The Met Breuer, set to shut down in a year or two only after a very short period of activity, is now showing the rope and hemp sculptures of Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015), a highly gifted fiber artist who grew up at the base of the Himalayas, near the rough-and-tumble landscape of West Bengal. Raised by artist parents who, according to the Met Breuer’s notes, were highly “conscious of nature,” Mukherjee started art school young, at the age of 16 in Baroda (presently Vadodara), where she received a degree in painting in 1970. But as an adult artist, she became someone who worked primarily with fiber–hemp or jute–that she knotted usually into recognizable male and female figures, whose sexual characteristics were sometimes pronounced. The Met Breuer has taken pains–rightly so–to promote the art of people, often women, coming from cultures outside the artistic center of New York City. This means that the canon is inevitably being expanded, as it should be. Mukherjee is an excellent example of an artist who was not Western but who was certainly informed by Western modernism and, perhaps, by the mostly female-made fiber art that was being made in the West, particularly America, in the last third of the 20th century. Her work is primal in its emotional directness, sometimes seemingly advancing interest in people from outside her culture–Africans, East Asians–although this is speculation. At the same time, there is an erotic directnesss in her presentation of the body, which contemporizes her art in ways that make it new and, perhaps, different from the work made concomitantly by artists from India.
What does Mukherjee’s catholic approach mean for a New York audience? It can be said that the work demonstrates a figurative primitivity, in which primal feeling and even menace emanate from the complex, knotted forms that constitute the figures we see. But we are wrong to see the artist’s works as wholly other–it is important that Mukherjee’s sensibility is understood as participating in a world-wide art culture (this point needs to be made, even if we have been making it for several decades). It is by now a commonplace that our art influences are international, yet the leap toward understanding an artist from far away still needs to be attempted. Mukherjee is an artist of exquisite skill, who more than likely internalized what may be called a feminist position in light of other woman artists working with a traditional female craft orientation. Now, of course, these oppositions–between male and female activities–are breaking down, in America especially, where there is a sharp, ongoing attempt to do away with assumptions about gender and creativity. My own feeling is that this is deeply problematic: it is impossible, I think, to erase the biological difference inherent in gender, which does in fact make itself regularly felt in art, even if in unknowing fashion. But, even so, we can widen our acceptance of a broader range of expression by a broader range of artists working in a manner differently from what has been done before.
As a group, Mukherjee’s art feels totemic and non-academic, being addressed toward an emotional presentation of form. This is not the same as the artist’s adhering to emotionalism, which is in fact a rejection of intelligence in favor of expressive feeling, which can be problematic in art, especially now, as an automatic opposition to a time when artistic effort is regularly governed by intellectual structures. Without recommending one orientation over the other, it may be fair to say that Mukherjee’s high intelligence is directed toward feeling, in which the formal aspect of the work supports her need to show how the figure can still command a respected place in contemporary art–mostly because her work is so deeply felt and so technically adept. It is indeed quite easy to put her work into a New York context, not only because contemporary art has deliberately opened the doors to all manner of making, but also because Mukherjee’s efforts fit very nicely into an international language practiced now more or less everywhere. Given that the artist passed away recently, it is not unfounded to include her within very contemporary esthetics–this despite the fact she was working at more than a considerable distance from Western art centers. Given the ubiquity and ease of imagery seen on the Internet, or through magazines, it makes sense that an artist like Mukherjee would come to exist.
If we look at individual pieces by the artist, we find that they form a combination: deliberately figurative forms and equally deliberate abstract ones. Black Devil (1980) is made of dyed hemp; it is a foreboding figure, on the wrong side of the line separating assertion from menace. Dyed a dark green and black, the standing persona looks rather like an organic version of Darth Vader, the personification of evil in Star Wars. But that is a contemporary reading of a sculpture whose energies are constructed by someone coming from an ancient culture, and the lack of defining features sets the devil in a place of indeterminate (but genuine) wickedness. In the case of this piece, open folds and woven patterns surround a central column–a backbone that defines and looks like it is supporting the figure. The work is entirely made of hemp, a humble substance, yet the feeling is monumental, as if it had been made of stone or metal, rather than an organic material. A piece called Waterfall, made of hemp and cotton, was constructed a bit earlier than Black Devil, in 1975. It is a gorgeous work of art, being a wall hanging of alternating blue and tan fillets that descend from the top part of the ceiling. The top looks a bit like a lintel, its structure occurring like the strips beneath the horizontal bar defining it, as if the entire work started above as an abstract frieze and developed into a curtain of water. Mukherjee here is an artist of unusual lyricism, communicating both craft and vision in the same moment. It would have been accepted without doubt in America–Claire Zeisler, the noted Chicago-based fiber artist who died in 1991, was making work that reminds us more than a little of Mukherjee’s efforts.
