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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Antonio Puri and The Tenth Door
by Swapna Vora

July 18, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

It is so fragile out here in this world that reincarnation appeals, rishis (seers who know reality) fascinate. Detachment from this temporal habitat is hard, if not impossible. How does one participate in life fully, yet remember to remain aloof, remember that everything is moving, leaving, arriving? The body has nine doors and the tenth door, the final portal, leads beyond the Sahasrar chakra, (a Buddhist/Hindu /Jain tenet). This door at the Sahasrar or crown chakra is the final exit for release from the other nine portals of the human body. Antonio Puri's 'Tenth Door' depicts this last exit to awareness.

Open when Closed


Bargaining with Bastet

Crown Chakra

Puri has a fascination for something beyond. He says each creature dies and asks, "Does death really exist? Life never ends, conscience never ends. Let's ignore physical death and focus on spiritual death and emotional death. Death, total annihilation of everything that composes one, is an impossibility unless you are very, very enlightened."

Subway maps, media, and newspapers: he wanted to reincarnate these throwaway objects. He says that when matter is dead to one medium, it leads to life elsewhere. The newsprint catches now, this moment and it too slides into wherever time goes. He uses sheets, shrouds, and ashes, all of which accompany us during our travel to infinity. They may be compared with transitory moments, those that form the space where life is lived. These paintings and this material are all about reincarnation for his direct intent was to do so. He has a circular hole in the middle of some paintings. It is, he says, a picture of a portal into another world. His thoughts about death and life include knowledge of the Bardo, Egyptian funerary rites, and Cuban visions of the afterlife. "My girlfriend is Cuban and I asked her about her views. The beliefs came from Africa and honor Santeria. The 'meaning of life' is just to live right.'

Janm 1

Janm 2

Sutra Enhanced 1

Sutra Enhanced 2

Puri said he did not want to get into anything spiritual that was inherently limited, but wanted just to face humanity itself. He refused to get into specific cultures, specific religions. The trio paintings have human ashes incorporated into the paint and paper. "Ashes, not to shock but to show that even ashes, this seemingly final product, have gone beyond death. People may make memorials for the end, for death, in many ways. For me, it is another beginning, one more beginning. I want someone to will their ashes to make them into something again. Do not know if this will happen." (I said he could have mine, but may have to wait. He thanked me.)

Puri continued, "Life after life, there is no death here. In the west, death is negative, makes you afraid. It is associated with the unknown and hence terrifying; the same way some people relate to foreigners as unknown, and hence related to distrust, danger and death. If people seem different, for some, this is a link with unknown 'horrors' like death. But, this is the only thing that bridges life and afterlife. There all differences disappear, all foreignness evaporates. This is my fascination with it, I was always fascinated with the afterlife."

Stairway 1

Stairway 2

Stairway 3

Stairway 4

He then started the two blue Mandalas with their splitting spheres, supernovas and tiny cells, for he was interested in both microcosmic action and macrocosmic splendor. "Bridging the divide between some things that are so minute that you can't see them and some so humongous that you can't see them! Scale too creates illusions." The surface of his paintings is rippled by dripping paint, like small earthquakes and delta pools. They look like the ripples left after a stone has been flung in or like the shaky, sandy seashore at ebb tide. He often uses yellows, ochre and mustards, like the bright gold of a tiger's eye. Again he spoke of, "Ashes, Lung Ta, prayer flags. The wind carries prayers on flags that let the spirit transcend from here." Here his paints and inks mingle inextricably with paper, newsprint, and maps as today's big, forgettable news mingles with eternity. He says after death, when life has drifted way, an empty shell lingers and then each particle becomes something else.

For some time, he wanted to create something that was not just geometric but geometric and organic together. Finally he thought, when a cell breaks, the energy of the supernova is right there, and can start forming magnificence. But this was thought. He said, "It was like starting a sentence but I did not know how to complete it." It had not yet culminated, had not yet reached somewhere. From one cell, the origin of life and human creation, he went directly to death with the colors of rust, of combustion and cremation. (Funny, creation and cremation, only the 'm' in the middle is different!)

Panchakamaguna (Triptych)

Stairway 5

Voyage 1

Voyage 2

Puri's usage of media and maps are aimed at transcendence, playing happily at levels of existence and on the ladders of understanding. However he could not exhibit in Cuba despite an invitation to the Havana Biennale. "I talk of transcending life and here I was unable even to transcend a political border. This body of work was after a residency at the Muelensteen Art Centre in Holland."

