It is virtually impossible to categorize Milburn Cherian’s paintings into a particular cultural, chronological, or indeed even symbolic single perspective or style, except to point to archetypal truths embedded within an external visual Indian extravaganza. So one hesitates to know from which angle to begin to write about the multi-leveled shock of discovery upon first encounter with her paintings and again and again upon return.
The initial effect of conglomerate, multiple, individual shapes offers the viewer, who is intent on entering this highly complex world of interacting forms, colours and symbols, the possibility of initiating, step by step, detail by meticulously executed detail, a journey which leads on towards an ultimately unified, single synthetic whole.
The individual painting will ultimately rely on an underlying invisible diagram. In one of the large canvases, very close to the exact center, for example, a triadic composition the holy Christian family in Indian dress is the hub of the painting, out of which localized substructures emanate; or that are random, staccato inclusions as well as separate compositions at various localities of the picture plain. But finally, all weights, in perpetual motion, balance one another. One is prompted to search for and identify these internal structures in many paintings.
The journey fascinates, as we are simulated simultaneously to exercise our own emotional, visual, structuring functions. As one examines each centimeter of canvas, a play of contradicting unifying/opposing forces is set in motion, and the elements can then be understood to be only physically stationary. The single shapes in their myriad multiplicity are discordant notes sounded in dissonance, but they are equally in harmonious relationship to one another. There is not an iota of empty space which would have modified the intense sense of cluster of the constantly moving forms. The more one observes, the stronger is the effect of clash and harmony reconciled. This integration is Milburn Cherian’s glorious achievement.
I have not discovered any contemporary painter who can more genuinely express their beliefs of the Indian civilization the multiplicity and diversity which contains and is contained in the still godhead. Thus understood, Milburn is quintessentially Indian, very in touch with the enduring meanings. Yet her insight into universal archetypal truths and to style development as expressed in the west is evident of course, probably only intuitively imbibed from the history of western painting. I cannot be able to claim to fathom from where the intuitions arise. She is the surrealist, also a descendant of Breugel, certainly, whom she recognizes as a formative influence and of others of pre-Renaissance and even later painters.
Although a catalogue of influences would make a fascinating study, and this should certainly be attempted, what is one to think when Milburn Cherian describes the process of painting as “I just paint”, and to realize that she has little awareness as to how the externalizing process of her complex inner world is achieved. Analysis is for the art critic. Milburn Cherian herself is the medium for the production of authentic art.
One is then led to the realization that [to see it from an Indian perspective], in her former life, she may well have been a painter at Ajanta!! There is simultaneity between Milburn Cherian’s paintings and the fifth century ones. We can examine how figures and colour patterns is her paintings and in Ajanta’s stay in their own space but are juxtaposed, coordinated, interrelated or contrasted; how shading, at the most minute detail is in reality subtly structured. Positioning of volumes relative to the frames, the shapes of figures and intensity of concentration on facial expression all are reminiscent of Ajanta’s masterpieces.
Perhaps, however, at Ajanta, the deeper knowledge concerning the teachings of the Buddha was responsible for the calm that one encounters in the paintings. But Milburn Cherian lives at the end of the Kali Yuga, and so her art is one of head-on confrontation with the existing reality, as it is known to millions upon millions of Indians even today. Onto many of her canvases, she transfers what can never be expressed verbally and only in painting by a person who is capable of profound empathy and identification with her subject. Her imagery often portrays mutilated and deformed, crippled, pained and suffering humanity, very much of whom are women. They inhabit localities shown in totally scattered disruption broken furniture in broken shelters, stairways going nowhere, mats, empty baskets, pots, bandages symbolizing the wounded spirit, strewn hither and thither, as though these were the only material artifacts known and used by these sufferers in their efforts to cling on to life. Startles and startling faces reveal helplessness, bitter realization of irrevocable fate, resignation beyond hope but much more. It is unspeakable.
But not an iota of sentimentality is exhibited by this virtuoso painter. With the power of her art, by means of her art, she transforms the hellish realities into paeans of strength and hope. Her deeply compassionate nature reflects the spirit of the Buddha or of Jesus with whom she is in close connection.
Thus, amidst all the dislocations of form placement, in the faces we also see nobility of fortitude in adversity; even the broken figures with mutilated limbs maintain a certain solidity, signifying strength. Oval repetitive shapes, the heads, positioned at critical locations on the picture plane are so many still centers providing structure to the jarring cacophony of discordant shapes. Then the underlying order is perceivable, and upon recognition of a grand totality of the subtle organization of the entirely, the viewer experiences catharsis.
Milburn Cherian’s paintings are a further contribution to the established traditions of authentic art of east and west. Predictably, her paintings will play a role in the future unfolding of international painting.