Painting and Prophecy

Indian artist Nalini Malani’s expansive exhibition of recent work, “Listening to the Shades,” takes a feminist perspective on myth and nationalism.

poster for Nalini Malani

Nalini Malani "Listening to the Shades"

at Arario Gallery
in the Chelsea 25th area
This event has ended - (2008-09-18 - 2008-10-25)

In Reviews by Matt Schlecht 2008-10-03 print

“I am a storyteller,” Nalini Malani states matter-of-factly. We are standing in front of her 2007 work, Remembering Mad Meg, with its spinning cylinders made of Lexan sheet and steel armature. Inspired by the storefront windows of neighborhood shops in India, Malani employs the technique of reverse painting on the clear polycarbonate. As light throws moving pictures and shadows onto the wall, the cylinders resemble Buddhist prayer wheels or giant paint rollers, running on overdrive to keep up with her artistic imagination. She calls it a “seduction” of the viewer.

''Remembering Mad Meg'' (installation view), 2007. Acrylic reverse painting on Lexan sheet, motors, steel amature, 2 DVDs, sound.

In her role as storyteller, Malani is not afraid to take on big narratives. Walking into the gallery, visitors are greeted with the words of Cassandra, from Aeschylus’ Oresteia: “What does it matter if you do not believe me? / The future will surely come. / Just a little while / and you will see for yourself.” Malani’s work is inspired by feminist readings of classic myths, and “Listening to the Shades,” her current exhibition at Arario Gallery in Chelsea, provides a somewhat ominous commentary on our contemporary world.

''Splitting the Other (panel 5)'', 2006-07, Acrylic, ink, enamel on acrylic sheet.

Making sense of Malani’s world is made much easier through Arario’s presentation of four of her recent major installations. Taken together, they offer a chance to explore the intersections of art, history, literature, film and theater from a distinctly female perspective. Just as Cassandra delivers a “take it or leave it” line in the Oresteia, Malani is not subtle in the story she tells.

Separation and violence are starting points. Malani was born in Karachi and relocated with her family to Calcutta after the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Many thousands of families did the same. The border crossings were perilous, and Hindu and Muslim nationalists targeted women in particular. After training as a painter in Bombay, Malani has been one of the most important Indian artists on the international scene, and her work has attempted to make sense of the physical and psychic wounds that linger from ancient history through today.

The 14-panel installation, Splitting the Other (2007), which was featured at the 2007 Venice Biennale, along with the paintings Medea I, II and III (2006) illustrate anxieties of war, rape and imposed dualities. Dusty colors, from amber to deep red, dominate the scene and invoke both Indian soil and Mars terroir. The panels depict varying stages of creation and destruction. Babies float through this wilderness, out of the womb but still attached by umbilical cords to their mother. Some are attached to floating brains. The grotesque creatures surrounding them convey the dangers of separation.

What strikes me about the artist is her ability to paint a scene that is both public and very private at the same time. Just as a good story allows everyone to take something, often very different things, away from it, Malani combines political statements with private moments to great effect.

Adding a new layer of narrative, the 42 pieces that make up her latest series, Listening to the Shades (2008), were inspired in part by Christa Wolf’s writing on Cassandra. As a result of this, the paintings come off a little bit like commentary on a larger work, broken up into small doses like illustrations accompanying a text. Ideally, in such a situation, a dialogue opens up between the artist and viewer. By working with already existing narratives like Cassandra and Medea, Malani attempts to advance the conversation from a point of shared understanding, yet here that bridge does not always connect.

''Listening to the Shades no. 3'', 2008. Acrylic, ink and enamel on acrylic sheet.

What’s definitely present and unmistakeable is Malini’s disturbing vision of the world. Inspired by prophecy, her brushstrokes describe a crude, cold reality. Using acrylic, ink and enamel on acrylic sheet, the fighter planes, biological specimens and anguished human figures that populate so many of the works in Listening to the Shades have an unsettling flatness to them. Colors bleed as though beneath a microscope slide. Malani deposits us in a sparse world, devoid of depth and time, and asks the viewer to consider his/her own position. As she points out, “We all have Cassandra’s in us.”

Matt Schlecht

Matt Schlecht. Matt is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn. He is also Co-Director of Horse+Dragon NYC, an organization that provides editorial, publicity and design services for artists and nonprofits. » See other writings

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