Artists

Manisha Parekh’s work has engaged me for some years and I like her art. Because I like what happens to me in the process of looking, the catalogue essay for this exhibition is an opportunity to analyze how Parekh involves the viewer in her two major artistic preoccupations - how to understand and present objecthood and where to locate the experience or knowledge of subjectivity.

Environment

Pomegranate Bloom 1, 2, 3 and 4 are four square boards covered with handmade paper, each piece layered to work both as colour and as collaged texture. Parekh has drawn a circle almost to the edge of each square and then had holes drilled meticulously within its circumference. Each hole provides her further opportunity to engage the surface, which she uses selectively by weaving raw silk into a pattern that permits the fabric expressivity without gesture. Technically, she achieves this by anchoring the silk and then either by knotting or allowing it to flop within limited spatial parameters. The patterns also work to either reiterate (1 and 2) or cleave (3 and 4) the circle’s form.

These works rely heavily on the history of environmental art, including Parekh’s own experiments, and like the other works in the show, enliven and cross-connect with the artistic concerns of modernism and anti-modernism. Yet unlike many environmental art projects, in which the scale of intervention is a sign of the artist’s mastery, these works intersect with the environment without seeking to alter the site. They are environmental because they use the work’s surface and the space of display to engage with and question the rules of how painting, sculpture and architecture are encountered, perceived and remembered.

The “figure and ground” relationship Parekh has created is one specific instance of foregrounding consciousness of perception. Although not painted, these wall-based works read initially as painting like.

But quickly, they transform as it becomes apparent that there is no separation between figure and ground and each board is an image-object, a sculpture on the wall. Yet because they are not in the round, these works also appear as projections which emerge from the wall. They shift again as the viewer begins to perceive the lack of verticality and horizontality in each piece and each work mutates into an aerial image of something on a sphere, much in the way a phenomenon like crop circles have been represented.

Circles within squares create tension between the spaces each shape engenders. The circle and the square are primordial; they are among the first shapes that human culture has produced. Neither vertical nor horizontal, they do not permit hierarchy or linearity, necessary conventions for reading images and texts. Both shapes also are central to the history of architecture, and in this series, Parekh is working partly with the codes of architecture to create an incubator for reflecting on the transformation of forms.

Benjamin Buchloch observed some years ago about Conceptual art’s insistence, in the 1960s, on self-reflexivity and the use of the square. He wrote that

“the visual forms that correspond most accurately to the linguistic form of the tautology are the square...as the central form of visual self-reflexiveness, the square abolishes the traditional spatial parameters of verticality and horizontality, thereby canceling the metaphysics of space and the conventions of reading. It is in this way that the square incessantly points to itself: as spatial perimeter, as plane, as surface, and, functioning simultaneously, as support. But, with the very success of this self-referential gesture, marking form out as purely pictorial, the square painting paradoxically but inevitably assumes the character of a relief/object situated in object space. It thereby invites a viewing/reading of spatial contingency and architectural embeddedness, insisting on the imminent and the irreversible transition from painting to sculpture.” [1]

Yet Parekh is not satisfied to halt the process of exploring the possibilities of perception at the invocation of the architectural. She uses the fabric in all four boards also to “de-architecturize” the space created by the circle and the square [2]. If the knots suggest an emergence and return to the ground, the flopping strips imply that structure does not have to stand and thus actively disrupt the “geometry” of space by splitting and overextending it. The “irreversible transition from painting to sculpture” is extended into another set of transformations - from sculpture to architecture to de-architecture to environment.

Organicity, Kinetics and Entropy

Seed and Animal are two large works composed of hundreds of shapes made of cream, taupe, rust, brown and black handmade paper pasted on board. Parekh’s method for making them is to cut a large number of shapes in different colours, place them in a container and start applying them to the surface of the board. The board is blank and where the first strip goes down is the starting point, if not the beginning, from which the form develops. The laying of each shape orients the placement of the next one and the process continues till it stops. The shapes function as readymade points of colour, erasing the possibility of authorial presence that brushstrokes of paint allow while holding on to the options of layering and shading. As definite shapes, they cohere into a larger form and yet individual pieces contain within them participation in a collectivity, which will eventually organize itself into a larger form.

Up close, standing two or three feet away, the paper shapes appear at rest and contained within a larger line. Especially in Seed, the edge where the predominantly black area borders the predominantly cream, there is a sense of a viscous fluid stilling itself in order to provide a view of another zone of activity. The full effect of the work happens at a distance of fifteen feet, when stillness transforms into remarkable motion. Because the various colours occupy a limited range in the visual spectrum and because each strip is cut into an undulating shape, there is a sense that the whole coalesces only because each part touches and is touched by the others. It is a teeming sack, no part more important than the other, in a whole that cannot exist without the parts.

