Chandrika Marla’s use of color is impossible to miss. A native of India and a former fashion designer, the Northbrook artist uses vivid layers of acrylic paint and block printed fabrics cut into human shapes to explore how women interact with society.
Marla doesn’t sketch; her images are primarily focused on disembodied female torsos. “You know how you have a mannequin shape? I can’t get away from the torso shape,” Marla says. But the lack of physical detail does not equate to a lack of depth: Marla applies 20 or 30 layers of color to her canvas, often abrading the surface with a palette knife and wire brush as it dries, so glimpses of pigment shows through to the surface layer. She prefers acrylic paint; the pigment is more intense, and oils don’t dry quickly enough for her to work in multiple layers. She also lays rice paper and fabric over the paint, or rubs oil pastel on the canvas to create a resist effect. As a result, her work is rich with textures and shadows.
Although the torsos rarely touch, they are in contact interaction. Marla frequently explores themes of the Indian diaspora, life as an immigrant, and female identity. Her 2011 painting, “The Urge to Merge,” (above) renders the complex notions of society, community, and female relationships with three patterned torsos, cut from fabric she purchased during a trip to India and set against a vibrating red background.
“Two are very similar,” Marla explains. “They have commonality—the person trying to enter into the clique is on the fringe.” It’s a representation of how many women experience difficulty trying to reconcile their personal contexts with a new group or experience; the empty clothes and absence of a physical body requires the viewer to substitute their own outsider experiences.
Interestingly enough, when Marla showed the work to her critique group, she heard a different interpretation: “One of them said, ‘I see a lion with its mouth open.’ I saw that maybe this woman is a threat to these women,” who are content with the status quo.
Marla didn’t begin painting until 2007; after losing her job as a fashion designer, she began taking classes with French figurative artist David Gista at the North Shore Art League. She says her approach to painting was full of enthusiasm: With no prior experience, she immediately wanted to explore color in the style of Latvian-born American abstract artist Mark Rothko, who was known for creating vast, colorful flat forms that biographer James E.B. Breslin says explored conceptual relationships and the idea of truth; Marla’s disembodied women are a lovely movement in the same vein.
“I didn’t go to art school, I went to fashion school. Sometimes I feel it’s a handicap, but sometimes I don’t care,” Marla says. Gista was a major supporter of her painting, and he never discouraged her from pursuing color.
In recent work, Marla has explored the idea of the female body as a landscape: These paintings, like Rothko, explore color fields in a way that creates sense without leaning heavily on the formal figure. Marla says the figurescapes are influenced by her understanding of herself as a place, and that they are also suggestive of the fragmented lives many women lead as they attempt to juggle a career, a family, and an interior sense of self.
Marla says that her work is modified by her life experiences and the life experiences of other woman, particularly the relationship with one’s own body. “It’s self and self-image. I’m interested in when women hit a certain age—they start buying more products and talking about surgery. It’s fascinating.” The extreme close-ups and ambiguous placement of the torsos are a mechanism for the viewer to understand their own interactions and responses to social constraints.
These disembodied landscapes—again, always the female torso—are rendered using Marla’s signature approach of layering and removing color. In “Summer Fragment,” a woman’s breast, waist, and hip painted in white stands out against the mingled layers of crimson, mustard, and brilliant periwinkle blue. Because Marla paints while standing, layers of pigment drip down over one another; there’s a sense of stillness, despite the aggressive textures. The woman is set apart from any group, as if she’s waiting for something, Marla says, “Like we’re all waiting for something.” It’s a continuation of another one of Marla’s themes: leaving one place and finding another, and the changes one encounters or endures in the process.
Chandrika Marla lives in Northbrook. She is a member of the Artists at 3150 Community in Highland Park. For more information, visit chandrikamarla.com.