an observational artist and a visionary who depicts two distinct but interconnected worlds, the internal and external.  

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