Suchitra Mattai’s work turns about conceptual and material inversions. It thrives on site-specificity while rejecting its basic premise—that specificity necessarily connotes place-ness. Having been raised on two separate continents and with cultural heritages tracing back to a third, Mattai is familiar with incongruities between the illusory promise of place and her lived experiences. Her practice is disjointed and dreamlike, yet throughout her uneasy landscapes runs an undeniable materiality that constantly asserts: Wherever you may think you are, or are told you are, you are here.
This assertion of immediacy may be a defense mechanism against the double vision present in Mattai’s pieces. They offer a kind of boundlessness while declaring a border, leaving the viewer to wonder at their frame of reference. Generally, I Don’t Think That Way II (2016) expands and contracts, extending from a central mixed-media embroidery work, to a painted mountain range truncated by an imaginary frame, which in turn is extended further by colored thread and rope affixed to the gallery walls. The rope drawing expands outward from the traditional perimeter of the painting, pushing beyond strict boundaries. The eye trips across multiple borders, simultaneously drawn in by the sumptuousness of the embroidery or the evocative texture of the brushstrokes while being stopped short by their finitude. It is only at the haphazard knots and trailing ends of the rope and thread that one is cast back from these landscapes into the gallery space. By maintaining a distance—the viewer’s prerogative—one can pull out from the tensions of the piece, yet this figurative “stepping back” provides a kind of rootedness that Mattai’s works themselves reject.
Mattai’s work also plays with chronology, demonstrating a sensitivity to the way time operates within the construction of cultural place. Nostalgia and the sublime, both concepts dependent upon a feeling of timelessness, project either an idealized past or future. In addition to featuring her own embroidery, Mattai also uses found objects in her pieces, often in the form of needlepoint or macramé. In an age of digital media and mechanization, these objects gesture to a bygone era of the handmade, eliciting the sense of a past that may never truly have been. Mattai also plays with chronology literally—the central piece of Generally, I Don’t Think That Way II is an earlier work of Mattai’s, Generally I Don’t Think That Way (2015), a recursion of her own material process and the cultural tropes that inform her practice.
In gesturing toward her cultural roots, Mattai destabilizes what can recognizably be called “nostalgic” or “sublime” even as she triggers their response in the viewer. This is perhaps most apparent in Misfit (2016), in which she appropriates the American idyllic landscape imaginary of the Hudson River School and inserts mountain peaks made of bindis. Here, Mattai is creating an incongruous space that might hold the multiplicity of her vision. The bright, jewel-like bindis are a beautiful and violent addition, a decolonial reimagining of the American landscape that claims an alternative narrative to the White pastoral, and one that rejects integration. But beyond that, the bindis themselves are a nostalgic gesture for a land left behind, the “vague memory of a past home.” These tensions between the desire for sublime timelessness and the refutation of its European foundations throw the focus of the work back on to the viewer—where are you if you can’t be here?
Mattai’s material interventions give the viewer something to hold onto as she articulates a desire for some place beyond the real, but even these evocative objects defy easy classification; uprooted from their original contexts, their vague gesturing to Eastern cultures asserts that even the recognizable is constructed. Mattai’s pieces are amalgams of longing. But in finding no solidity in the sublime and no space in the nostalgic, the viewer is reminded that the here and now is an interweaving of all of these ephemeral, disjointed ideations. It is in this instability that Mattai has built a home.
Suchitra Mattai lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Suchitra grew up along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean (from Guyana, South America to Nova Scotia, Canada), which she considers home. She received an MFA in painting and drawing and an MA in South Asian art, both from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She has exhibited her work in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Denver, Austin, Berlin, Germany, and Wales. Her paintings have appeared in the publication New American Paintings and she just completed a residency at RedLine Contemporary Art Center. Her new work uses specific biographical and historic objects and references, and she is excited to continue to research and collect information pertaining to the process of colonization and decolonization. She can be found on Instragram: @suchitramattaiart.