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Arts & Culture

The Steel-Plated Women Of Artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan's painting, "Surface Tension," is a portrait of an armored woman using oil, acrylic and mirror paint on canvas, and will be on view with augmented reality animation beginning Apr. 24, 2021 at Hill Street Country Club.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan
Artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan's painting, "Surface Tension," is a portrait of an armored woman using oil, acrylic and mirror paint on canvas, and will be on view with augmented reality animation beginning Apr. 24, 2021 at Hill Street Country Club.

In a solo exhibition of new paintings and AR animation, Chitra Gopalakrishnan gives the women in her works their own armor.

San Diego artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan grew up with stories and legends of superhuman strength in Hindu mythology — stories that didn't always include her.

"It's difficult to find yourself represented, because all these cool things only happened to the dudes in the story," Gopalakrishnan said.

She points to Karna, the son of sun gods Surya and Kunti, who was said to be born covered in metal armor, and therefore undefeatable in a war.

"And I thought that was always cool whenever I saw it reenacted in TV shows or movies. I thought that the depiction was awesome. It's just that I was like, wow it sucks that there's no women who have superpowers."

Gopalakrishnan's artistic trajectory has been building towards just that: embodiments of women's strengths and resiliency. She began in the design world as a commercial designer, and now teaches graphic design at San Diego State University.

Isolation, Sacrifice, Vulnerability

Artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan in an undated photo.
Stacy Keck
Artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan in an undated photo.

Approximately 13 years ago, she cofounded Kara Weaves, a handloom initiative that uses concepts in social marketing to connect rural artisans in Kerala, India with a global audience. She also found a source of inspiration.

"It's always the stories of women, it's always the stories of the makers, the artisans, the work life balance, the immense sacrifices women have had to make in any of these roles. And these stories stayed with me. I became a mother in 2014. My focus shifted a little bit, obviously, to motherhood and coping with the trauma of all that, and this coming from a person who is not inherently maternal or anything. So it was one of those acquired skills."

She turned to painting, and drew on those stories of the women that had stuck with her from working with Kara Weaves — and her own burgeoning experiences and struggles in motherhood.

"When I started painting, it was with a very clear intention to paint my way out of things that I was experiencing as a new mother. And a new motherhood or new parenthood in America is an incredibly isolating experience — or I guess any society that follows a nuclear family plan is a very isolating experience," Gopalakrishnan said.

Historically, Gopalakrishnan's work has depicted women and mothers — the caregivers — often set against surreal backdrops or distorted by out-of-place or mis-sized natural elements like dunes, leaves, cacti, or geometric interpretations. The focus is the women's vulnerability, struggle and isolation — naked both in body and spirit.

"The Mothers" is a painting by Chitra Gopalakrishnan, on view beginning Apr. 24, 2021 at The Hill Street Country Club.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan
"The Mothers" is a painting by Chitra Gopalakrishnan, on view beginning Apr. 24, 2021 at The Hill Street Country Club.

Strength And Power

In the past year, something shifted.

"This new show, seven or eight pieces entirely new, made in the past few months, are about that beyond-human morphing that is happening to the women in my paintings. In the past they looked like regular women and they inhabited spaces that were strange and surreal. But now they're beginning to take on those characteristics," Gopalakrishnan said.

These new, heightened elements are all a sort of armor — ranging from heads transformed into prickly cactus branches to shining, mirror-like skin to small metal spikes protruding from skin. These distortions are sometimes earthly, sometimes otherworldly. They're concealing and beautiful, but also dangerous. Whether it's from vengeance or self-protection, there's a violence to the newfound strength in these women.

"Where those women are now, they're more aggressive, they're more deformed. They've harnessed that isolation or they've turned all of those vulnerabilities and weaknesses into an asset or a strength," she said.

"If we don't turn it around to our strength, we just can't survive this. And this is my truth, this is where I'm at in my headspace with this show and this story."

In a new exhibition at Hill Street Country Club, she'll present works created during the past three years, mostly in 2021, and it's her first solo show. It all began with a painting, "Secret Garden 01," which depicts a woman with milk dripping from her breast, curled up and facing away. Her eyes are obscured, and she's surrounded by cacti and botanicals in vivid blues, greens and rust tones.

"Secret Garden 01" is a 2018 oil painting by artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan
"Secret Garden 01" is a 2018 oil painting by artist Chitra Gopalakrishnan.

"The first painting that I started work on which is in this show was about the struggles of motherhood. It was this one week where my spouse was traveling, my kid was sick and this painting had to be finished," Gopalakrishnan said. "So I'm in this moment of painting about motherhood, while dealing with the actual roles of it."

Augmented Realities

Some works in the show even have correlating augmented reality animations, where the fantastical features or backdrops come to life.

The effect is stunning, and a bit mind-boggling and implicating.

Visitors can scan the label with their smartphones and pull up the animation as they move near the painting. "Army of One," is a mixed media painting of a woman, her face entirely sheathed except for a single eye, and her shoulders covered with protruding, 3-dimensional gold spikes. When the AR animation is triggered, geometric, iridescent tears float from the eye.

Another work, "Surface Tension," features a metal-faced, spiky armored woman, her downcast face a vivid silver. When the animation launches, large droplets — almost like pewter — fall and rise between the viewer and the painting.

'My Skills Are Recording The Things'

Last summer, Gopalakrishnan painted a series of portraits of slain Black women, children and LGBTQ+ individuals. The work was displayed at You Belong Here in City Heights, and funds raised from the sales went towards recent vandalism repairs at The Hill Street Country Club.

Gopalakrishnan had already been drawing portraits whenever she could — her family while visiting in India shortly before the pandemic struck, even the animals. And then, seeing more victims of racial violence in the news, she felt a sudden sense of powerlessness.

"I looked through my sketchbook of portraits of all of my family members, and I started looking at the images of all these victims of this violence. And I just saw the faces and I was like, what can I possibly do?" she said. "My skills are recording the things. So I will draw this."

A child studies Chitra Gopalakrishnan's window installation of portraits of slain Black women and children at You Belong Here on Sept. 13, 2020.
Julia Dixon Evans
A child studies Chitra Gopalakrishnan's window installation of portraits of slain Black women and children at You Belong Here on Sept. 13, 2020.

The portraits were mounted onto a gold backdrop in part to draw attention, in part to show the patterns, and in part to beautify. "And I'm using those same strategies of visual storytelling in this show as well."

Gopalakrishnan's new exhibition, "Augmented Realities," will be on view at Hill Street Country Club Saturday, Apr. 24 through June 20, with a virtual reception Saturday at 5 p.m. PST.