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Art review: 'Antonio Puri: Expansion' at Christine Frechard Gallery

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:12 p.m.
Antonio Puri's 'Leela 5 & 6' at his 'Expansion' show at the Christine Frechard Gallery in Squirrel Hill
Antonio Puri's 'Leela 5 & 6' at his 'Expansion' show at the Christine Frechard Gallery in Squirrel Hill

When it comes to painting, Antonio Puri is a purist. He creates solid, earthy works that are as stagnant and monolithic as they are about continual evolution, as slow as it may be.

His large-scale abstracts are texture-laden, multi-layered and complex, where layers and layers of veneers, glazes and varnishes convey emotions, transgressions, an obvious obsession and a sense of enigma.

More than a dozen such works make up his solo exhibit, “Expansion,” on display at Christine Frechard Gallery in Squirrel Hill.

“I am interested in comparing connections between my Eastern roots and my Western experiences,” says the artist, who lives in Philadelphia but was born in 1966 in the Indian city of Chandigarh and raised in the Himalayas. He studied art at the Academy of Art in San Francisco and Coe College, Iowa, and holds a law degree from the University of Iowa.

Founded in 1947, Chandigarh was the first planned city in India. It was designed by the famous French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and has since come to be known internationally for its unique architecture and urban design.

Puri says the famous architect's unique style, with concrete slabs and unfinished marks, was “a powerful influence growing up.”

With his paintings, “I wanted to work with gray tones and unfinished edges to show the beauty of gray and showcasing the timeline of the painting process through the edges,” he says.

In works like “Flight” and “Leela 5 & 6,” layers of muted color layered over deep textures, gestural lines and atmospheric passages coalesce, causing forms and marks to become metaphors for a transcendental reality developing in a fractal-like fashion with multiple points of entry. In “Leela 5 & 6,” the slightest hint of red looks as if it is boiling beneath the surface of each painting like molten lava.

This speaks of the painter's evolutionary process and the in-between states; the states of formation and transformation. This pairing, like all of the paintings in the exhibit, are simultaneously intimate and grand in scale, alluding to both microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds.

Perhaps no other piece represents this dichotomy better than “Antash Karan,” a massive work that takes up a quarter of the gallery's longest wall. Look closer, and you will see that it is composed of 28 identically sized rectangular canvases, each covered in a mud-sludge mixture of paint and other texture-rich materials.

Each canvas is unique but contributes to an undeniable whole. In these atmospheric abstractions, Puri looks for a sense of resonance — not so much as a representation of spiritual energy but a translation of it into light and texture, allowing the viewer to navigate the space between stasis and movement as the eyes move from canvas to canvas.

Calligraphic lines throughout each were created by loose pieces of string, first laid into the thick layers of wet paint, then pulled partway through the drying process. “I use strings as a drawing tool to discuss connectivity and attachment, and removing them creates detachment,” Puri says.

Next to “Antash Karan,” more than 30 uniform canvases stacked one atop another comprise the piece “Stack.” Here, all of what appears to be painted is seen only on the sides of each of the canvases, only alluding to what is on the flat surface of each.

Puri sees a relationship between these two works, “Antash Karan” and “Stack.” “I like how the grids and the stacks relate to each other and create a dialogue about multiples,” he says.

Then there is “Anapurna,” the largest canvas in the show. Puri says it is based on “mitosis,” quite simply as a metaphor for the artist's journey from the Himalayas to America. Here, in the form of a massive, splitting orb, primordial energies reveal themselves through the interplay of contradictory forces — those of the within and the without — on the surface of the painting.

“The sense of being split at the core and questioning identity and belonging is always on my mind,” Puri says. “However, I like the viewers to interpret my work without necessarily attributing meaning to it the way I do.”

The remaining works are just as engaging, making for a delightful exhibition experience, well worth one's time and contemplation.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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