Ranjani Shettar says that she turned from painting to sculpture because "I realized I had to move around the object, it had to occupy the same space that I did and there was no illusion in it. Although I was little equipped for it, I knew that was what I wanted." That conceptual shift set the tone for her ethereal but monumental installations combining natural and industrial materials and modern and traditional methods. Beginning with Thousand Room House (2000), a hexagonal honeycomb formed of pieced-together plastic, Shettar has become well known around the world for three-dimensional "drawings" in a host of materials, including metal, wood, beeswax, steel, cloth, lacquer, and, more recently, bronze and steel.
As one walks around her sculptures and installations, the first thought is of calm, quiet beauty, a sense of timelessness. Unusual combinations of materials achieve a minimal, uncluttered aspect, the separate elements simply blending and assimilating into each other to create a composite whole. Speaking of the process, Shettar says, "I take a very long time to make a sculpture; the incubation period between having an idea and making artwork is quite long. In that time, certain things get added, certain things get eliminated. It gets more refined. Thinking through the idea usually takes a few years: Her work is shaped by observations of life around her in Bangalore and in small towns across the state of Kamataka, but inspirations from nature also abound, most evidently in Vasanta (2004). a work in beeswax and tea-dyed string that recalls spring, as well as the melodious raga of the same name.
Entering the space of Scent of a Sound (2010-11), one instantly feels a connection with the outdoors, reminiscent of a walk through the forest. The installation combines steel and muslin treated with tamarind paste and lacquer. Shettar explains that "the shape or drawing, in this case, was linear; but in my mind, it was a three-dimensional, very visual piece." The result is an extremely wispy, fragile-looking, but surprisingly sturdy creation. The title marries two different sensory functions: Shettar wanted to give physical form to intangible sound and smell. Floral scents and repeating musical notes stimulate the mind and fill the senses. The elusive concept takes a different form each time the work is installed. In terms of material. Scent of a Sound builds on earlier works such as the "Bird Song" series (2009) and Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles (2007-08), both of which use the same materials in different ways.
Shettar says of Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles, "When I thought of the work, because of the visual effect I wanted to achieve, rawhide seemed the best option. However, since rawhide did not go with my philosophy of using materials, I started on a journey to find an alternative material that did not involve violence. She found an answer during a visit to observe the craft tradition in Kinhal, a small town where icons are made using sawdust and tamarind paste." For Shettar, the traditional technique found a new voice in combination with steel. Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles presents the innocence of a child blowing bubbles, as well as a laid-back spirit of simple enjoyment. As she says, "I associate my sculptures with happier moments of life:'
Shettar keeps returning to the same materials, testing and extending their formal possibilities. She works with various materials simultaneously, the commonality being ideas and their interpretation. For example, the rosewood Stretch (2010) happened simultaneously with the outdoor bronze Maquette (2010), which has a languid feeling that Shetlar describes as a "linear and stretched form with an animated elastic quality' The idea for Stretch came from the shape of a log that she bought. Her carving goes with the shape of the wood, following the grain closely. The material becomes a conduit for the form.
Maquette provided the idea for Aureole (2010), of which Shetlar says, "I wanted to have these structures on the wall that looked incredibly light, but the irony is that the whole thing is very heavy, it is bronze." The idea began with two-dimensional drawings that evolved into three dimensions as the piece progressed. After the wax models were made, Shettar recalls, "Everything came together." The piece has a very flimsy quality, as if it were just fading away or disappearing. It has "multiple starting points: a soft angular geometric interior and an idea of growth on the wall." The title is apt, drawn from the sun's halo, which remains visible during an eclipse. She says that installing Aureole, particularly getting the lighting right, poses a difficult challenge.
Shettar's foray into bronze is recent; she began researching the material about two years ago. Her technique is an adaptation of lost-wax casting, which involves creating funnels and channels through which liquid wax is poured out and molten metal poured in. The channels are usually removed from the final form, but in Shettar's work, the channels and conduits become the main structural form.
Shettar has worked extensively with lacquered wooden beads in works such as In Bloom (2004) and Lagoon (2011). Lagoon, which also features glass beads, fishing line, and pigment, creates a gorgeous play of lush color across suspended forms. lighting adds additional layers of shadow and luminosity. Shettar has furthered this concept in her creations for a show at the Hermes Foundation Singapore, including the stunning Flame of the Forest (2011), which uses lacquered and carved wood. Woodcarving also played a part in the earlier Liquid Wolk on My Woll (2008). but on a smaller scale. The new work demonstrates a sense of progression and comfort with the material.
Another prominent pursuit in Shettar's work has been giving form to energy, as in the "Kinetics" series (2009), three sculptures inspired by tools in the artist's studio. The works also draw on a childhood experience. Shettar recalls that when she was growing up, "We were given candy strung on a piece of thread, and one would go on playing with it and licking it." She captures the motion of moving thread brilliantly in metal, giving a three-dimensional form to an ineffable concept. A similar fluid geometry can be seen rn Me, No, Not Me, Buy Me, Eat Me. Wear Me, Have Me, Me, No, Not Me (2006-07), which is made of used car bodies.
One of Shettar's most expressive mediums is beeswax- a difficult material to work within India, given the climatic conditions. Explaining its properties. she says, "I love beeswax; like wood, good-quality beeswax can withstand temperature unless exposed to direct sunlight. It is a very durable material, free from insects. It has immediacy and malleability, though it is hard to come by. One does not lose even a thumb impression, everything is translated and everything is present. It is a material in transition, which would come out in the form of metal as in bronze casting. I like the translucence and immediacy of the material, though it took several years to convince myself that I could work with it:' She explores beeswax further in her show at the National Art Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. The largest exhibition of her work to date, "Dewdrops and Sunshine" includes seven works.
What materials or inspiration will Shettar turn to next? She shrugs, saying, "I don't know where I might land and what will come out. I don't know if I will do the same series again -if I can add to it, I will go back to it."