George Oommen: The Image as the key
Born in Munnar, Kerala, India, and educated in India, Mexico, and the United States, George Oommen continues to derive artistic inspiration from the lush green landscapes of his homeland. Every winter, Oommen visits Mankotta, a small island in the inland waters of Kerala in southwestern India, ten miles from Oommen’s ancestral home. The weeks spent there fuel his painting year round.
What follows is a series of questions from Ebrahim Alkazi and answers by Oommen about his work. The conversation took place over a series of days but reflects a lifetime of thinking about the meaning of his art.
Q: What is the goal of your art? What inspires and motivates you as an artist?
A: My painting is fundamentally about communicating what I see in my mind’s eye. While verbal expression is the predominant form of communication, from early childhood, I have had a facility with visual expression. Painting is my vehicle for this.
The specific goal of my art changes with each series I embark upon, but the general objective is always to transfer the image in my mind to the canvas There are many sources of inspiration for me—it could be a situation, a landscape, or a figure that catches my eye. However, it must be an image that stays with me.
Q: Yes, your homeland, India, and specifically, Kerala, obviously have special meaning to you. What is it you are trying to capture in your work?
A: Yes, it is a very special place. My aim has been to capture the essence and the spirit of the visual Kerala .
I want to serve as an ambassador for this region, recreating this special place for the vast audience that has not had the privilege to experience it first hand.
Kerala, one of India’s twenty eight states, is a narrow strip of land lining the South West corner of India. Physically, the region is characterized by numerous rivers and backwaters that are quite panoramic. The network of waterways is lined with dense, verdant foliage in some places, but in others, there is an open latticework of fringed palm trees. Serving as the primary mode of transport, the channels are heavily trafficked during the day. However, very early in the morning the waters become perfectly still. When the waters are that placid, they become mirrors, reflecting the sky, greenery, and tranquility that abounds. This is my favorite time of day and scene to paint. In fact, some of my paintings have been hung inverted in galleries and printed upside down in publications because these mirrored images appear to be so real.
Q: What artists or genres have influenced your work?
A: My earliest and most formative influences were introduced to me through my Aunt--who was a Bengali. These influences include Sanyal, Shanti Niketan, Nandalal Bose, Subramanyam, Amrita Sher Gil, Jamini Roy, and Satyajit Ray in films. North Indian artists include Gujral, Pai, De, Kulkarni, Raza, Omprakash, and Hussain. Western artists include Touisiant, Molinari, Hertubise from Canada, and Klee, Miro, Mondrian, and Bauhaus artists. Among contemporary artists, I have long admired and been influenced by the work of Sir Howard Hodgkins.
What is interesting about Hodgkins work is how he captures the essence and the spirit of Kerala. His layering of paint captures the light and glow of the rural Kerala without resorting to any graphic representation. Kerala summer is live in his painting.
Indian music and textiles serve as additional influencing genres. In India, many forms of art are intertwined, such that practices in sculpture, textiles, drama, and music influence each other’s development. There are many traditions in all of the above. My effort has been to be aware of them while creating my own vocabulary.
Q: Your work has evolved through several series, can you describe the evolution of these phases?
A: Yes, I work in series. Series last with me until the image is resolved, about four to five years, sometimes longer. My paintings over the last decade or so, fall loosely into three categories: a series of large-scale landscapes; a series of small-scale expressionist works called Sacred Places Within You; and my most recent series of miniature paintings.
The large-scale landscapes are characterized by strong composition and vivid colors. Color very much reflects the place where I come from and is an important compositional element throughout all of my work.
The Sacred Places Within You series is evocative of a Hindu temple. In contrast to western ecclesiastical architecture, the eastern temple is designed such that as one proceeds into the temple, natural light begins to disappear—the farther one goes, the less light there is. This environment feels dark but intimate and somewhat mystical. The lack of peripheral vision encourages one to be introspective and to look into oneself to find "the divine", rather than to look for "the divine" in something external to oneself.
This newest series of miniatures is an idea borrowed from Northern Indian miniatures. In these small works (approximately 4"x4"), I am attempting to recreate ideas from my larger works in a smaller, more concentrated format. When one first looks at these miniatures, there appears to be a limited vocabulary used to create the painting. After an extended period of exposure to the image, the viewer experiences the visual energy that I am aiming to create through the use of layering of paint, and luminescent paint. It makes for an unusually dense and dynamic image. Layering for me is an important devise.
Q: There is a spiritual and/or metaphysical component to your art, can you share something about this?
