Art beyond boundaries: The creative force of Antonio Puri

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The Indian-born, American artist Antonio Puri in his Bogotá studio. Photo: Richard Emblin

Antonio Puri carefully stirs a pot of chai that is about to boil, and, surrounded by bronze statues of Indian deities, the prodigious artist performs this welcome ritual every time someone steps through the large white metal door of his studio. Living in the bustling neighborhood of Bogotá’s Siete de Agosto, Puri’s studio is a living canvas decked wall-to-wall with larger-than-life works, while others are immaculately stacked next to jars of spices and colorful beads. Born in Chandigarh, India, in 1966, Puri’s background serves as the unseen canvas of an extraordinary artistic journey.

At the heart of Antonio Puri lies a deep sense of origins. Educated in both India and the United States, Puri’s canvases are a vivid reflection of his culture and identity. His move to the United States as a high school student added an additional layer to this rich narrative, and now, it is the turn for Colombia, the country where he has resided during the last six years.

Puri’s art commands attention for its audacious use of color, geometry, and materials that reference geo-specific locations. This juxtaposition of technique and material with a direct reference to defining moments in his artistic career is also a powerful message of how the spiritual and material lie at the core of his energetic creations.

From intricate patterns that weave the story and transcend mere ornamentation, Puri’s use of symbols of identity forges a bridge between ancient traditions and the modern world, inviting viewers to reflect on the complexity of human existence.

Having graced galleries and museums both in the United States and on the international art circuit, critics laud Antonio Puri’s ability to evoke deep emotional and intellectual responses, and work that is a testament to the coexistence of traditions and innovation. His bold use of color adds an electrifying dimension to cultural synthesis, demonstrating also that beauty arises when boundaries and artistic labels are deconstructed. His portfolio encompasses not only paintings but also sculptures, providing depth and dynamism to artistic expression.

If Puri’s art is an invitation to introspection, it also beckons viewers to explore profound questions of identity, belonging, and spirituality in our globalized, yet fragmented world. In a mesmerizing odyssey that starts with a mulled cup of chai, one of the most captivating aspects of this artist is his humanity, created like his masterful works from experience, exploration, and personal upheavals. This humanity that erupts from the canvas and permeates our conversations makes Antonio Puri a significant and thought-provoking contemporary artist.

As monumental as his work is finite, Puri makes clear during our first encounter that he is an artist who defies labels and will continue to do so, as long as he can rise above convention and the accepted norms of what it means to “have talent.”

But Puri’s connection to the Colombian capital is not incidental, but grounded in one of his most iconic works – “Chandigarh” – and named after his birthplace. This sprawling city that received World Heritage status from UNESCO has left an indelible mark on the artist, and also the iconic French modernist architect, Le Corbusier. “There is the logical side, and then there’s the intuitive side in everything I do,” says Puri, as the first cup of chai is served at the table.

“The logical side is that I had a contract for an art space in Miami, and as I was moving from the East Coast – New York and Philadelphia – I wanted to find a studio suitable for my work. When I went to sign the agreement, the owner tripled the price, which was way out of my budget. I couldn’t afford the new price and found myself at a standstill. So, I took a trip to Bogotá, and I found it fascinating. I found my bliss. I was following my bliss,” he recalls. Things then just fell into place, and Antonio found a studio view a view of the mountains.

Sent away at age 5 to a boarding school in Darjeeling, in India’s high-altitude Himalayas, for Antonio, Bogotá was a choice destination to continue with his art. “This is my logical side speaking. But best of all, I can afford it,” he laughs. Having reconciled a childhood of abandonment and personal tragedies, Puri is the artistic force of the present and future.

Living in the States, the artist always felt that he would have “76 cents with a penny to spare,” and while he had an extensive body of work in the hands of private collectors and gallery representation, “change is a fundamental part of my artistic process. Now I feel, I always have a penny to spare.”

Labeling Puri as a postmodernist, abstract, or expressionist painter does not cover the terrain of an artist whose body of work is constantly growing and imploding with creative forces. “One always has to try to be very careful about how one treads on the terrain of artistic interpretation,” he believes. “I do art that breaks paradigms. I do art that breaks labels. I do art consciously that crosses over one genre versus the other. The whole idea for me of being an artist – and my art – is self-reflection”.

