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Freeze-framing Charcoal with Mahalakshmi Kannappan

Freeze Framing Charcoal | Mahalakshmi Kannappan, The Crevice I, 2020

Ever wondered what necessitates the close relationship between the artist and his or her materials? It is none other than the main intention behind art-making which happens to be that of communication and expression, and often where words fail. Sometimes, artists who are unfamiliar with their materials run the risk of communicating their inability to express themselves instead. The connection between artist and material, however, is something that can only be forged over time as the artist commits to the constant and continuous exploration of the material’s properties with the intent of uncovering its potential and limitations, so as to use it in the best way possible to get their ideas across. In this instance, exploration becomes a means to an end. Yet, for some other artists, such explorations serve as ends in themselves.

Such is the case for Singapore-based artist, Mahalakshmi Kannappan, who explains her art practice as one that involves her stimulating, amalgamating, and distorting her material of choice – powdered charcoal – in order to explore its responses and behaviour. In fact, these reactions are the subject of her ongoing solo exhibition, Singular Moments, at Gajah Gallery.

The exhibition features 14 recent charcoal works by the artist, of which four are 3-dimensional sculptural pieces (a new format in the artist’s oeuvre), while the others are wall-hung works either on wood or canvas. These moderately sized carbon-black pieces are tactile and rich textural works. They have been given titles that group them into four categories based on the major characteristics of their surface qualities: The Shreds, The Blotch, The Crevice, and The Crevasse.

The Shreds comprise of four free-standing sculptural works – solid chunks of charcoal forms – in different shapes and sizes. These works appear as though they have been removed from a bigger piece, as their title suggests. They display variations of rough, craggy textures and thin, overlapping layers of charcoal.

Mahalakshmi Kannappan, Shreds III, 2020
Mahalakshmi Kannappan, Shreds III, 2020. 

The Blotch series of four works shows grainy surface textures that recall the natural ground. In some of the pieces, the grainy areas are juxtaposed next to smoother ones, providing a visual contrast.

Close-up view of The Blotch II
Close-up view of The Blotch II.

The three works on canvas that make up The Crevice series present smoother surface planes that have been disturbed by a gash which stretches horizontally across the canvas from end to end. In The Crevice I, the gash which is almost fused at one end gradually splits wide open, revealing thin, overlapping layers of sheet-like charcoal pieces.

Mahalakshmi Kannappan, The Crevice I, 2020. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery
Mahalakshmi Kannappan, The Crevice I, 2020. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

The Crevasse series, as the name suggests, displays deeper fractures as compared to The Crevice series. In The Crevasse for instance, the work’s surface has been split in several places revealing the same thin overlapping layers of charcoal sheets as seen in Crevice and Shreds. At the same time, the perimeters of the work appear unequal as though portions of it have been removed.

If I seem to obsess over the formal qualities of the work, especially their textural elements, there is a good reason for it.

In her interview for the exhibition’s catalogue, Mahalakshmi states, “In the process of creation, these works often encapsulate a moment, a texture or an image which cannot be replicated again. These moments are what I hope to show in this exhibition.”

Indeed, the varied textures of her work evidence the physical change that charcoal goes through in the face of stimuli, being “singular moments frozen in time”.

It is obvious that Mahalakshmi’s wall-hung works straddle that juncture between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. On one hand, the works are made on canvas and wood, both of which are traditional painting mediums. Charcoal itself is more commonly used as a drawing medium but may have at some stage during Mahalakshmi’s exploration, taken on a more fluid quality, one that requires it to be brushed on, plastered on or poured, mimicking painterly traditions. Yet, in these works, charcoal is also applied in a way that causes it to protrude from the canvas or wood, very much like reliefs.

Close-up view of The Crevasse II
Close-up view of The Crevasse II.
Close-up view of The Crevice I
Close-up view of The Crevice I.

These works are beautiful.

That is undeniable.

The colour – well, what can I say except that there is just something so understated, yet moving about the carbon-black of charcoal? It is a colour that is a challenge to capture on camera and even when captured, does not do justice to the real thing. Against the nondescript white walls of the gallery, the works stood out and were incredibly visually arresting.

The deep carbon-black hue also has the tendency to play with one’s vision. When viewed from a distance, the colour negates the effects of the gallery’s lights which typically serve the purpose of showing up the tactile quality of the works. With the works visually devoid of details, their forms become simplified and appear minimalist.

Compilation of works of freeze framing charcoals by Mahalakshmi Kannappan
The carbon-black colouring hides details on the works’ surfaces giving them a pared-down minimalist look as well as a meditative quality.

At the time of my visit, the main gallery space was taken up by a prior exhibition of Gajah Gallery’s, Navigating Entropy, which greeted visitors immediately upon entering the gallery. Singular Moments, by virtue of being a smaller exhibit, occupied a bay-like area off to one side. With the gallery’s open space floor plan, some of the works from the other show remained within sight almost throughout the entire viewing experience of Singular Moments. With their bolder colours and forms, the works in Navigating Entropy create such a diverse and almost distracting contrast to Mahalakshmi’s carbon-black, moderately sized works, that they made the latter seem even more subdued.

View of part of Navigating Entropy from Singular Moments’ exhibition space.
View of part of Navigating Entropy from Singular Moments’ exhibition space.

One really has to view Mahalakshmi’s works at close range to realise that there is actually a lot going on visually. But given the challenge presented by the carbon-black colour of the works, viewers have to move up close, pacing and shuffling in front of the works as one attempts to experience the full range of effects brought on by the gallery lights bouncing off the right places. Once that happens, watch the works come alive through the beautiful variations of darkness that extend from the darkest of blacks to the many shades of grey. The gallery’s lighting too, responds differently on the various surfaces, with it tending to be most reflective on smoother planes.

Close-up view of The Crevice III
Close-up view of The Crevice III.

Those familiar with Mahalakshmi’s oeuvre will notice that the works in this exhibition appear more refined and polished compared to her previous series which had a much stronger tactile quality as exemplified in De-Cipher II (2019). To illustrate, the layers of charcoal sheets seen in The Crevice and The Crevasse series, which actually originate from the De-Cipher series, have been noticeably toned down. Some point to this as evidence of the evolution of the artist’s experimentation with charcoal.

Mahalakshmi Kannappan, De-Cipher II, 2019
Mahalakshmi Kannappan, De-Cipher II, 2019.

Mahalakshmi Kannappan’s works are without doubt technically beautiful, and the works’ formal qualities more than speak for themselves.


If you’re curious to see if you react the same way to these unusual works, the show runs at Gajah Gallery till 10 Jan 2021. 

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