When I first came across Christopher Astley’s work at Tracy Williams Gallery in 2016, what struck me the most was this uncanny sense of familiarity. As an artist and art historian trained in traditional Indian painting techniques, how could I have sensed commonality between an ancient tradition of painting—known for its vibrant, sensuous colors and deep sense of formality— and the contemporary work of a New York artist known for his concrete-filled fabric sculptures?
In his 2016 show, “Conglomerations,” Astley presented a suite of experimental, composite paintings that contained the seeds of an exciting new venture for the artist. In his current, ongoing series, which remains untitled, the artist features grand, anachronistic, atemporal landscapes where unfamiliar worlds collide. Flag-carrying colonial cavalry, charging soldiers on horse and camel back embroiled in some decisive battle are unsuspectingly transported into a barren, crumbling world—a world caught in some strange moment of chaos, evolution, destruction and creation. Is this a tired, post-apocalyptic world finally rolling in on itself in a cataclysmic coda? Or is it a world in a distant solar system captured in the tumultuous process of becoming? Or perhaps both?
Either way, the “beamed-up” soldiers in their cocky colonial regalia in the midst of some history-defining campaign are suddenly left feeling puny and unimportant. What is a self-serving war, perhaps waged in the name of so-called white man’s burden, in front of a calamitous folding/unfolding of nature’s fury? According to Astley, “each work represents tensions between human civilization and a shifting natural landscape.”
Although brilliantly imagined, almost as a stream of unconsciousness, what is very consciously achieved in the paintings is the playful toying with the linear ideas of space and time. “The viewer can access time and space at the same time, going through shifting variations of a completely alternate world,” says Astley. Seen from a distance the paintings are energetic, abstract works. On closer inspection, the minuscule figures in a dangerous world unravel like a miniature painter’s flair. The canvases simultaneously inhabit two artistically contradictory intentions: they flatten into a two-dimensional field of an anti- narrative, postmodern expression, while at the same time playing with ideas of narrativity and illustration.
At their deepest core, what Astley’s work shares in common with traditional Indian paintings is the idea of continuous narration, as well as the technique of using a flat, two-dimensional surface to create multiple perspectives; thereby accomplishing the paradox of generating a multi-narrative frame.
In one Bhagavata Purana folio from the first half of the 16th century, Krishna is seen thrice: sitting in his palace; flying on his parrot vehicle, garuda, with his consort, and finally, uprooting the parijata tree. Although differently imagined, and intended, Astley’s paintings are similarly successful in complicating the notion of time. His paintings, which according to him have “echoes of Japanese woodblock prints and comic book illustrations,” share the sense of urgency and disruption seen in some illustrations in the famous Akbarnama. In the depiction of the Seige of Ranthambore, for instance, a disorderly mass of soldiers, drum beaters and courtiers are seen pressed together on a narrow, ascending path, dangerously pushing bullock-carts laden with massive canons. At the top of the hill the canons are already shown deployed, shooting away at the unseen fort across the night sky. The haphazard energy of the composition is brilliantly enhanced by the multi-perspective space. The Akbarnama folio and Astley’s recent paintings resist a post-Renaissance, modernist viewing. Each scene has to be viewed through various perspectives, definitely not through the human’s eye-view. Each work is a bird’s eye-view and a snail’s eye-view simultaneously.
In a certain sense, presenting a landscape through the individual’s perspective is to imprison it within the ego’s witnessing of a given reality. By opening it up to multi-perspectives, in which a satellite view merges with the human, is to view things more objectively, more truthfully, where the illusions of linear time and static space no longer hold.