The motion within Seed and Animal requires further thought. Kinetic art of the 1950s and 60s was interested in creating “virtual movement” to produce optical tension, sometimes ludic in character, sometimes violent [3]. One agenda of kineticism was to destabilize perception and the position of the artist as author by incorporating environmental factors (Alexander Calder’s mobiles) or mechanical apparatuses (Jean Tinguely) or through the more traditional means. Parekh’s work produces optical effects because the viewer’s eye ricochets in a narrow band of colour. Yet the restlessness is not oriented to violence; instead, it halts the viewer’s identification with the organicity of the form.

Standing vertically, the viewer is able to turn perception into conception, a process which involves interpretation. It is possible to enter the process of reading these works, literally thought, not narratively. The experience is uncanny in its confusion. Refusing to provide detailed taxonomic knowledge, Parekh appears to suggest that the forms acknowledge the presence of other shapes in the world without necessarily seeking communication. These works are minimal in the rigorous simplification and repetition of form and engender for all their organicity, a sense of isolation, which is most perceivable at a distance. They hold no promise of utopian identification with the organic; instead, the shaping of readymade pieces into forms of limited communicability paradoxically foregrounds entropy, even if temporarily slowed, as an immutable condition of life.

Other formal aspects of the works also foreclose any sort of nostalgic return to order. The industrial perfection of her art counters the organicity indexed by the titles of the works, which suggest known yet unelaborated floral and faunal categories. Instead, the meticulous cutting and layering of paper, the almost obsessive perfectionism in calibrating balance and symmetry and the slight sheen of the sealant which coats the works inaugurates meditation on how it has come to be that art, arguably the least industrialized sphere of human production, has come to echo the aesthetic of the machine-made.

Serialness and Multiplicity

Butterflies, Grey and Under the Blue are series of multiple images. Each has been made over a long period of time and Parekh has used the shift in scale from board-based work to paper as an occasion to explore serialness and multiplicity. The forms in each of the series appear as parts of a larger entity which cannot be composed without acknowledging the particularity of each part. While in the process of painting these parts, Parekh could not have known the whole, although the making is the imagining of it. In this sense, the series emphasize multiplicity, not individuality, as a state of being. The spaces between each image in BMH, Grey and the UTB and the mode of installing them at the junctions of walls create pauses, during which the viewer must acknowledge both the diversity of forms and the inability to gain a total experience of either each part or the composite whole. Though the work implies unity, the experience is of the impossibility of pure unification.

Under the Blue is the most narrative among the series. Parekh has worked with both graphic and the sculptural to create the experience of luminosity. The sculpting began at the start when she soaked each sheet with brilliant lapis blue gouache using a brush, materially fusing the carrier and the medium. Keen to observe the movement of paint on paper, the kinetics of which are recorded in the drying, Parekh treated each material as mutually modifying, becoming a work only through interaction. The subsequent layers of painting create the graphic quality. The various shades of colour, so close to the blue of the paper, define forms which sit lightly, pulsating and breathing, expanding and contracting. Parekh’s hand, in a form of mediated automatism, has recorded every little fluctuation, like a medical machine which monitors a patient’s breath or a satellite which produces second by second imagery. The pace of the series also provides a context for thinking about ennui and how much space and over what length of time we permit an artist to make multiple forays into what appears as the same. Under the Blue, unwittingly perhaps, challenges the quest for novelty while encouraging sustained attention to process and its minutae.

Sculpture and Dimension

Memories and Places works with the same principles as the three series but to pursue a different line of thinking. If each image in the series works as parts of larger wholes, each rubbing in Memories and Places stands as different examples of the same genre. The graphite medium Parekh has used encourages this way of viewing since each speck binds with the other to make the form, which then complete onto itself, sits on the surface of the paper. Because the medium does not seep into and mesh with the surface, as in the Under the Blue series, the drawings move away from the illustrative into the semi-sculptural. In the most extraordinary way, some of them have a sense of volume similar to Henry Moore’s sculptures, without inciting the Freudian reading his works often provoke. Other drawings appear more particulate, and exist at a different level of aggregation.

To produce these works, Parekh first texturized a surface in her studio with glue shapes and after they dried, placed a paper over them and made rubbings. The shapes stand so perfectly on the white surface of the paper, clearly demarcating the here and now of the rubbing from the there and then of the glue shapes. Rubbing is one of the most early forms of art making that children learn. As a pedagogical practice, it has two primary aims. One is to socialize the child into the act of making representation. By rubbing, a child learns intuitively and practically that it is making something like another thing, which preexists his or her particular act of creation. At another level, rubbing also initiates the child into the process of comparing two objects, and evaluating the distance between the presentation and the re-presentation. The activity stimulates abstract thinking, a capacity we value (falsely perhaps) as uniquely human. Rubbing is also an important professional tool, used by archaeologists, epigraphists and conservators to retrieve and archive information, in the present, about the past.

