Srijon Chowdhury’s exhibition, Groundhog Day, is a lesson in subtle cues. Twelve paintings line the windowed walls of SE Cooper Contemporary, depicting an enigmatic array of subjects, interspersed with views into the wooded Portland suburbs. Beyond the gallery’s entrance, a conspicuous gate gives the exhibition a kind of gravity.
Apparition and otherworldliness manifest in subtle ways across many pieces of the exhibition—though Chowdhury’s human subjects appear distracted or removed from this influence. Upon closer inspection, their demeanor seems to suggest metaphysical unrest. Their facial expressions read like opaque portals into these hidden realms of disquiet, where questions of the human condition run rampant.
After walking through the front door of the gallery, Dean (2022) is the first to greet me. The human subject of this work sits on a leather couch, absently holding a book. They appear physically comfortable but psychologically malcontent, as if something is amiss. Their solitude gestures toward a moment of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I look further into the painting: fruit sits on a table, alive and luscious. Light pours in from windows to the outside world, but the subject faces away from it, their eyes distant, indicating an already preoccupied mind, tending to its own machinations. Herein lies a theme, consistent throughout the exhibition: an absent gaze that denies knowability.
As I move further into the exhibition, historical conceptions of human fallibility disrupt my categorization of Chowhury’s work as pandemic art. In order to pass into the second room of the gallery, I cross a threshold where two large gate panels are installed on either side, creating a passageway. Their spires nearly touch the ceiling, and they bear lettering of different sizes, communicating a message I cannot interpret. The gallery owner, Derek Franklin, told me the gate panels contain a stanza from “A Divine Image,” a 1789 poem by William Blake from his Songs of Experience, which reads:
“Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress”
Blake’s text conjures the Judeo-Christian belief that humanity suffers from moral depravity, providing an ancient, meditative pretext for the pieces in the following room.
The direct gaze of Broc (2021) catches my attention, beyond the gates. At first look, the sallow, bed-ridden subject seems to be suffering from an illness. Their pale skin sinks in around their eyes, the veins in their forearm, and their ribcage. But within their dark stare, I discover rich depths that belie a lively inner life—perhaps they are not unwell after all, I wonder. Their unrelenting eye contact typifies the powers of social masking, as it both obscures the person’s inner life and tempts me to speculate about it. The slightest grin slides across their lips, as if to say, “you cannot know what I am thinking about.”
To the left of this confounding character hangs Anna Recovering (2021). I assess the subject as a doctor might—“no acute distress, well-appearing, eurythmic”—for they look lovely and composed, meeting the moment with a formidable tenor and brave countenance. Gentle light seeps through a backdrop of glowing curtains behind them, accenting their pursed lips and averted gaze. I cannot help but wonder if this person is truly as put together as they appear, or if they have learned to hide their interior world to the same extent I have. I recognize their stalwart mask as one I find myself wearing to hide internal waves of upset. This social dress of secrecy is rarely intentional.
Chowdhury also employs imagery of red and pink flowers in many works, several of which radiate with a supernatural luster that indicate their otherworldly nature. In Lili (2022), a person holds a luminous red rose up to their pale face, looking lost in a memory conjured by its scent. In Glowing Roses for Oda (2021), a duo of flowers gleam among an array of blood-red plant life, like two beacons calling to me from an alternate universe, where undefined possibilities bloom.
In My Good Ear (2022), Chowdhury recreates the tumult of Luca Giordano’s Baroque painting, St. Michael (1663), bringing otherworldly characters to the fore within a close-up of his own ear. Amidst the fleshy folds of cartilage, an angel crushes and stabs a desperate figure, who cries into Chowdhury’s ear canal, its mouth agape. It makes me wonder if secret sagas like this are also unfolding for Chowdhury’s other subjects. Is this what they are all so distracted by? And, if so, will they heed these cries of discordance?
The archetypal saga that plays out in Chowdhury’s ear reminds me of my own experiences of debilitating overstimulation—moments when I am overcome to the point that every mundane interaction feels beyond my control and full of infinite complexity that I cannot ignore.
This specter of personal agitation rises to the surface of “Groundhog Day,” implying that emotional confusion and even spiritual dilemmas abound for Chowdhury’s subjects. At the exhibition’s center, Blake’s poem foregrounds the murkiness of the human condition and imposes its moralism. Indeed, humanity at large is saddled with the impossible task of existing in bodies that cannot fathom the full extent of their beingness, much less manage to understand or do right by one another. But Chowdhury reframes these mysteries as tantalizing, even in their uncertainty. The people in his work remain haunted by unknown thoughts and apparitions that entice me to explore their hidden nature—no matter how beautiful or terrible it turns out to be.
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