Twisted, ripped, broken, folded, cut: the abstracted and fragmented human figure is central to the painterly investigations of Calcutta- born, Amsterdam-based artist Praneet Soi. The dramatic postures of many of his figures reveal their sources as images taken from news media that record violent contemporary events: war, terrorism, torture, ecological disaster or everyday crime. Over the past several years the artist has developed an archive of these globally circulated images of the human figure involved in traumatic events. His selection reveals an eye educated in both European and Indian art history, as his figures and their arrangement often reference these varying aesthetic traditions. Soi has further added to this archive compositions made in his own studio by choreographing the bodies of friends and colleagues in unusual and evocative positions.
The artist then activates his archive within a given space or situation, combining and breaking up these images in increasingly complex ways. Over the past few years, he has produced the resulting paintings, collages, sculptures and murals in a reduced palette of white, black and gray. In many of these works, the outline of the human figure, or that of two coupled figures, serves as a delicate frame for contrasting imagery contained within this contour. His layered, graphic treatment of this familiar sensationalist material creates a gap between its digital sources and its new form—a process that estranges these images from viewers and reactivates our critical reception of them.
Architecture has played an increasingly significant role in the artist’s recent works. The architecture of the spaces in which Soi exhibits is often referenced and used within his installations, as his drawings and murals play off specific angles, corners or other details of these gallery or museum spaces. His archive has additionally begun to incorporate elements from the built environment: the square patterning of glass skyscrapers or train tracks, the angular lines of electric cables or telephone lines. He explores modernist Western architecture through his engagement with the diverse copies and interpretations it has inspired in India and other emerging economies. Architectural imagery is reproduced in strange shapes and unusual locations within this oeuvre, as ripped fragments or shards that are morphed with human figures in aggressive and enigmatic ways.
Soi’s exhibition at El Eco integrated diverse elements: murals painted directly on the walls; miniature gouache paintings on paper hung in the gallery in a traditional manner; delicate paper structures placed on a table, whose forms hovered between planar sculptures and three- dimensional drawings; and a slide installation of photographic material. The works’ blacks and grays dialogued with those of the Sala Daniel Mont, while this gallery’s architectural elements (its metal bars) were integrated into the compositions. Details of Mexico City’s vernacular architecture also seeped into these dense works.
The slide piece included in the exhibition presented photographs taken by the artist of a man working at a traditional print shop in Calcutta. They only show this older man’s hands, as he manipulates the antique printing press. The black metal of the machine’s moving parts contrasts with the whiteness of the paper on which the press imprints its images. The narrative constructed by this sequence of slides—involving contrasts between what is handcrafted and mechanically produced, between tradition and modernity, between repetitions and stasis, or reproductions and an original—resonates significantly through Soi’s entire body of work and addresses the diverse referents incorporated into his methods of image construction. Of particular significance is the role played by the hand in all of the artist’s projects. While he works directly with digitally produced images, linked to telecommunications and the high- speed distribution of information, and while he references the aesthetics of the various technological devices he uses, Soi ultimately uses the contemporary methods he has developed to reinvigorate the manual tradition of painting.
The dynamism, kinetic energy and visual density of Soi’s work, employing both the human figure and architectural elements, created an interesting dialogue with the history of the Museo Experimental El Eco and the Emotional Architecture Manifesto written by its founder, Mathias Goeritz. In this text, the German artist expressed what he perceived as the need to address his generation’s spiritual concerns through the making of structures that would evoke emotions in viewers. He critiqued functionalist architecture as limited to merely fulfilling basic human needs, while ignoring human emotional development. The visual constructions that Soi continues to create—his painterly architectures— convey emotions and spiritual struggles by presenting the tensions and torsions of our contemporary moment in an acutely expressive manner.