Reginald S Aloysius
By Colin Perry
Reginald Aloysius’s new paintings are densely layered compositions that play obscure tricks on the eye and the mind. At first, these works seem self-evident. We are looking at, it seems, a suite of black-and-white renditions of opulent, baroque, and exquisitely exotic Oriental temple ruins sinking into the splendid fecundity of a tropical rainforest. If we were experts we’d probably be able to name the genus of the plants whose foliage reaches up and stands out clearly against the (presumably azure) patch of sky. We might be able, too, to identify these ruined and fantastical architectural fragments, to name the style, to give a date and a location to their fragrant mysteries. We might also guess a time in which these images were taken – they appear, after all, to be based on nineteenth- or early twentieth-century photographs. To me, they suggest snapshots taken by European explorers of Cambodian or Mayan ruins. If so, Aloysius’ images would be documents of faded glory and eclipsed empires.
You might be surprised to learn, then, that these images are concerned with the continuity, rather than erasure, of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Aloysius, who was born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, has a profound interest in the Tamil culture of Southern India and Sri Lanka. The Hindu temples in Aloysius’s work are examples of Dravidian architecture (the Dravidian civilizations were one of the earliest in South Asia). While the artist depicts his temples looming out from the undergrowth, it should be noted that this is the first of many fictions here: Dravidian temples are mostly located in clear, open spaces. For example, Shore Temple, which appears in the work 36a,36b (all works 2010), is situated on a broad, open beach in Southeast India. Moreover they are not ‘ruins’, but are still active places of worship, where incense still fills the air. Today, these ancient faith-based cultural habits have accommodated themselves to the modern world: Aloysius talks of sites in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Nadu state of South India where trees are festooned with number plates of cars whose owners have placed them their to be blessed; of rituals of spitting masticated chili on to ward off evil spirits; and of moving home only during auspicious months.
Aloysius’s works are gently duplicitous in another way: they are not (as I first assumed) grisaille works of oil or tempera on canvas, but drawings made with graphite pencil on MDF board. Aloysius nevertheless refers to themas ‘paintings’ – and indeed, there is a density to these works that is more readily associated with painting than drawing. The artist labours for hours and days over the dark foliage, picking out highlights with an electronically powered eraser, a durational exercise that connects with the devotional act of painting. Indeed, the artist’s concern for tradition is evident in the proportions of his MDF supports: their height is 82% of their breadth, which is due to a deliciously bizarre act of numerological juggling (8 + 2 = 10, remove the 0 and you have 1, which is a propitious number in Tamil culture). Indeed, Aloysius is already thinking ahead about how to work on a support with a greater cultural signification. One option that he is currently exploring is to draw directly on to copper or bronze, the traditional materials used in South Asian sculpture.
If these works are structured according to tradition, then modernity enters through vector-like routes. Over the top of his images of temples and jungle, Aloysius has inscribed – actually etched into the surface of the wooden support – a series of elegant lines that resemble the outlines of lotus petals. These lines are, in fact, based on the flight paths of chartered planes that crisscross the South Asian skies. Aloysius maps these lines on to his works and, in the process radically scars them – an act that cannot be undone – using a scalpel, before finally painting over the grooves using Humbrol paint. Many of these works, such as QR328 and UL406 are titled after flight numbers. The artist does not simply copy these maps wholesale, but modifies them to the underlying imagery. In Jet, Aloysius has inscribed a swirling pattern into the nearly abstract foliage and architecture below, thus melding together two quite different iconographic registers.
These commercial flight paths are, of course, also migratory routes. Indeed, Sri Lanka has seen its fair share of population loss and displacement, a result of British colonialism and the internecine civil war that raged there between 1983 and 2009. Today, one in four Sri Lankan Tamils live outside the country (1), and Aloysius is, of course, himself the product of such a movement of peoples. While the experience of Sri Lankan Tamils appears at first to be a highly specific case, it is also evident that the experience of displacement is one of the defining features of the contemporary world. The writer and theorist Homi Bhabha has noted that while the postcolonial subject is uprooted or ‘unhomed’, this should not be seen as a mournful situation: ‘To be unhomed is not to be homeless’ (2). Similarly, Paul Gilroy has written of the importance of understanding postcolonial identity as one of ‘routes’, which he suggests as an alternative to the “ethnic absolutism” sequestered in the concern for static or nation-based ‘roots’ (3).
Aloysius’s paintings are maps that pick out the routes of contemporary Tamil culture. Originally maps were intuitive and symbolic rather than cartographic: they were drawings that expressed an idea of place rather than a definition of space. Indeed, there is a conceptual continuity in Aloysius’ work between the idea of drawing and the concept of making one’s mark, of recording and inscribing one’s subjectivity. A broad concern for drawing is therefore key to understanding these works (it is perhaps not incidental that Sri Lanka is a great exporter of graphite for pencils.) Indeed, one might see such lines of flight as drawings etched into the psyche of migrants. They may also be seen as lines that threaten to turn the surety of national identity into the shifting, nomadic identity of transnational cultures.
Drawing relates to other processes of cultural mark making, including the introduction of a blandly international style of modern architecture that inscribes itself on age-old landscapes and cultures. Aloysius references such structures in his paintings through a series of thin vertical and horizontal lines that suggest a tension between the old and the new, between the architecture of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, offices and apartments. These vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines have the quality of an invasion – it is unclear how the abstract and modern delineations of such scaffold might be resolved with the arabesques and curlicues of Dravidian architecture, or the fractal chaos of the jungle.
In his work, Aloysius is interested in the how one might ‘make decisions about our cultures’ in a quick-changing world (4). Through his exploration of the iconography of Sri Lankan and Southern Indian temples, Aloysius investigates the social agency inherent to any cultural choice, the daily decisions about what traditions we should keep, adapt or (perhaps) drop entirely. The migrant, and, in particular, the children of migrants who are further removed from their parents’ nation of birth, must confront the furious pace of change of the modern world. Aloysius, for example, mentions the difference between Hindu temples in Sri Lanka, and those in the UK. When I visited him in his studio, he showed me photographs of narrow entranceways to almost-hidden temples on grim British streets, and contrasts them with the flamboyant sites he has visited in order to create his images: sites such as Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (shown in the work UL406), Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu (depicted in Meenakshi), and Mahabalipuram (depicted in Vishnu and 36a,36b). The grandeur may be situated far from his London studio, but in these images Aloysius seeks out a lexicography of transnational culture that might speak to both locations.
(1) Data available at http://www.forcedmigration.org/guides/fmo032/. Accessed on 9
(2) The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994, Homi Bhabha
(3) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, Harvard University
Press, 1993, Paul Gilroy
(4) Email correspondence with the artist, July 2010
Colin Perry is an art writer and critic. He writes for a range of art publications (Frieze, frieze.com, Art Monthly, Catalogue magazine, MAP, and ArtReview online).