Voices: A review

Reena Jana

San Francisco, February 1998

United States San Francisco “Voices” at Kalart Gallery: Curator: Soumya Sitaraman

While the seven artists included in this group exhibition are all of Indian descent, the work presented didn’t necessarily reflect a deliberately “South Asian” aesthetic -- and that, despite the show’s decidedly ethnic focal point, proved to be its strength. Now that the chic of the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s identity politics has faded, curators must be careful when bringing together artists because they share a certain genetic make-up; the success, as well as the failure of shows such as “Voices” present case studies in how to approach showcasing work by artists who hail from a particular region of the world. Like India itself, the relative abundance of work by both somewhat established and emerging artists of Indian origin gathered in “Voices” represented a diverse spectrum of themes, styles, content, and forms -- and thus reflected the pluralism of the motherland of the artists without a sense of blunt, “stereotypic” expressions of the Indian and Indian-American experience. The diverse body of work shown ranged from Meera Desai’s lyrical, abstract oil and acrylic paintings, which also incorporated elements of Indian embroidery, to Rajat Ghosh’s photographs of dancers, which showcased his talents as a commerical photographer (he has worked for such clients as Wrangler Jeans and Airbus Industries), to (show curator) Soumya Sitaraman’s figurative oil paintings, to Zarina Hashmi’s etchings and cast and painted sculptures, to Swati Kapoor’s frantic canvases, which call to mind Abstract Expressionism. The more unusual work in the show: conceptual paintings by Permi K. Gill, a British artist of Indian descent, which featured “universal” symbols from clothing tags that indicate how to wash a particular garment. Gill arranged these symbols on the picture plane in neat, vertical rows as if either sets of icons or phrases in a character-based language, like Chinese. Immediately recognizable, the symbols communicate a more sinister warning, when understood in the context of race, signifying such phrases as “separate lights from darks.” Some of the show’s standouts: porcelain constructions by Romilla Batra. These highly expressive pieces, ranging from the spherical “Pod” and “Discovery” -- both reminiscent of eyeballs, eggs, and countless other organic forms -- to the flat placques such as “Reflections” and “Countryside,” each composed of two panels representing slightly surreal landscape scenes, recalled nature. Incorporating simplicity and infused with an intense understanding of texture, light, and color, these works transcend their creator’s ethnic label. The most intriguing element of this show was the diversity in the mix of media and content. It was a subtle and satisfying peek into seven very different bodies of work by artists who at least by blood share some sense of “common ground.” Although some viewers might expect such a show to display a sense of oneness of vision, ironically, the opposite result of juxtaposing such divergent styles perhaps most accurately pegged the kaliedoscopic identity of the contemporary Indian conscious. --Reena Jana

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