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Art Review : A Spiritual Expression From India

January 13, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Remember spiritual art? The kind of expression that you feel instead of analyze? Creations that exert a hypnotic pull as they infiltrate the senses? Art that derives power from an aura of illumination or a feeling of wholeness?

Art's spiritual component never fades entirely, but it hasn't been very prominent since Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop, Op, Conceptual Art and Minimalism. Neo-Expressionism, which should have increased art's spiritual quotient, generally wrung it out until it was limp or overdramatized it until it seemed bogus.

Now, however, spiritual art is a hot topic again. Locally, the County Museum of Art will inaugurate its new Robert O. Anderson Building in November with a major survey of the subject in modern art. Meanwhile, UCLA has almost inadvertently staged a complementary affiliate.

I say "almost inadvertently" because the timeliness of "Neo-Tantra: Contemporary Indian Painting Inspired by Tradition," at the Frederick S. Wight Gallery (through Feb. 2), is primarily the result of a diplomatic gesture. UCLA Prof. Lee Mullican and Gallery Director Edith Tonelli organized the exhibition as part of a nationwide cultural celebration, "Festival of India 1985-1986." As it turns out, what they considered the most interesting contemporary art in India has strong ties with its Western counterparts.

The co-curators selected 87 works--mostly paintings--by eight artists whose sophisticated treatment of tantric themes unifies them in a surprisingly compelling exhibition. They are modernists whose work has been formed by both their heritage and their knowledge of Western aesthetics. Their paintings are modern abstractions, largely composed of symbols derived from a philosophy that advocates surrendering the self to the supreme energy of the universe. This art extends and updates a tradition of visual creations intended to induce a state of pure concentration and, finally, meditation.

The artists are not proselytizing gurus, or even uniformly religious human beings. They simply speak through a common visual language, entrenched during their childhoods, and adapt it to individual forms of expression. Their brilliantly colored, symmetrical paintings incorporate mandalas, cosmological charts and mesmerizing sources of illumination. Recurrent geometric shapes reflect the totality of the universe and the merger of opposites: squares (symbols of order), circles (cycles of time), triangles (male and female, sometimes overlapping in stars), ovals (cosmic eggs), bindus (dots symbolizing the universe).

Biren De, for example, paints luminous, high-contrast oils featuring radiant spheres and calls them "graphic examples of my total self." K. V. Haridasan's hard-edge, intricately patterned compositions don't share this mystical sensitivity. Though his works are among the most complex in the exhibition, they are also comparatively pedestrian.

One gallery that fairly vibrates with vividly colored light is that of Prafulla Mohanti whose acrylic abstractions expand cosmic points into ovals through feather-edged pools of pigment. Mahirwan Mamtani's paintings are based on mandala forms with vibrating patterns gravitating toward their centers. As Om Prakash tips square formats into diamonds and paints overlapping strata within them, he suggests landscapes and blossoming flowers. All of this work tends to break down traditional definitions of geometric and organic abstraction by making geometric shapes grow and metamorphose organically.

When figures appear, they are pictographic, fanciful or mysterious, transcendent forms inclined to assume the lotus position. K. C. S. Panikar, considered the father of this updated variety of tantric art, incorporates writing and diagrammatic drawing in paintings that look rather like ancient stone tablets or manuscripts. Using Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma as subjects, P. T. Reddy adapts traditional forms and figures in enchanting small watercolor-and-tempera works.

The figure is also present in G. R. Santosh's paintings, but it makes itself known slowly. A vague seated form appears inside an egg shape and a symmetrical stack of ovals, circles and squares eventually shapes up as a composite of superimposed figures. Santosh accomplishes this through deft orchestration of hard and soft edges, halations and graduated color.

According to the attractive and informative exhibition catalogue, neo-tantric art began in the 1960s as a major break from post-independence art that favored realistic representations of village life. It has evolved as abstraction with a modernist consciousness of painting's flatness and a traditional awareness of ancient symbols and spiritual values.

The show is arranged rather like the artwork, from the center. Separate rooms devoted to each artist revolve around an entryway offering a slide show of works by other Indian artists, examples of traditional tantric art and recordings of Indian music that follows viewers into the galleries .

Passing from one room to another, visitors find eight distinct sensibilities and a singular concern with seducing the audience into a heightened state of awareness. This is a curiously mixed experience for veteran art watchers. At once familiar and foreign, fresh and dated, the art has positive ties to such revered Western artists as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Klee, and negative connections to those who have turned ethnic art into posteresque decoration or tried to steal its power for their own causes.

The real revelation of "Neo-Tantra," though, is just a reminder that whatever else art is, it is also a way to communicate with the human spirit.

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