What is the meaning of a painting? Let us confront this question by first contemplating how the search for a painting’s meaning functions; what does this type of understanding even look like? Must we interpret something before declaring it significant? Is meaning something that we think? The first major distinction to be made is the difference between meaning that is formed linguistically, and meaning that is understood after being demonstrated. The word “one”, for example, is not linguistically meaningful apart from the way that it is put to use as a concept; “one” of something is realized ostensively. The problem with deciphering meaning is that the process of the search is often merely an attempt to translate a concept, object, or set of circumstances into a word-language. Such endeavors work for linguistic meanings, because linguistic content continually points to more acutely subtle verbal expressions. With painting—as with any art—this approach is not enough, because it stands more than slightly incomplete. Trying to extract the meaning of a painting with insufficient tools (i.e. assumptions) does not render the painting meaningless, but exposes them as the improper place to begin.
Throughout the exhibition, there are a number of tensions that dynamically build and resolve themselves. The initial confrontation occurs when the notion of the sublime meets an inverse of itself: rehearsal. Is the ineffable something reserved for what Plato called “divine madness,” or can it be conjured upon command through practice? For Chowdury, passion and deliberateness are not opposites, they are inseparable. For instance, being held captive by the presence, size, colors, and shapes in “Diamond” is not difficult; the challenge Chowdhury presents to the viewer, however, lies within the evidence of craft and thinness of material: can the sublime be accepted even when the initial intention was to accomplish such a task?
A crucial aspect to Believer relies on the developmental patterns of myths in Western historical cultural imagination. Is it the job of the artist to recollect and continue the traditions of the past, or to dismantle and project new myths of our own time? Refusing to imagine history as a static product or an unapproachable monolith, Chowdhury presents historical imagery as tangible and malleable—albeit daunting and oppressive. Believer believes that art is the shaper of actions, or at least minimally, re-actions. In the same way, his dogmatic approach holds him accountable to what is publicly expected of a painting: formal traditionalism. Chowdhury’s formalism is purposefully made problematic in his undermining spontaneity—a reverent disregard—he treats his subjects with. In “Herculean,” the double presentation of the worn-away Greek body doubts the objective significance of the symbolic ideal human; instead, exposing the realization that there is less of a difference between reflecting upon something and projecting upon it. Both equally “faulty”—as they will undoubtedly appear in the future—they idealize and construct something functional out of something once thought of as imagined.
Chowdhury’s work invents its own desire: a passion that is perceived to have existed in the world that preceded this generation. To call it nostalgia would be a cheap excuse; to frame it as merely an illusion would be to remain oblivious to the fact that when an illusion molds a way of life, it has already become real. His is not willful ignorance, but ignorance nonetheless: the collecting of disparate pieces result in a narrative that inflates an ideological fantasy that painting can be in all and can be all. Such remarks are not cynical criticism, but the attempt to leave Believer completely naked and without excuse—the very same position it beckons its viewers to follow it into. The question, therefore, is not what does a painting mean, but how does its mean. Perhaps the significance of Heraclitus’ remark that, “no one steps into the same river twice,” today is not that everything is in a continual flux, or that artists must be perceptive and flexible; but, that meaning is contingent upon the way that a culture imagines its origins and ends, imagines from whence one comes and to where it aims.
Believer is a means of inquiring into a tradition of knowledge, an instrument of exploring the myths of a way of life. As such, Chowdhury’s works do not represent questions in need of answers; rather, they are propositions waiting to be asked. His strict approach to painting is a search for a form that can reveal the meaning: testing belief by embodying it on canvas. The aim of Believer is therefore always one step beyond the artist himself; it is beyond his intellect or his faith—whatever that may be. Thus, Chowdhury’s work, by way of its functionality, carries much of the formal conventions that are familiar to the tradition of art making, specifically painting. Such formal qualities allow the artist the freedom to work within a convention that has long been established, and the viewer a way of immediately understanding the terms by which the work can be read: there are no secrets here. Working intimately with materials, tradition, color, and representative imagery, the information provided by Chowdhury is at once knowledge of the shapeof our external world, and a glimpse into the knowledge of the self; here, penetrating the self implies an intrusion into the other. We idealistically dream of direct paths to the heart of mysteries but are never allowed to take them: Nothing is more wrong-headed than imagining meaning as a mental activity. To see the meaning of Believer in its socio-functionality is obvious, but to see what is obvious is challenging in that we so much want to see something beyond it.