A: Yes. We touched upon it when we discussed the Sacred Places Within You series This fascination with intensity, whether through image, color, or line, is something that permeates my work. I’m also fascinated by images, and how we process images. Whether these are retained in the retina or in the brain has been of continual interest.
2010 The Attleboro Arts Museum , Attleboro Massachusetts
2010 ARK gallery of Art, Vladivostok Russian Federation
Sponsored by The U S State Department
"American Painter in Russia-Diplomacy through ART"
2009 "George Oommen A retrospective", Whistler Museum of Art, Lowell, Mass
2008 "Paintings by George Oommen", Holyoke Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
2008 "Visions of Kerala", Shristi Art Gallery, Hyderabad, India
2008 "Visions of Kerala", Time and Space Art Gallery, Bangalore, India
2008 "Visions of Kerala", Lalithakala Academy Art Gallery, Thiruvanathapuram, India
2007 Visions of Kerala", Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi, India
2005 “Sacred Places” Holyoke Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
2005 “George Oommen: Visions of Kerala”, Locco Ritoro Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA
2004 Mingo Gallery presents paintings by George Oommen Beverly, MA
2004 "Paintings by George Oommen" Harvard Neighbors, Loeb House, Cambridge, MA
2003 Harvard Real Estate Services presents “Fluidity of Light" - Paintings and Work by George Oommen, Nicholas Down and Segami
2003 “Paintings by George Oommen”, Brewster Academy, Brewster, NH
2003 Open Studios, South End, Boston, MA
2002 “Paintings by George Oommen” Holyoke Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
2001 Flora presents “George Oommen Mankotta, Kerala", Arlington, MA
2000 “Paintings by George Oommen”, Holyoke Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
2000 Open Studio, Woodstock, VT
1999 Mingo Gallery, Beverly, MA
1997-1998 Art Heritage, New Delhi, India. “George Oommen Paintings,” One Person Show curated by Ebrahim Alkazi
1997 Guest Artist, George Oommen, Survey of Works, Duxbury Art Association, The Ellison Center for the Arts, Duxbury, MA
1996 “Harvest,” One Person Show, Cambridge, MA
1995 "Sacred Places", Adelphi University Center Gallery, Garden City, New York
1995 “Harvest”, Cambridge, MA
1995 Rocco’s, 5 Charles Street South, Boston, MA
1994 One Person Show, Kresge Gallery, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA
1994 On My Own Time, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA
1994 “Whateva” Group Show/Dru Arstark, Broadway, New York, NY
1994 Members Show, Downtown Club House, Harvard Club of Boston, MA
1993-1994 Wellbridge Center/NutraSweet Company, One Person Show
2010 Harvard Magazine http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/09/tropical-abstractions, and http://harvardmagazine.com/extras/painting-with-gravity
2008 The Hindu MetroPlus, “Standing in Paradise”
2008 Hyderabad Times, “Colors of Abstraction”
2008 Hyderabad Times, “An Arty Scene”
2007 Hindustan Times, “Kerala is the Reason I Paint”
2007 Hindustan Times, “Visions of Kerala”
2007 Time Out India, “Visions of Kerala”, December 26, 2007
2007 The Indian Express, “State of the Art’, December 25, 20007
2007 The Asian Age, “I’m Stuck in Paradise”, December 21, 2007
2007 Mail Today, “Visions of Kerala”, December 21, 2007
2007 The Times of India, Delhi Times, “Of Memories”
2007 MINT, Exclusive Partner, The Wall Street Journal, “Visions of Kerala”
2007 Hindustan Times, “Placing it Right”
2005 The Concierge, “India New England”
2006 The Hindu, “The Rain Painter"
2005 Arts Media, "Framing the Landscape"
1998 India Today, “Paintings by George Oommen”
1998 Business Pioneer, “Imaging the Resonance of the Land”
1997 Indian Express, “An Unknown Well-Known Painter”
1997 The Asian Age, “Memories of Kerala”
1997 The Delhi Guide,
1997 Swagat, “George Oommen on George Oommen”
2003-2004 Who’s Who in the World
1985-1986 Who’s Who in the East
1986-1987 Who's Who In the World
1970 Award for the design of Jawaharlal Nehru University
1970 Rockefeller Grant
Critic, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Faculty: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Babson College and Boston Architectural Center
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Instituto Allende at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Master of Architecture in Urban Design
Delhi University, India, Bachelor of Architecture
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, Overseas School Certificate Examination
Member: American Planning Association, American Institute of Planners, American Institute of Architects, Boston Society of Architects, Massachusetts State Association of Architects, American Institute of Certified Planners
Accredited Professional LEED United States Green Building Council