T. Venkanna’s show of paintings at Gallery Maskara offered a vibrant pastiche of sexual and pornographic images often referencing art history and popular culture. Venkanna’s citations included Takashi Murakami’s otaku character Miss Ko2 and Paul McCarthy’s trouserless bunny in a green sweater. Venkanna also explored priapism, sexual excess and regendering, with allusions to Martin Creed, Bosch and Manet. According to the press release, the artist’s use of sexuality is not to provoke but “to examine his most pressing concerns,” namely commodity fetishism and alienation.
Evolution (all works 2014) might appear to do this. The large enamel painting on canvas depicts a pregnant odalisque, with large breasts and a penis, in toxic pink. Reclining like Manet’s Olympia, the figure has a sultry Tahitian face recalling the subjects of Gauguin’s South Seas paintings. The scuffed painterliness of the flesh recalls Lucian Freud’s bodies. Dark blue capital letters rendered amid the similarly hued background read, “No gender issue—No fighting for—equality.” Although physically imposing at over-life-size, the figure seems less an individualized character than a necessary passage of pink pressed into a syncopated pattern of colors—toad green, underwater blue, sulfur yellow and panther black—a quality that distracts from the depiction of extreme hermaphroditism.
The show’s title work, Celebration, an oil on canvas, similarly obscures the artist’s stated concerns. At the eye of a teeming orgiastic circle of humans, animals and plants is an empty four-poster bed, meant to represent the sacred. The artist uses a fine black line and jewel tones to limn the figures in this fantastical congress, which echoes and reworks imagery from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, adult comic books and Persian miniatures, among other sources. Ultimately, the figures appear as so many non sequiturs, rebuffing a coherent narrative. Yet whatever the artist’s intentions, he is foremost a masterful colorist.
Venkanna’s skillful handling of color is inextricable from his strident use of text. In Blackboard, the screaming mix of Primitivist figures, Neo-Expressionist color and scratchy lettering seems modeled on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s dynamic chalkboard style, bringing wit and immediacy to the work. In Back, naked full-body portraits of the artist, from the front and back, stand boldly before a stylized facade reminiscent of Mughal miniatures. His presence in the work recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s participation in the erotic scenarios he photographed. The word “BACK” in large drippy labia-pink letters spans the width of the canvas and lends a soft-core finish.
In contrast, the watercolors on view were ethereally colored, mythic in feel and, except in one work, free of art historical haunting. The 40-by-26-inch watercolor Love Life II shows two naked women wrestling atop a prone male, with an enormous cactus in the background. The spiny cactus glows like a Christmas tree in front of the ironic words “Love Life.” Then, in what was probably the show’s only explicit application of sexual imagery toward social observation, the watercolor Living Sculpture portrays a naked figure in blue stroking a blow-up sex doll—a comment on loneliness and consumerism.
Though they featured appealingly delicate chroma, the watercolors as a whole were uninteresting in terms of subject matter. This was not surprising since the show’s strongest compositions derived their energy from a combination of art historical engagement and sumptuous color. The socio-sexual discourse and formal qualities primarily reflected canonized ideas. An artistic mode of such insular referentiality can have little to do with examining the real-life social malaise that purportedly drives the artist’s hypersexual imagery.