Mukherjee also works in ceramic and bronze. Memorial II (2006) is a later work, made of bronze. Although its top is closed and rounded like the head of a bullet, the sculpture is also a bit vase-like–as if it were a repository for human ashes. At the same time, it is abstract. If we recall that sculpture began as a memorial for the dead, Mukherjee’s work exists as a contemporary version of a very long line of visual efforts concerned with remembering the deceased. It is anonymous in its energies, in the sense we don’t know who we are recalling, and the work’s self-sufficiency–its shut, nearly phallic form embellished with thin bronze plate scored on the surface and presenting to the viewer with several cracks and jagged openings that accentuate rather then detract from its gestalt–pushes the sculpture in the direction of a contemporary visual artifact, albeit one whose origins come from millennia ago. We must acknowledge Mukherjee’s work as being very old and very new, with the latter affiliation supporting in depth the force of her contemporaneity. The beautiful ceramic work, Night Bloom VI (1999-2000), consists of ribbons of dark, nearly black, matte glazed ceramic that seem to drape over a female figure in pyramidal fashion. It is a complex, truly beautiful ceramic artwork, which is not without its feeling of threat or darkness–as the title suggests. It is also, somehow, profoundly sensuous and sensual, offering its curving strips as only a partial cover for the breasts of the woman they surround. Eroticism, while not profoundly direct in Mukherjee’s art, is regularly evident by more than slight implication. Part of the freedom available to women artists since the late Sixties and early Seventies has been the frank portrayal of eroticism–a subject matter Mukherjee does not refrain from addressing in her art.
Additionally, the hemp material is deeply sensuous in its own right. Nag Devta (1979), made from dyed hemp, might be a hooded cobra or a sitting male figure with a prominent erection–it is hard to say. The meaning of the title in Hindi is “serpent deity,’ so the first reading of the work’s name makes sense. The moss-green hood of the serpent is matched by the dark purple of its body, unfolds ominously from wall to floor. Good art like this matches the artist’s propensity for a beauty made dangerous by the aggression of the image. Danger intensifies our experience of Mukherjee’s art, and it is interesting to see how the artist merges craft, traditional Hindu religious imagery, and the contemporary flair of her vision. It is an art the New York art world can mostly identify as foreign, even though Mukherjee’s process is entirely contemporary and international in its implications. The late bronze work (2007-08) called Outcrop, shows us a rounded, stone-like mass consisting of thin planes of bronze made up of muted colors. Some of the planes are stacked on top of each other, while others, mostly on the top of the sculpture, curl over and give the piece a more complex appearance. The mass looks nearly like a formless heap, and maybe that is the point of the sculpture–any affinity with classical cohesiveness, even the sensual versions we find in Indian sculpture, is foregone in favor of a postmodern pile intuitively imagined rather than deliberately assembled. Formal skill is something of an issue in Western contemporary art circles, which eschew craft in favor of content. But Mukherjee seems to have intelligently merged technical abilities for issues of both eroticism and spirituality. We can’t ask for much more.
Mukherjee proves a major point in art today, namely, that these issues are not the province of the Western art world alone. This, by now, is surely a truism that hardly bears repetition, but the presentation and regular occurrence of exhibition by artists from distant cultures does not happen as much as we might imagine. Mukerjee is an artist of considerable interest to us not because of her methods and issues so much as because of her contemporaneity of format at a time when we still tend to emphasize the art and the artists of those whom we know well. The eroticism and sensuous shape of her art has a long, long history in India, but it is also true that her concerns can easily find their counterpart in much recent work done in America and Europe. The similarity of vocabulary is more complicated and, perhaps, more troubling than we might imagine. One of the troubling things about art culture is its increasing sameness across geographies. This limits the spectrum of our art vocabulary. But the situation is inevitable given the worldwide awareness of imagery and culture. It is more than distressing to see cultures merging in ways that accommodate influences we can only experience as a homogenization of thought and form. Difference means everything in art! Interesting, Mukherjee is original enough in her work that it maintains the kind of independence most of her audience would want. At the same time, no small amount of her delight derives from concomitant methodologies in places thousands and thousands of miles away from where she practiced. It is a good thing that we are unable to meld our visual differences completely–if this were possible, we would be subject to an absurd uniformity that convey a dead sameness even if the art practitioners differed greatly in a personal sense. Mukherjee’s excellent art makes it clear that we don’t have to give up our origins, even as we find close common groundto other artists while we extend our practice. In this way, she is clearly an artist for our time.