Arjuna Gunarathne | Saskia Fernando Gallery

Arjuna Gunarathne is a visual artist from Sri Lanka, currently based in London, UK. Featured in The A-Z of Conflict (published by Raking Leaves in 2019), he has presented solo exhibitions in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as group exhibitions including the Museum of Ethnology, Austria and the fourth Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh. His work belongs to the Royal Art Collection, UK.

'Within Boundaries' by Arjuna Gunarathne presents a walk-through of his ongoing experiments with a distinct and dynamic visual style — one where his acquaintanceship with South Asian mural and miniature painting seeks anchor. Through an intimate engagement with colour and texture, Gunarathne’s work reveals a private world of anxieties & vulnerabilities where lone figures in imaginary landscapes and wait in wanting of warmth and familiarity.

''There are two Arjuna Gunarathnes. One is extraordinary. Every artistic medium spring to life when he puts his hand to it. Give him a pen and black ink and he will invent unprecedented and unforgettable surrealistic mutations of the human figure. Give him watercolours and wasli and he can create miniatures with a delicacy, wit and tonal poise matching the classic achievements of that South Asian tradition. With pastels to hand, or with staining ink washes, Gunarathne is instead explosively expressive, pushing saturated colours to an extreme of heart-stopping intensity. And then, switching from his virtuoso use of these lightweight media, the same artist wrestles with the hefty physicality of oil paint and persuades it to speak for him, establishing a highly individual brushwork that as it were combs through his own stout impastos. Gunarathne has collected all these different techniques and made each of them his friend, in the way that just a few people can strike up an immediate sympathy with whatever animal they happen to meet. The rest of us shake our heads in astonishment: how on earth do they do it? (I myself was one of those watching others, when I had the pleasure of getting to know the artist at the Royal Drawing School in London some four years ago.)

And then alternately, there is the Arjuna Gunarathne who is the most ordinary person in the world. We could almost name this person ‘Everyman’ - meaning by that, the fictional character whose experiences are typical of the human species in general. Just as in many a 20th century book or film, this ‘Mr Normal’ is a mature male accompanied by a small family that he is trying to support. But in the pictorial fictions that we are now looking at, the protagonist - who also happens to be the artist - is equally defined as a migrant, a ‘displaced’ person. Twenty-first-century normality, as all of us realize, has that character. Humans now more than ever are on the move across the globe, pushed one way and then the other by their own hopelessly defective power structures. In fact Gunarathne’s major recent series of coloured-ink works on card, Legal or Illegal?, vividly pictures what it feels like to be caught in the middle of that pushing, just as his earlier black-ink series, Going to Work, found imaginative symbols for the distortions of their personhood that migrants undergo when recruited for insecure casual employment. The ordinary Arjuna Gunarathne - a Sri Lankan hired to work in a supermarket in north London - puts his anxiety and alienation to the service of his extraordinary artistic alter ego, to create emblems that could speak for hundreds of millions in the world of 2022.

To talk of ‘displacement’ is to suggest that ‘places’ exist. But what we see in this art is that the reality of places is more psychological than geographical. The figures in these pictures tend to be small in relation to an environment that engulfs or embraces them. The suggestion is that the individual has only a little power of his own with which to face a larger world that may - as in the oil paintings Bound-aries and Twisted - present dangers and challenges, but that may also open out into a paradise: look at the ecstatic inventions of the recent mixed-media series, Wonder. And yet these larger worlds are all inside the artist’s head. The immigrant in suburban London shows how richer landscapes can arise, by transmuting tree and garden imageries from South Asia into unfamiliar media as symbolisms for his own states of mind. There is an empowering, generous and democratic intention to Gunarathne’s scintillating art."

Julian Bell
November 2022

Arjuna Gunarathne’s exhibition 'Within Boundaries' will be on display to the public at Saskia Fernando Gallery till the 15th January from 10am to 5pm. 

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30th December, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings