Contemporary Abstraction by Artists from South Asia
On ViewPhiladelphia Museum Of Art
Fault Lines: Contemporary Abstraction by Artists from South Asia – Through October 10, 2021
In the Modern and Contemporary Wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), a right at Paul Cézanne’s phallic The Large Bathers (1900–06), a left passing Henri Matisse’s evacuated Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg (1914), is a large room of quiet abstraction. The palette is concise: black, white, stucco, copper, charcoal, steel, gold, red, and blue. The materials are wide-ranging: wire, linen thread, graphite, cast paper, cut paper, handmade paper, gold leaf, oil paint, indigo, sewing needles, dry pigment, copper wire, gesso, tar, flattened metal, and wool. The address to the beholder is as a persistent, if fragile, invitation: arrive.
Fault Lines, which brings together 12 works by five artists, is the first exhibition in this country dedicated to the remarkable phenomenon of rigorous abstraction among women artists with roots in South Asia.1 Spanning three generations—the foremothers, Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina (both born in 1937); their immediate inheritors, Sheela Gowda (b. 1957) and Prabhavathi Meppayil (b. 1965); and their youngest contemporaries, here represented by Tanya Goel (b. 1985)—the works at the PMA show us the dual address that comprises this historical tradition. From a distance, procedural constraints (the grid, for example) and serial strategies (such as repetition) register impersonal coherence. Upon closer inspection, however, this coherence is undone by textural, material, and perceptual variations that foreground the irregularity of the handmade.
Mohamedi’s works from the 1980s, for instance, begin as utopic images of flight, vectors loosening and lifting off the page on a diagonal axis. A little nearer, they take shape as planes filled with close lines of ink. At their most proximate, they disassemble into otherwise imperceptible “negative” markings—scratches from empty nibs or the back of a brush. Meppayil’s n/ninety-three (2016), from afar 16 cold monochromes, progressively reveals thin bands of oxidizing copper wire; even closer, these bands are choked by patchy skins of gesso. Goel’s large grid, notation in x, y, z (2015) is, on approach, smudged and pasty paint, its grim colors sourced from the streets of New Delhi. Gowda’s Untitled (1997), a thick cord coated in kumkuma (a ritual pigment anointing brides and holy places) is, up close, endlessly differentiated, its colors maroon, crimson, fire. One of its ends slithers uselessly to the floor, the other suspends a sharp tail of needles at face-level (“Ouch!” as a nearby beholder exclaimed).
If the works in Fault Lines undo their own legibility, it is to thematize a deeply felt, and ultimately skeptical, desire to be homed. The show itself opens with Hanging in There (2000) by Zarina (to whom it is dedicated), in which wire wraps around linen thread to produce a clothesline of floating homes buoyed by shadows. These face Sheela Gowda’s A Blanket and the Sky (2004), an absent home of thin drum sheets, barely shelter and itself cold, with two shallow recesses viewers can pop their heads into (“Careful, sharp edges,” the floor text warns). Obliterated homes assert themselves in a series of woodcuts by Zarina on faintly peach Okawara paper: aerial maps of cities (Beirut, Kabul, Baghdad, New York) scrubbed of the living (These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness [Adrienne Rich after Ghalib], 2003). And Zarina’s Shadow House VI (2006), cut with holes and brushed sparingly with gold foil, is a weary and fragile structure gently flapping with your movement, not a home so much as a breathing veil between one world of appearances and another.
As introduced by its wall text, Fault Lines explores our “fractured and divided existence.” Certainly, the explicit preoccupation of several artists in the exhibition is a loss of home already underway (as migration, globalization, and climate change), as well as the loss of shared meaning and attentive time in our relationships with one another and with the Earth. But the works themselves, by rewarding our attentiveness, teach us abstraction’s special power to both enact division and to overcome it. As if to represent this point, two works in the exhibition—Hanging in There and Goel’s Index V (2015/2020), striated indigo pigment notating rising sea levels drawn directly on the wall using a taut snap line—literally hug the room. On one side, sharp wire, nearly barbed; on the other, human-impacted natural catastrophe. In both instances, the hope that we nudge history around a corner.
Pleading reciprocity, then, the works in Fault Lines articulate not displacement but the options one has upon being already displaced, upon arriving in the middle of a quiet nowhere. Whether you stop or walk by, attend or pass, know that what brings these works at the PMA together is you.
- Several of these artists were recently brought together for a special issue of Marg Magazine edited by Geeta Kapur and Jyotindra Jain, in focus: Abstraction, 68: 1 (2016).