"You say that it is April, that the flowers are fresh on the trees or else that the flowers cover the trees. You say that it is October, that you push aside the fallen flowers with your foot. You say that you are walking and holding Veronique Legrand by the hand. You say that you are the opoponax." 1 - Monique Wittig, The Opoponax
Ranjani Shettar says that it is spring: The eggs in the nest formed from mud and straw have been abandoned. She says that it is fall: The dried slices of pear, translucent and vaguely sexual as they lay against sheets of shimmering paper, have each fallen from the sky. And now, she says that it is winter: Alabaster white beans are visible as the dried pod forms pull away to reveal their once-hidden bounty. Shettar speaks in the third person; she, he, it, they.
The natural forms in Container and Content (2000-2005) represent that which once held the regenerative form, the next iteration of nature. Forms that in nature would be hidden and small are now on display, having lost their sense of vulnerability and scale. Elegant natural forms are once-removed from reality and translated into rough-hewn, suspended still lifes; twice removed by the theatrical lighting of the gallery with shadows that become drawings in space; and thrice removed by the insistently proscenium-based presentation in which we as viewers must stand in front of, never moving around the installations. This is the real first encountered in Transition and Transformation: A Balasubramaniam and Ranjani Shettar at the University Gallery, UMass, Amherst, curated by gallery director Loretta Yarlow.
If Shettar speaks in the third person, Balasubramaniam (known as Bala) speaks in the first. It is the "I" of Bala that startles as one enters a side gallery; In but Out (2004) poses the physical impossibility of a cast form of the artist emerging from both the front and the back of a freestanding wall some 10 inches thick. From the front of the wall the seated artist, knees bent and feet resting on the gray-carpeted floor juts improbably from the seemingly solid form of a wall. On the "back" side of In, but out, stooped shoulders-the same color as the white gallery wall-create the expectation of momentum, of falling forward. What will keep the artist's form from pushing through and freeing the figure from the confines of this created space? Disconcertingly, there is no face visible: It seems to be embedded somewhere in the wall. You have to stand at either end of the wall and bob your body back and forth to engage with both "halves" of the sculpture. Bala invites us in his sculptures and 2-d drawings and prints to walk along the edge of a conceptual precipice, where holding time in check and experience in place is shown to be an inevitably futile but nonetheless valiant pursuit. The artist seems omnipresent, a guided tour in absentia as Bala invites us to become "we" while viewing his works of art.
Shettar makes time stand still in Container and Content. Organic forms on their way to ripeness and decay are chosen for examination and re-presentation. In one of three sections of Container and Content, bean pods, between 8 and 16 inches in length, are crudely formed from stainless steel screening. Each segment of the pod that holds a bean is simply articulated by a fold having been created in the screening. The single brown spot on each creamy white bean is pierced by a wire and twisted onto the silvery wire mesh. There is no sense that the artist wants us to believe that this is a bean pod. We can see that she has hand-sewn the seams of the pods together. There are nearly a dozen of these forms suspended from a single, invisible acrylic cable, but the sharp lighting suggests double that number. If we move too close, our own shadow creates a barrier to the viewing of the work. This theatrical construct seems at one with the conceptual underpinnings of the work. There is also no sense that the artist wants us to believe in the reality of the natural forms; it is the memory of, the echo of, perhaps the shadow of nature that she strives to capture. Both Shettar and Bala come from a region of India, Bangalore, where fast-growing urban areas are encroaching on large expanses of land once filled with the lush abundance of natural forms.
"The Opoponax is the dark shadow which has no definition in the material world, is rebellion." In Monique Wittig's memoir, The Opoponax, the natural world is the bearer of both myth and meaning, a place of both refuge and danger. Observation (Wittig refers to herself as "you" to emphasize the role of the observer, the emotionless chronicler of childhood's traumas and joys) precedes interpretation, and finding the form must precede interpreting the same.
The second component of Container and Content is composed of nearly fifty translucent layers of paper roughly cut into heart shapes with pear-shaped forms in mustardy yellow-stained on each. They seem to have fallen onto the floor from a sky that we cannot see; a single sheet has been caught on a suspended coconut tree boat. A lush setting is evoked from the most modest of means, a reductivist Martin Johnson Heade if you will. The last part of Container and Content has the feel of coming upon a set of nests found in the woods. Each is formed from a brown leafy shape between 18 and 24 inches long and 10 and 12 inches wide. The four placed on the floor lay open, almost flat or bent at the spine that runs down the center of the leaf. The artist has sewn the edges together with red thread, turning each leaf into a nest. Brown nest forms made from mud, moss, and straw pressed against wire mesh wrap tenderly, each holding a group of three or four creamy white "eggs."
Encountering Container and Content is akin to coming upon an activity in which the actor has run away or perhaps, more precisely, has quietly stood up and left the stage: scissors dropped by her side, straw- and mud-caked hands needing to be washed, fingertips pricked from pushing heavy gauge wire through the beans. It is arrival in media res-the stage lighting has been set, but the narrative has been stopped before it can move toward the end of the dramatic arc. It is reminiscent of the transformation of a Robert Wilson chair, the Einstein Chair (1976), some 90 inches tall and made of galvanized pipe used in Wilson's production of Einstein on the Beach. A mini version of this form, only 20 inches tall, can be bought from a gallery and "can be hung or used as a table piece." It has become the idea of the theatrical presentation of a chair.
