Growing up, coffee was a forbidden thing for kids in my household. I was a highly energetic child and the last thing I needed was more stimulants, but my mother would reward good behavior by tipping a sip of her coffee into my mug of milk every now and then. I loved the taste and naturally craved more of the forbidden elixir. There’s nothing that excites me more than coffee being brewed. When I first painted a friend’s likeness using coffee as the medium, I realized that this beverage that I consumed with so much gusto is a very malleable medium for making art. The earthiness that coffee brings to paintings had been a revelation; it’s variety of tones and depth of color, never cease to fascinate me. Culturally, coffee as a substance has also become somewhat of an icon. Coffee is what starts our mornings, powers up our brain function, and acts as an elixir for people; inciting promises of time and energy. Throughout my work, I investigate coffee as a medium through various ways such as brewing methods, experimenting with drying times, and exposing it to the elements. I use the multiple variables that affect coffee together with the social connotations coffee holds in our modern day society to channel my inner child who was fascinated with the beverage, projecting it onto a canvas in order to explore the fragility of human behavior.
I had taken a hiatus from painting for about 20 years before I picked up a brush again. I was cleaning my closet back home after backpacking my way around the length and breadth of India, when I found the brush I had pestered my dad to buy for me as a child – a flat 4 brush that had probably cost less than 20 cents. This eventually led me to my series ‘Coffee and Time Experiments’; a collection of work I began working on when I revisited my training in behavioral science. As part of my Master’s degree, I had studied the changes in human behavior in stressful environments. Through a collaboration of science and art, I became interested in exploring the parallels of human fragility and emotions to the evolution of current times and the passing of time. Like human behavior, my work is largely based in the abstract but I am able to guide the canvas by adding different variables in the making. Drying time for different kinds of coffee varies hugely. I dry them in layers, and introduce new elements (salt, gold accents, silver foil etc) or more coffee with each layer until I feel my thoughts are transposed on the canvas. Climatic conditions also affect the final painting differently – harsh sunlight, drying the layers in complete darkness for long periods, using a dry room, or stimulating humidity. Each Coffee and Time Experiments takes anywhere between a month to 2 years to complete, with each experiment taking in between 10 to 120 layers of coffee. Aside from the multitude of technical variables afforded to me by using coffee, it also comes with a set of connotative variables as well. This drink that acts as fuel, a synonym for time spent together, a personality trait, a personal definition, an illusion of time gained, a joke on the side of a mug for people who can’t wake up early enough. It’s what we drink when we’re tired, when we catch up with old friends, on dates. It’s a drink that changes through different cultures, a drink that’s come to represent so much more than itself; and it’s only fitting that coffee is used here in my study of human behavior.
The way the coffee moves on canvas holds an air of randomness, I have no definitive control on what the final outcome will be but I am able to add variables along the way to influence where I want it to go. Its chaos but it’s also structure, this juxtaposition mirroring the contradiction of trying to map out something so undeniably organic like human behavior through a scientific lens. On these graphs abstracted through canvas, with X being the infinite passing of time and Y being the fragile malleability of human behavior, what we end up with can only be defined as quantified chaos.