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Cultural Studies

Group Show Offers An Overview Of Indian Painting And Its Possibilities

RECURRING MOTIFS: Arpana Kaur's "Untitled."

By Jason Hughes | Posted 10/10/2007

Out of India: Contemporary Paintings from India

Through Oct. 12 at Towson University's Asian Arts Gallery

Out of India is a survey of painting "highlighting Indian artists of the post-independence era: 1947 to the present." The exhibition represents a range of work that uses both traditional and non-traditional India cultural motifs, representations of Krishna, Bollywood movie posters, and geometric shapes related to tantric philosophy. In other instances there is very little to suggest that the artists are from the subcontinent, and it's fairly obvious that movements such as modernism, expressionism, and surrealism have influenced many of these artists' practices and techniques. While most of the exhibited artists have had formal training in India or abroad and have been instrumental in founding Indian artists' movements and schools--such as the Progressive Artists' Group, Art and Artists, the Cholanmandal Artists Village, and the College of Visual Art in Calcutta--others have had little to no training yet are equally strong if not superior artists.

The survey of work for this exhibition functions as a sort of intensive education for those unfamiliar with Indian painting from the past 60 years. As with most group shows, certain pieces are far more effective than others; overall, though, Out of India is a rewarding experience, providing a comprehensive sense of contemporary Indian painting and the ideas that have influenced its development.

The most interesting piece is Prabha Shah's "Wet Earth and Dunes." In this oil on canvas, Shah uses doorways, cities, streets, and the desert from her native Rajasthan in a complex juxtaposition of style, color, and technique. A dense nearly apparition-like sandstorm covers the canvas with skillfully applied textures that appear to have been scratched into the paint's surface. These brown, tan, and white textures transform the organic movements of an intense sandstorm into hard edges and grids revealing architecture and pathways that look like mirages in the distance. Jumping out of the storm are a series of doorways, windows, bridges, and pathways composed of brightly colored grids that appear completely foreign to the dreamy desert colored swathes of color and texture. Beyond the strikingly different imagery and techniques, Shah more poignantly contrasts Eastern and Western philosophy, perception, and intellect. In doing so, Shah effectively transcends culturally specific themes and symbolism--subsequently producing a work that is personal and reflective yet universally mysterious and compelling.

While in many ways Shah's work steals the show, Out of India includes several other highlights. For example, Manish Pushkale's acrylic-on-paper "Untitled" appears to be a sort of primordial soup with an array of yellow, red, green, and white cellular shapes interacting with one another. The washes of color appear to be what connect each individual shape to the others, all of which are contained within an ocean of rich blue. Rather than referencing organic matter however, it more accurately suggests a precognitive collective consciousness that bleeds together in all its various forms and colors.

Jaswant Singh's "Morning Raga" and "Night Raga" embodies more traditional symbolism and motifs than several of its counterparts on exhibit. "Night Raga" is a dreamy stylized landscape with dark mountains in the distance and an expansive deep blue sky. A large silhouette of a person in seated meditation is centered on the canvas with the face replaced by an arched window with a strong golden light shining from the inside as a flower blossom grows out. "Morning Raga" appears reverse this point of view: you overlook a far-reaching landscape of fertile ground with golden archways that stretches off of the canvas and becomes the sky. Beyond the archways, a hint of a violent lightening storm is present, and it's hard to tell whether this storm is occurring outside of this enlightened space or internally within its deepest and darkest realms.

Even though the majority of work in Out of India isn't the most conceptually challenging, it does ask a Western audience to let go of preconceived notions. While the more traditional themes and motifs are obviously invested in Indian culture, they are nonetheless universal in their message. And while it's somewhat interesting to recognize Western influence in these artists, the show's most compelling feature is how Indian culture, traditions, philosophy, and artwork deals more directly with how we project what we internalize when depicting the world around us.

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