The Holland residency was a major experience. It resulted in this exhibition for he felt even more empowered to explore and explain, and come to terms with physical life and physical death. He said there are so many types of death or perhaps ignorance. Some people die emotionally, some spiritually, and some mentally, long before the frail human body disintegrates.

"I want to talk about afterlife, to travel on this journey. Even if we are detached, this is a great journey of healing especially after a child comes along to accompany you. This is what it means to be, to change. A child heals, a child brings change.

"Acrylic, shellac, mixed media, collages, I fuse paper and the medium. I went to law school but after 9/11, there was a big change in my understanding. Art was always an obsession. I had trained as a lawyer but after the legal life, the art life began. Layers of life, these ingredients with their implications!"

Voyage 3

Voyage 4

Voyage 5

Voyage 6

"Sometimes, something major happens, not in a lifetime but in a moment. But it can take a lifetime to find that moment! Bargaining with Bastet, the goddess of fertility, again I thought of the mystery of death. I was bargaining with the gatekeeper. I thought, why should I want to come back? The center circle in these paintings is the portal to the other life. With this aperture and the energy of the pigment, one could go there. There, meaning somewhere beyond here.'

"It is not important that you can see beyond. The painting too could see you from this portal!" He paints from the objective of the painting where it could have a good view of the viewer. A chink into the afterlife of things!

"Primeval fires, soupy bubbles of life, raising energy, all that energy is going to affect afterlife." The crosses in his paintings could be expressions of Christ, but he said, they really reach out from here to the other side. Afterlife may not be all serenity! "Everything here, each object, each sentiment may have its own afterlife. Ultimately, the senses, after all this is over, the five senses come together, become one, and are released." He examines his work with its cells, chemical bubbles, and cellular structure: a work of energy, again reincarnating matter from a mundane, routine world.

Revisiting Sarnath (Triptych)

Detached (diptych)

He points to a T-junction of chakras. "This is the resurrection, the cross is a way to go up". He said he wanted to break away from all religions, and symbols, which were simply man-made. I want to be more inclusive, not exclusive." The vital energy portal here, the straight white path resembles the shushumna, and the red and blue Mandala is his response to spirit. "The portal is the big one, the small ones are the overflow. The huge canvas could be looking at you. Big, yes, but it is still intimate. A reversal of roles! We are arrogant, we decide what a painting is, here a painting may decide what we are. I grew up in Himalayas, used to see huge Kanchenjunga regularly. Yet we feel, ridiculously, that we have conquered the mountain simply by walking over a part of it. After completing a sixty foot tall painting, the painting became the viewer and me its subject of the moment, a serious thing in a warm light."

Simran 1

Simran 2

Lung Ta (Triptych)

"This voyage, from where to where! It begins from your forehead and goes to the top of your head, edging closer to the tenth door. It does not begin from below that, it is not from the beginning. It frees you from everything. You understand that it cannot be experienced prematurely. Each person's nirvana is different. Some want happiness here and now. I paint to depict comfort and peace or at least share this energy, the energy that I experience in my studio. It gives me great joy to paint, the second most joy! After Alex!"

Puri's canvases address the unknown, death, and immortality with paint, inks, shellac, newspaper and human ashes. He declares that 'Death,' is a misconception and real death, while we are alive, is ignorance. About the ashes, he said, "I want to create an afterlife for those ashes to parallel the afterlife that we will all experience."

The One I Missed

Blind Faith

Puri says, "Circles are all encompassing. Dripping paint from both sides of the canvas creates a gravitational and anti-gravitational pull towards the center." To further capture the timeless, ambiguity is emphasized.

"Contrasting colors, textures and form are used to express the various aspects of the paint, its fluidity and painterly qualities. While non representational in content, the paintings are unintentionally evoking images of other worlds."

"Spontaneity and control, and balancing these two, is what leads to the end result."

Robin Rice describes Puri's work and his goal:


"'I am hoping to create Oneness,' is ambitious but perfectly valid. Recognizing the constructed conventions of Western art, the inventors of abstract painting in the west felt that it could become a universal visual language. We could take these paintings of Puri's as a primer. Just as the spatial field in the paintings oscillates between foreground and background, our visual consciousness can move from the superficial to the sublime. By evoking the potential of the Tenth Door, Puri looks beyond daily events to the struggles that we experience when trying to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The Tenth Door reminds us of the illusory nature of death and the timeless potential to experience the wholeness and the duality of existence. ”

The Guild Art USA Inc. exhibited Antonio Puri's solo exhibition 'The Tenth Door," which Puri has dedicated to his son Alexander for his tenth birthday.

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