“Am I an Indian? Am I an American? Am I dark-skinned? Light-skinned? All of these are labels,” reaffirms Puri. Despite a difficult childhood in India, Puri feels that there is no victim nor victimizer. “This is the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality frees you. Religion, by its very nature and name, binds you.”

Le Corbusier’s architecture still haunts Bogotá, believes Puri, given the city’s rich tradition of architecture and architectural styles. “Chandigarh is more uniform because it was all designed by Le Corbusier. Bogotá was never one of his completed projects. This is the part that hardly anyone knows,” states the artist. “So, Bogotá is the Chandigarh of Colombia?” I ask. “No. Chandigarh is the Bogotá of India.”

When Puri got into art, it occurred to him that the structure behind the canvas is as important as the work itself. The structure is the muscle of a painting, and it is equally important to show the residual paint, aspects of the wood frame, the worn edges that nobody wants to see,’” he says. This is the inspiration behind “Stacks” and homage to the Twin Towers. It is also the inspiration of “Lengua Negra” or Black Tongue, a series that dares to the speak a new language in art that treads the line between duality and non duality. Puri recalls that during his childhood, people would refer to him as having a “black tongue” because statements he made seemed to come true. “India is rife with superstition. It is an essential part of the Indian family structure,” he says.

The attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 was another cathartic moment in the life of Antonio Puri. “Up to that day, September 11, 2001, I was a corporate lawyer and had just won a case for a client. Given the horrors of that day, I realized that life is fragile and I wasn’t following my spiritual duty – dharma. What I was doing, like most human beings, is making money to survive. When I decided to pursue my destiny as an artist, many lawyer friends asked me: Why did you give up law?” I should have said to them: “For the money!”

Returning to the evolving theme of Colombia, Puri has no shortage of words for his role as an “outsider” in an art market where foreigners are few and far between. “It’s a beautiful place. There are many very beautiful people. But as an artist, I wouldn’t say it is a recommended place for showing or trying to build a career because that’s not going to happen,” he believes.

If Puri could have “the best show in this country,” it would be at the Banco República’s Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMU) and Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá (MAMBO), because, according to him, “these institutions are very prestigious for Colombia.” But then, he affirms, “you go to a New York gallerist and say “I had a show at MAMBO” and they’ll most likely remark: “Where is that?”

But Bogotá has given Puri the possibility of hiring an assistant, a spacious atelier, and good climate. “I can work every single day without feeling uncomfortable. In New York or in Chicago, it was so extreme. There were days that it was so hot, I could rip off all my clothes and still couldn’t work because I felt I had to rip my skin off.

Speaking always with candor and conviction that “art is meant to disturb,” for Puri, one should not “fall in love with art” too quickly or easily. “Art becomes then too accessible. Like Pop Art. After a certain point, are you still going to be in love? Or are you going to be in love with the thing that disturbed you initially but every day grows on you?”

While his works and series are all part of “outrageous projects,” the essence of being an artist must come down to the narrative. “What do I want to say? That’s the only thing that matters. Pretty pictures will always be pretty pictures. I could take a beautiful photo of a sunset and then market it as the next best thing to Picasso. But it’s still just a pretty picture.”

During conversations punctuated by pragmatism, Antonio Puri has a defining vision for art and duality in art. “It should be something that stimulates you to the point you don’t understand why. It should be based on something that stimulates the spirit. Art should be from the spirit, not from the mind,” he says.

In a statement that references his series Tantric Explosion, and the philosophy of the Indian Guru Nanak, Puri searches for the energetic centers within the body and projects them on the outside. “When someone sees these works, they energize their own inner centers. It’s like creating mirrors. Energy mirrors.” In the artist’s official catalogue for the launch of the series, Puri highlights that the work is “multilayered with veneers, glazes, varnishes of emotions, transgressions, singularity, obsession and enigma.”

One of the large canvasses from Puri’s Tantric Explosion series. Photo: Richard Emblin

And all the little beads that are neatly shelved in Puri’s studio?

They are the artist’s Indian seed beads, and same ones used by Colombia’s Embera indigenous peoples to elaborate intricate neck accessories. “What’s interesting about the beads is that they all have the same relationship with religion. In India you have mandalas. The Jewish faith also has beads and knots. Then, the Christian rosary. Every religion has beads interwoven to connect humankind with the spiritual. In my work, the strings must be separate, and the beads also separate. Both have to be free,” he says.

Artist Antonio Puri surrounded by the Indian deities. Photo: Richard Emblin