Artists

To the extent that [Walter] Benjamin is right, that “there is a history of perception that is ultimately the history of myth,” it would not be inappropriate to regard these philosophical studies as critical illuminations of that mythology-an ideological formation. . . . What the light of history shows, we have learned, it shows only with adumbrations. There is no light without shadows, without darkness and concealment. And in this acknowledgment, there is perhaps a lesson for history already inscribed in the field of our vision.

-David Levin,

Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy

Chitra Ganesh was born in Brooklyn, New York, where she currently lives and works. Her work has been exhibited internationally and has attracted a following in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Over the past decade, she has become recognized as an artist whose work contributes much to the thinking on “feminist,” “queer,” and “South Asian” contemporary art. At the same time, Ganesh’s work has also been recognized for elucidating the productive complexities of having an aesthetic, style, and subject matter that elude the national and conceptual boundaries that currently constitute the ways in which the art world frames and promotes the work of emerging artists. In so doing, Ganesh’s work troubles the art historical orthodoxies that demand categorizing contemporary art through easily bounded notions of “East” or “West,” “feminist,” “figurative,” “political,” or “conceptual.” In addition to all of these, Ganesh’s work has also been described as mythic, postcolonial, and rebellious, as it brings together a diverse array of images and referents from Indian mythic poetry; the Progressive Artists’ Group (one of the most influential groups of modern artists in India, formed in 1947 and active until 1956); comics and graphic novels from the United States, India, and Japan; Mexican muralism from the early-twentieth century; contemporary street art and graffiti; as well as phantasmagorical motifs from Egon Schiele, Hieronymus Bosch, and Albrecht Dürer and autobiographical meditations in the vein of Bhupen Khakar, Frieda Kahlo, and Ana Mendieta.

Like many artists who have made work that sits outside of the mainstream, Ganesh has also been described as “oppositional”-to colonialism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy, for example. Her work has, at times, seemed to serve as an example of art that attempts to rewrite marginalized subjects into the art historical canon or as an example of “substitution theory” in action, in which normatively raced and sexed characters are replaced by nonnormative ones.

In this essay, I do not aim to dismiss an oppositional reading of Ganesh’s work outright, as if oppositionality is somehow only reactionary or shortsighted. To be sure, the need to resist normative, hierarchical modes of aestheticism and representation (e.g., the pursuit of “pure” beauty and/or conceptual rigor through the removal of the figure, or relegating certain tones and materials to the realm of the “decorative” and therefore “primitive”)1 demands artwork that legibly opposes these hierarchies. Feminists, in particular, have demonstrated time and again that women require being written into the canons of art history and visual theory, even at the expense of reifying the structure that produces an invisible or diminished Other in the first place. Using the rubric of oppositionality for exploring Ganesh’s work does recognize the gaps and absences in the canons of contemporary art with respect to both form and subjects.

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