The 12 inkjet-printed photographs in Sunil Gupta’s series “The New Pre-Raphaelites” (each 42 by 28 inches or the reverse, 2008) all feature beautiful men and women in impeccable imitations of the 19th-century painters’ favored poses, costumes and compositions, but for one difference: Gupta’s subjects are overtly gay. Whether showing individuals or couples, the photos are based on historical paintings, states Gupta, but “each is selected to reflect modern day nuances in queer Indian life.” Having examined queer identity in his photographs for over 30 years, Gupta also sustains the exploration in “Mr Malhotra’s Party” (2007), another series included in this exhibition, in which homosexual men and women stare defiantly at the camera from amid the chaos of urban India. Gay culture has been open in India only since July 2009, when the section of the penal code criminalizing same-sex relationships was suspended. The law had been imposed by the British Raj in 1860, at a time when, coincidentally, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was ascendant; in his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault dates the birth of modern attitudes toward homosexuality to 1870.
Gupta’s homage to the Pre-Raphaelites has no vestige of nostalgia, and his portraits’ syntheses of the psychological and the pictorial are strikingly contemporary. Rather than romantically remote, the subject’s gaze is in each case penetratingly intimate. This is particularly true of an alluring, distinguished-looking middle-aged transvestite, whose exquisite makeup is a cool avowal of her status. In another photo, pink satin sheets frame a supine male couple; the younger man, wide awake, cradles his partner, who sleeps peacefully. A third picture presents two women in a warm embrace that fuses maternal and lesbian love. “Orientalist” well describes the stereotypes invoked in an image of two men, one dark-skinned and dynamic, the other pale and passive. Eyes locked and hands ambiguously clasped, they stand caught in a ritual dance of seduction and resistance.
Gupta’s compositions are faithful to what Ruskin called “this painting of delicate detail,” though expressions of camp and ethnicity replace the earlier works’ emphasis on traditional craft. In an image that refers to Henry Wallis’s 1856 painting of the death of Thomas Chatterton, the young poet’s exquisite corpse is clothed in crisp white salwar kameez, the flowery William Morris silk prints on and beside his bed become striped cotton, and the neo-gothic window panes are framed by a tatty blind.
In Gupta’s work, scenographic effects of light and intense color occasionally border on the stylization seen in fashion photos but are saved from estheticization by Gupta’s attention to modern reality. Bling, piercings and tattoos evoke believable encounters rather than implausibly sentimental trysts. Focused viewing reveals pimples and poorly painted toenails, and close-ups of hairy skin are made into theatrical backdrops. What the Pre-Raphaelites only hinted at, Gupta has unquestionably taken out of the closet.
Photo: Sunil Gupta: The New Pre-Raphaelites—13, 2008, inkjet print, 28 by 42 inches; at Grosvenor.