Being human means a faint melody of fear, pain, evil and death hums just below the surface of everyday life, but we become adept at suppression. Portland-based oil painter Srijon Chowdhury listens to this dark music and illuminates it for us visually in his exhibit “Same Old Song” at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, using themes such as William Blake’s poetry, the Bible and the occult.
Is the “Human Face a furnace seal’d,” as William Blake describes it in his poem “A Divine Image”? The idea seems likely in Chowdhury’s series of paintings depicting the human face, particularly “Mouth (Divine Dance).” Inside a 30-foot-wide mouth made up of many panels, demons with linked hands gleefully caper in a circle of flames (in Chowdhury’s paintings, only the evil beings look truly happy). The demons’ red, fleshless bodies swirl with muscles and tendons, making their forms nearly indistinguishable from the leaping flames.
Around the perimeter of the painting’s lips, insubstantial wraiths lightly painted in white inhabit the precipice of Hell, valiantly attempting to lead normal lives, existing on the edge of terror yet still raising children. Other Chowdhury themes appear: a moth, a horse and rider, an angel, a knife.
Inside a blue eye, a woman brings forth life (“Eye (Birth)”). The top lashes of the eye frame the scene like a delicate curtain, but childbirth is a violent and painful rite. The woman, immersed in water, opens her mouth in a scream as the baby emerges. The blood flowing from her body is echoed by the red wet corner of the eye and, more faintly, by the livid pink skin beneath the eye that the woman inhabits.
While one eye painting depicts birth, the second represents its opposite: death. “Eye (Morning Glory)” shows two hands against the backdrop of a blood-red pupil. One hand grasps a long knife while the other holds an orange flower, which reflects in the knife’s shiny surface. Yet the reflection looks more like a blood stain than a flower, the knife an instrument of death. Morning glories are the flowers of death, perishing each night before they are reborn.
The two ear paintings, like the two eye paintings, illustrate opposing forces. In “Ear (Bad),” a seemingly unstoppable evil force bursts from the ear canal. A green demon bleeds from an arrow and ax sunk into her head, while one of her arms is nearly severed by a knife. Yet she still has the strength to devour puny, defenseless humans, whose limp bodies droop out of her mouth and ears.
Inside a different ear, an angel with glowing white wings triumphs over evil (“Ear (Good)”). The angel stands upon a demon, pushing him with a foot into the dark cavern of the ear canal, the demon’s shrieking mouth resembling a smaller black cave.
For the remaining facial feature, “Nose (Crucifixion),” Chowdhury hangs Jesus’ arms between two eye sockets, while the rest of his emaciated body dangles down the slope of a large nose. The spike-crowned head sags forward, and Jesus appears defeated and resigned, grayish skin marbled with stripes of red.
“The Human Dress, Is forged Iron.” These words from Blake’s poem appear in the gate Chowdhury designed. Made of welded steel, “Sigil Gate” looms against the walls of the Frye Gallery and contains carved words and symbols. The Gate Sigil itself is a symbol used in the occult to create magical talismans; the union of fire and water is at its base in illustrations of the symbol. Chowdhury’s gate encloses an 1893 painting by Franz Stuck, “The Sin.” In the Stuck painting, a partially unclothed woman — presumably Eve, the first woman — stares boldly at the viewer. A snake wraps around her body, sneering over her shoulder. Is the gate protecting Eve from the snake, or humanity from sin?
“Sigil Gate” is used again in the large (84 x 192 in.) work “Pale Rider.” This time, the gate is made of paint, not steel, and it overlies an image. A colorless nude figure with a scythe lies prone on a white horse. There is a feeling of exhaustion from past ordeals; the rider doesn’t sit up, the horse’s eye is shut. The background suggests a tapestry, with varied and colorful flowers. Though the back half of the horse is in the green, sunlit meadow, horse and rider head into darkness. On the other side, the flowers retain color, but everything else is black. Presumably the horse and rider will need the protection the gate imparts.
Many of Chowdhury’s paintings could be considered vanitas (“vanity” in Latin). These still-life paintings, which were most popular in 17th century Netherlands, illustrate the transitory nature of our time on earth. “Flowers on Fire” is an example. At first glance, this painting appears to be a decorative rendering of red flowers against a red background, but some of the flowers and leaves are in flames. Another is “Moth on a Poppy.” A white moth radiates among the deep, red folds of poppy petals. Moths are often symbolic of the transition between worlds, while red poppies are equated with death or sin. The death of animals, who live closely among us, remind us of our own limited time; the dead white chicken in “Valentine Before Her Burial” looks vulnerable and forlorn.
Chowdhury includes some family portraits in his exhibit, but manages to make them look apocalyptic. The innocent subject of a small child gazing at flowers in a vase, “Inez with Sunflowers,” unsettles. Large flowers in the foreground tower over Inez menacingly. Leaves and petals litter the table. One of the vases is jaggedly chipped. Inez’s eyes roll upwards and her childish neck has prominent tendons.
“Anna Looking Up” delivers a jarring contrast between the decorative blue pillows patterned with flowers beside Anna and Anna’s neck, which looks like an anatomy lesson, illustrating the layers beneath our outer skin. The deep pleats in the neck lead into the folds of the blue garment she wears.
Taken even further in this direction is “In the Studio.” The artist paints on a canvas while holding an infant, another small child by his side. But all is not as it should be; the artist is flayed. His suit of skin hangs in the corner of the studio; doubled over, the face gazes at the world upside down.
The time between late fall and early winter is often gloomy in the Pacific Northwest, but the short, overcast days are a good time to stay indoors and look within. In the absence of darkness we would not know light, and Chowdhury shows us in his exhibit that we can acknowledge both in ourselves.
Andrea Kreidler is a writer based in Edmonds, who can be reached at [email protected].
‘Same Old Song’ by Srijon Chowdhury is at the Frye Art Museum Oct. 8, 2022, to Jan. 15, 2023.
Read more of the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2022 issue.