Nerman Museum exhibit showcases contemporary thought from India

By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star



“I am particularly fond of kitchens,” Gupta says. “When I was a child, I considered it a place of worship, a kind of temple.”

Yet his eye-catching display, measuring a whopping 12 1/2 feet high by 35 feet long, would be at home in a high-end restaurant supply store, where the accouterments needed to produce global cuisines go in and out of fashion, ensuring consumer demand for new products.

The work’s double-edged convergence of old and new, shrine and store, is a perfect symbol of contemporary India. Titled “Curry,” it is one of two dozen works by three contemporary artists from India featured in “Distant Nearness,” a new special exhibition at the Nerman.

It’s the museum’s second big show since it opened, following the inaugural “American Soil” exhibit examining our nation’s problematic relationship with the land.

The impact of globalization is a dominant theme of the current gathering, which also demonstrates the museum’s commitment to showing an international range of contemporary art.

And Indian art is hot property in the international art world.

The Art Newspaper’s Lucian Harris recently labeled Gupta “India’s first international contemporary art superstar.” Born in rural India and now resident in Gurgaon south of New Delhi, Gupta showed in the 2006 Venice Biennale and just opened his second one-person exhibit at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.

Joining Gupta’s sculptures and installations created from everyday objects are Rina Banerjee’s darkly fanciful assemblages combining materials drawn from nature and different cultures, and Bharti Kher’s haunting animal effigies. The show also features a selection of figurative paintings on paper by Banerjee and several of Kher’s abstract “paintings” teeming with colored bindi — the forehead adornments worn by Indian women.

The most striking of Kher’s panels features a flamelike design made up of hundreds of tiny, squiggly sperm-shaped bindi of the type worn by Indian women a half century ago. She first encountered them in a marketplace in Kelhi, writes Bombay-based essayist Ranjit Hoskote, “and was amazed that women could wear this icon of virility on their foreheads.”

Born in London, Kher has lived in Gurgaon since the early 1990s. Banerjee was born in Calcutta, but grew up in London and New York. She earned a degree in polymer engineering before getting a master’s of fine art at Yale.

The strategies and formats employed by these three artists are familiar. Gupta’s wall of kitchenware harks to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and soup cans. It also displays an affinity to Louise Nevelson’s painted wood assemblages.

Banerjee’s aesthetic of reuse — encompassing feathers and furniture, globes and gourds — is all the rage in today’s art world. Kher’s bindi paintings are part of a strain of contemporary abstraction that combines the format of painting with culturally loaded alternative materials such as bed sheets, film strips, gunpowder and pills.

Yet unlike their Western counterparts, the artists in “Distant Nearness” speak to the Indian experience at a time when economic growth, modernization and westernization are transforming the country at a dizzying pace.

Gupta’s meditations on the changes brought about by globalization include a dangling cluster of shiny stainless-steel lunch pails, fated for obsolescence as Indians convert to pre-packaged meals and microwaves. Two bronze and aluminum sculptures featuring luggage carts, one laden with an old-fashioned hard-sided suitcase, the other with a bedroll, pay homage to the rural Indian workers who travel halfway around the world for jobs.

“Cow” transforms the common method of dairy delivery, a bicycle laden with milk pails, into a museum piece. Gupta’s collection also includes an aluminum basket of bronze cow dung patties, which some Indians use as fuel.

Indian society traditionally has held animals and nature in great respect, but there are signs this attitude is shifting to a more utilitarian, Western view. Nerman Museum director Bruce Hartman sees evidence of this shift in a campaign by the Indian city of Srinagar to poison 100,000 dogs in an effort to curb rabies. (The plan was recently abandoned.)

Kher’s sculptures — including a partial effigy of a giraffe hanging by a rope from a ceiling fan, and a hyena on a stack of wood beams — comment on the plight of animals in a hostile human-centered world. They also, according to Hoskote, express the artist’s “re-enchantment of the animal as a symbol, a symptom, a guide.”

Both sculptures are poignant. But the most riveting work by Kher is a waxy-looking tree sprouting the heads of animals and humans from its branches. The 9-foot-high sculpture is based on the legend of the Speaking Tree, which warned Alexander the Great that he would never conquer India.

Banerjee’s sculptures are like talismans designed to ward off the sterility and standardization of global commerce.

“So much of the goods we see in the world are a product of tourism and commerce,” Banerjee said in an interview last year with the London-based Stimulus magazine, “that it’s almost a Catch-22 situation, where if it’s visible to you it’s probably not real (authentic), and the people you think it represents don’t even see it. It’s almost like two worlds living within each other.”

Banerjee plays on these exaggerations and inventions in her sculptures, which incorporate tourist souvenirs along with feathers, shells, light bulbs, bones and hair. With their unruly mix of allusions to fecundity, femininity, nature and technology, the sculptures are strange and magical, celebratory and foreboding.

Three wall-mounted sculptures, made from feathers, shells, vials, antlers and plastic toys, suggest mutant ikebana arrangements.

Banerjee often devises long, elaborate titles for her works, combining evocations of exoticism and sensuality with politically suggestive phrases like “the promise of self-rule” and “the wild reluctance of natives.”

Two of the sculptures, including a feather-crowned stack of objects dangling above an ostrich egg, hang from the ceiling.

During a talk at the exhibition opening, Banerjee compared the suspended works to chandeliers, which “signify Western culture entering Indian homes.” But their hovering state also is meant to express anxiety and instability, she said.

Throughout “Distant Nearness,” the trauma and promise of change are inescapable.



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‘DISTANT NEARNESS’
Where: Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The exhibit continues through May 25.
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