Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings at Arcadia University Gallery

Installation view of "Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings"

I have been trying to get out to Arcadia University Art Gallery for a few weeks. As everyone in Center City Philadelphia knows, it's a trek...but it's worth it.

This is especially true this month, as the gallery has mounted an unusual exhibit of meditative works from India, Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism describes linga as a "mark" or "sign" but also as the "name of the pillar shaped form of the god Shiva." Because Shiva is as a generative force, the pillar-shaped form he takes is described as kind of 'phallic symbol.' Evidently, Shiva is worshipped in this form as the result of a curse put on him the brahmin Bhrgu. But it's interesting to dig around a little on this and to learn that the linga and its cousin, the shalagram are forms of 'aniconic' images; symbols that are intended to represent deities. The way the linga is discussed in the literature I encountered suggests it is primarily a sculptural form, but in this exhibit, various forms of ovals play the part.

The paintings are riveting. Arrayed on three walls of the gallery are about thirty five pictures, all vertical in orientation (like portraits), none larger than twenty by sixteen inches. Each is hung on an invisible horizon that encircles the gallery, so they are all about level with the head of a person of average height.  Framed under glass, the paintings dimly reflect your face as you look at them. The majority of the paintings are broodingly dark, like cartoon holes. Some of these seems to be eclipsing rings and busts or color that shimmer and peek out from behind the dark forms. A few paintings are built on vibrant colors, which seem shocking in this context. An ovoid burst of Pepto-Bismo pink appears to raise cerulean eyebrows in a 1994 picture described as being from Sanganer and New Delhi. In another, a dark rose lozenge is criss crossed by pale blue gray droplets of paint. One senses that everything is planned; in some pictures the central form has straighter sides than in others, giving it a different gesture or attitude. In a few, as in a 1987 picture from Jaipur, it wears a necklace of three dots. Occasionally, a tiny dot appears within the form below the center, like a kind of painterly belly button.

Anonymous tantric painting, Shiva Linga, 1972, Jaipur unspecified paint on found paper 13.75 x 9.25″ 
All are painted on rather fragile and forlorn looking scraps of paper. Writing appears to be struggling to pass from the back of some sheets and into plain (if backward) view on the display side. Here and there, it looks like conservators have tried to patch thin areas of the paper. Effulgent mists of red, blue or yellow paint (or is it ink? India has a long tradition of watercolor painting...) drift lightly across surfaces. Sometimes little holes of have been worn through by painting and one gets the impression that they may have been been created by intense gaze.

Looking at the paintings slowly and in succession, one understands their meditative function. It's hard to imagine the abundance of them in the gallery is anything like the way they would be used in the world (in fact, the gallery notes mention that "When complete, the paintings are pinned or pasted to the wall at home to foster private meditation, eventually to be replaced by another fresher example"). On the cold and quiet winter day I visited the gallery, it was easy to pretend this was a space outside of the art world's usual hustle and bustle of make-believe commerce, but it wasn't so far outside of that as to preclude feeling a little strange looking at ostensibly sacred objects in an avowedly secular context.

The crossroad of the sacred and the secular becomes an important aspect of the exhibit. Being very spare and abstract, the paintings seems entirely different from western devotional art. They appear to appeal to the kind of general spiritualism that has replaced organized religion in contemporary life...despite being firmly rooted in a specific set of religious texts and imaging conventions. Gallery notes observe "an uncanny affinity" between these works and "examples of 20th century abstract art from Europe and the U.S. (works by Paul Klee and Agnes Martin are frequently cited as examples)". Those of us who have sat through secular sermons that 'justify' non-western art in terms of western modernist aesthetics will, I hope, be forgiven for rolling our eyes.

The idea of anonymity in today's art world, saturated by celebrity as it is, is strange enough. The idea that a work of art could be a useful object, one that focuses attention, limits distraction, and encourages meditation sounds revolutionary. Walking through the show, I was, more than once, put in the mind of Philadelphia painter Quentin Morris, whose Buddhist sympathies inform his monochromatic paintings and drawings. In the gallery notes, we read of the French poet Franck Andre Jamme, "who has played an instrumental role in introducing these works to western audiences." Jamme has an interesting story, and was apparently entrusted with access to the paintings after considerable hardship. It feels strange to have such easy access to them given how well-concealed they were - until relatively recently - in the religious communities from which they originate.

So how far would you go to see something really great? The magnetic pull of New York is inescapable in Philadelphia (and this exhibit came to us through NY's Feature Gallery), but people seldom talk about going to Baltimore, DC, or Chicago to see great work...let alone visiting the West Coast or traveling abroad. There are whole art worlds in these cities in the shadows of their respective megamuseums. What are these artists doing and thinking?

I'm not of the economic strata that can plan my travel around exhibits in London or elsewhere  (even Baltimore...), but I worry that we are getting a little local in our art viewing...that a diet of a few galleries interrupted from time to time for an art fair is good enough and that when we come face to face with something strange and wonderful, we'll see it only through what we already know. With the collapse of the art criticism world, I cannot count on reading about shows in other cities as easily as I once could, and that's terrible. If those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, what happens to those who don't know what's going on around them?
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