In Hoomalae (2004), Shettar moves from the natural disarray of organic forms observed to the orderly geometry of recorded scientific inquiry. Hoomalae is a multifaced, open triangulated grid stretched from floor to ceiling, made from hand-rolled wax, pigments, and colored threads. It shimmers in a palette that like the colors of a tulip blossom moves almost imperceptibly from yellow to orange to the softest of pinkish reds. There are nine points of contact with the floor that narrow to what seems to be four as they meet the ceiling. The fabric, like macramé or crochet, is flexible, and the repeated pattern can be spread wider or held close to change the fluid compositions. One expanse twists upon itself, tightening in a suggestion of a cyclonic form. In a nod to the physical and not the conceptual, tiny balls of beeswax dangle down, freed from the joint of the triangulated forms. Is this dangling fringe of pink an offering falling from the geometric order of the universe? The tiny pink orbs become vertical counterpoints in space. They effervesce gravity or perhaps the decorative impulse or even the irrational that cannot be contained or organized. They speak of independent energy and the unexpected moment when we come upon great beauty. The title means "Gods rained flowers" in the Kannadan language.
Bala presents nature as something that can be held in check. In Golden Thorn (2004) an actual remnant of nature- a stem of rose thorns gild in 20K gold-is encased. Placed in a shadowbox frame, the stem emerges from the inside border of the white-painted wood molding and arcs toward the center of the several-inches-deep space. The hermetic nature of Bala's work is reinforced in several other works, notably Dawn to Dawn (2004) in which a slow-burning fuse left a soot-lined path across a sheet of paper some 9 feet long. A thin swath edged with sooty brown creates a jagged archipelago through the center of the paper and reveals, in an apparent homage to Yves Klein, a sheet of paper beneath that has been silk-screened Klein blue.
Hermetic means "airless," but it also implies an alchemical process, and in Light makes dark (2003) Bala asserts his lineage with Anish Kapoor and Joseph Beuys. Two canvases butt up against one another; one is painted a heated red, while the other is covered in soot. The painted canvas reads more of pigment than paint, a clear nod to Kapoor. The soot moves from the left edge of the canvas and dissipates as it moves toward the center, finally meeting up with the painted square. The white frame that contains both is an aggressive stance that places this soot in the canons of modernism and Mondrian. It also encases, perhaps mummifies. The implication of time passing and the process and destruction of fire repeat. The thorn is encased without the rose. The sooty edges of a burnt scar run across the expanse of paper bleeding not bloody red but brilliant blue. Each piece on view is isolated and dislocated, as the head from the body, the lower half of the torso from the upper. Bala's presentation of nature and the human figure is at a cool, emotional removal. Beuys once said that it was a good idea to describe what one says; this was the way to get into the realm of what he meant. Even guesswork was all right because it set something in motion, but one should resort to interpretations only "in an emergency, or for educational purposes."
No one work of art can easily be seen in relation to any other in the exhibit. It is a conceit that makes viewing every individual artwork an existential moment. The works are all hermetic, airless, and sealed against the forces of the environment in which they have been placed. But, Bala emphasizes, this is a faulty premise: The forces of nature persist. In Untitled (2004), a tri-part sculpture, the weight and inevitable pull of gravity appear to threaten the very surface of the gallery wall. Weighted buoys that appear to be iron, but are actually fiberglass, are suspended from cotton twine, and as they fall toward the floor, they pull the surface of the wall into a wrinkled visage. Turning our backs to this trompe l'oeil masterwork, we face Untitled (2004), a double-cast portrait bust of the artist rendered once in cast sand and fiberglass and again in the self-evaporating compound. With these two works, Bala has creates a parallel reading of his visage and the wall of the gallery itself.
Importantly, we must turn our backs on one work of art by Bala to see any other on view. The cast bust portraits, each covered with acrylic hoods and placed on pedestals, are placed perpendicular one to the other, staring right past each other as one stands in perpetuity, the other slowly disintegrating over time. The features of the bust cast from sand and fiberglass will be the same for every visitor to the exhibit. The crystals of the evaporating compound are pulling to the surface. These features will soften the surface already glistens with beads of moisture like a skin covered with sweat. Figuratively, Bala cannot look at his own disintegration. The first to go will be the tiny details that distinguish our face from that of any other human-lips, nostril, and ear lobe. Those details that determine our reading of ethnicity, age, and gender, will disappear. Soon there will be only the idea of the male face, and then perhaps only the suggestion of a human presence. While this image will degrade, the plastic angels embedded in Emerging Angel (2004) will appear.
Another sculpture in two discreet parts, Emerging Angel uses the evaporating compound to create biomorphic orbs over several-inches-tall plastic angels that Bala bought in Rome. The two-part and tri-part orbs are each placed in acrylic vitrines suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. To locate these pieces you have to walk around the wall near which you have just viewed the self-portrait busts of the artist. The edges (are they wingtips or feet?) of the angels are just starting to jut out from the evaporating edges of the compound in which they are embedded. A pattern of cracks, a phenomenon caused by the chemical interaction of the evaporating compound and the acrylic hoods, is covering the display case. Sealed against the environment, the angels (and we must take the artist's word for that) are both protected and mummified. An organic form is placed over a figurative one; an evaporating from swaddles one created from plastic; a form with no recognizable parallel in nature is cast around an icon of transcendence and spiritual attainment.