In Memories and Places, Parekh has made a foray into a medium analogous to but distinct from drawing. In recent years, several critically acclaimed contemporary artists use drawing, not to highlight virtuosity and academic skill, but to comment upon the mechanization and consequent deskilling of hand-executed art. Parekh is not drawing; she did not sketch so much as an outline to guide the making of a new form out of an old one. But she, like other artists who have critically incorporated drawing into their practice, is “summoning up the early history of the medium, a history within which is inscribed the utopian promise of the medium itself.” [4] Her rubbings validate deskilled, or more aptly underskilled graphic work, as way of holding out the possibility of poetry in everday and simple art practice. Yet they also position hand execution as an archival or archiving practice that survives in a palimpsest of erasures and inscriptions to produce a new, totally fictive form.

Sculpture, Installation and Narrative

Spinning Time is a set of jute sculptures made for Bapu, a recent exhibition on Gandhi. A Secret Within is a work made for a 2008 exhibition which focussed on women artists practicing abstraction and Minimalism. Parekh made the shapes by twining jute rope around an armature of thicker rope. The jute in Spinning Time is untreated while in A Secret Within, Parekh painted it a deep, inky black.

Each set of forms is a complete sculpture. Nevertheless, for Parekh, the fullness of the sculpture is manifest only during installation, where the wall and the arrangement of the pieces become dynamic elements that alter with the venue and the inputs of the curator or gallerist. For example, the rust coloured wall is her prefered background for Spinning Time and terra verte for A Secret Within; yet in the first showing of ASW, the background was different, a choice made by the curator. Flexibility in ordering the individual sections and the choice of colour incorporates the possibility of varied viewing and impacts the interpretation of the works.

In the Bapu exhibition, the installation of Spinning Time is suggestive of a museological experience, where the placement of each section evokes his glasses, slippers, pen etc. They read like Gandhian material culture presented in a display case to suggest a stilled life. In the Nature Morte installation, gallerist Peter Nagy and Parekh hung the pieces in a diagonal, with the largest at the center, the mid-size ones on either side and the two smaller ones at the end. The first installation turns the work into a memento mori while the later creates contrapuntal rhythms and effectively severs any literal connection to Gandhi. A Secret Within also underwent a similar transformation. In its first showing, the sections were treated like artefacts to be displayed on a wall, secretive because they hold information that is no longer accessible (c). At Nature Morte, they have been installed as calligraphy and the broad upward or downward sweep (depending on the form of reading familiar to the viewer) maintains secrecy by inciting and then frustrating the desire to read and hence make narrative.

What these slightly raw works present, in any formation and location, is an indigenous history of minimalism, perhaps first most clearly articulated as an aesthetic by Gandhi. As in khadi, the materiality of the works treats the raw as extremely refined and minimalist sensuality. Through this Gandhian aesthetic, Parekh develops an ethic of understatement, perhaps to put forward an alternate subjectivity (for any gender), for whom the experience of reticence is also an entry into a feminity and a feminist politics which rejects aggression, in art and in other fields. Such a strategy is akin to the way Gandhi used feminization to reject violence and validate the home- and the handmade during the anti-colonial struggle.

In the Round

The newest line of exploration that Parekh has undertaken is the soft sculpture. Developed out of an interest in design and utilitarian objects such as bean bags, Lobster, Anemone, Sponge and Jellyfish are works in progress. At this stage, their forms, materials and mode of production jumbles the rather clear separation Parekh has made in her previous work. Till now, the handmade was the handmade and her extreme commitment to finishing acts as a challenge to the glorification as well as an appropriation of the industrial. Here, Chinese industrial and patently faux materials like silver leatherette have been cut into readymade shapes, heaped and stitched together, not by Parekh but by a tailor. The use of another person’s expertise means that Parekh has embraced a major aspect of process art, which is the lack of complete control. The works have dangling threads and the flop of the piece in display does not always align neatly with her phenomenal dedication to rigour. But there is something different emerging out of these works as the shapes and colours begin to speak in the vulgate, and thus move into the domain of Pop abstraction. Here the viewer is tempted to touch, maybe even squeeze these slightly repellent forms, which embody with all their Post- Minimalist vigour, all that Minimal art sought to repress. [5]

Notes

[1] Benjamin Buchloch, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of

Institutions,” October 55 (1990): 105-143.

[2] Gordon Matta-Clark coined this term to describe the process by which he made the conventions of

perception and habitation of architecture unreadable.

[3] Hal Foster et al. Art since 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 381-384.

[4] Ibid, 653. This is a summation of Walter Benjamin’s insights.

[5] Briony Fer, “Objects beyond Objecthood,” Oxford Art Journal 22, 2 (1999): 27-36.

From the exhibition catalogue published by Nature Morte (2009).

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