Whether interpreted aesthetically, materially, or conceptually, Russna Kaur’s paintings are equally rewarding for their viewer. Through bold colour and large-scale abstraction, Kaur speaks to her identity as a Canadian of Punjabi diaspora. From the lengths of vibrant fabric in her mother’s Indian clothing boutique to the saturated tones of community festivals and ceremonies, Kaur’s paintings reference the immersive, overwhelming experiences of colour that shaped her childhood.
Despite their overt confrontation of history and identity, the works have as much in common with the heroic gestures of modernist abstraction as they do South Asian material culture. Kaur effortlessly situates herself within the contemporary painting landscape while retaining deep engagement with her personal history. The works resist a simplified reading, encompassing and yet expanding well beyond identity politics.
Key to Kaur’s research within the studio is her unrestricted, experimental approach to material. She works in a fluid and modular fashion, complicating her painted surfaces through colour, application and the use of multiple surfaces that are hung together to form larger works. Elements of the paintings expand and break through their frames, creating an effect that is unhinged and free. The works are not perfect, nor are they trying to be. They are planned and spontaneous at the same time.
A tension exists between these surfaces; while they work together, they do not always line up and fit together neatly. This way of working is honest and intuitive, and for Kaur, it speaks to processes larger than just art-making. In life, we often make things work and fit together even when it isn’t easy. As she paints, Kaur constantly readjusts her perspective on the surfaces and the greater works they form, rotating the individual pieces and adding to or subtracting elements from the whole. For Kaur, painting is a process of letting things slowly reveal themselves to produce a beautiful end result.
Despite her focus on the painting as surface, Kaur sees her works as far more than just images; she has considered the paintings, quite literally, in depth. For ‘Suddenly her lips sharpened – it was splendid.’, she has painted on stretched silk and velvet as well as wood panels and canvas, and incorporated embroidery and threadwork into some of the finished works. Referencing traditional Indian formalwear such as saris, these delicate textiles, while challenging to work with, function as another link back to Kaur’s material history. So too does the exhibition’s title, taken from one of her redacted poems, reveal the breadth of her influences. She sometimes creates these fragments of text as part of her painting process, manipulating words on an existing page in much the same way that she controls colour and line across a surface.
Kaur’s practice doesn’t just span a wide range of physical materiality; she also flips in and out of the digital realm. Sometimes this is where she starts – creating a design in Photoshop and using it as a reference as she works. Other times, digital mark-making will shape a painting that already exists physically, as she photographs the piece in progress, manipulates it digitally, and uses this altered version, along with paint and paper sketching, to shape the final result. While this tension between the material and the digital is less immediately visible, it is no less important to her practice than the push and flow between varying surfaces and materials in the finished works.
Enticing on first glance yet revealing layers of meaning, the works in ‘Suddenly her lips sharpened – it was splendid.’ speak confidently to South Asian identity and its representation in contemporary art while remaining open to the possibility of other interpretations, not needing to lead with recognizable cultural symbols to incite dialogue. Beyond conversation around identity, the paintings offer multiple entry points to explore painting itself, placing emphasis on the use of colour, texture, line, scale and the gestures of painting as empowering self-expression.
Exhibition text by Genevieve Michaels