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Depicting the invisible people


Bharati Chaturvedi  |  New Delhi 

Hard luck in soft focus. The Hobos, the hard-lucked, off and on the roads at once, scary and calm all at once.
That's the screened-off underbelly of an imaginary city, perhaps even New York, where Michael Cline lives, works and exhibits in his newest canvases at the Daniel Reich Gallery. This is his exhibition, Folks.
It's got an irreverent, ironic ring to it, that title "" Folks. In a word, Cline turns the superpower nation we have in our minds into something with less of a sheen. The near-squalid urbanscape surprises, because as you see more of Cline's work, you realise that Folks is not about the exceptional but the ordinary.
You see the Hobo-like presence of folks in everyday contexts, people invisible if you haven't learnt to see them. The alleged bad characters of the Indian newspaper's city pages reside in these paintings, claiming their space and their credibility.
For a moment, Cline appears to be like the painterly brother of author Neil Gaiman, the writer of Neverwhere, a story of the invisible people.
Cline uses imagery that would be shocking in its upfront, harsh, brazenly erotic and nude elements. A nude woman frames a doorway, overarching above a drunken man who has collapsed. She is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Clothes hang above the doorway, inviting the eye to the dark, hovel-like space inside.
But Cline uses all of these elements as part of a large, harmonious composition, a device that forces you to first take in the pictorial quality of his works.
In the first blink, you see therefore an urban landscape. Then, you peer closer and are shocked that you could take in a moment of calm amidst such imagery. And finally, you realise that Cline's show exposes your own inner voyeur to you.
There is a quality about Cline that is as revealing of the external as the internal. In his work, the public and the private meet. It is a violent intersection. In "Still Night", a policeman searches a man as a woman he clearly knows (has she called in these law enforcers?) sits on the low wall and appears to be laughing. Her slipper has casually fallen off and she is smoking.
All around, the debris of absent others is clear "" a skateboard, grafitti, even constructed holes in the wall. At this moment, they have all left the scene and the three characters are forced to confront each other and themselves.
The balance of power plays out as oppressive helplessness. This painting, like many others exhibited around it, combines the terrifyingly bizarre of Hieronymus Bosch and the urban realism of Sudhir Patwardhan.
Cline also subverts one fundamental assumption of pornography "" that there is pleasure in the naked, or the suggestion of the naked. In "Reverse Engineering", for example, a bra hangs, untantalisingly, from a clothesline. A man, possibly drunk, slumps across the doorway, his toe sticking out of his torn sock. He points to a half-eaten burger, while a foot and ankle stick out of another doorway.
The moment should be laden with eroticism, but it's too stark for that. It's disturbing, particularly because it suggests that societal values aren't uniform, a factor that reduces control of one group over another.
Other works are more explicit, but the "no big deal" attitude of the people strengthens Cline's construct of this world. He liberally uses the kind of stereotyping most people associate with the down and out to this end brilliantly.
For an Indian who lives in Delhi, seeing the ideas Cline works with is itself provocative, compelling a re-examination of the world's most affluent society.

First Published: Sat, October 20 2007. 00:00 IST