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Art Review

'Carriers' Addresses Adversity, Identity

February 07, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Loyola Marymount University's art exhibitions frequently address the state of the human spirit. All art does that, of course, but Laband Gallery director Gordon Fuglie has a knack for making the issue specific without getting preachy.

"Divine Carriers: Recent Art From India and Nepal" offers a particularly clear instance. Works by 14 artists encapsulate a virtually worldwide dilemma over how its varied peoples can maintain cultural identity in an increasingly homogenized world.

No artist's work on view offers a more pointed answer than that of Jyoti Duwadi. Nepalese by origin, Duwadi teaches art in Chapel Hill, N.C. His installation presents three wood sculptures. One looks like a translation of Brancusi's "Bird in Flight," another resembles a radically abstracted dragon's head, the third consists of a stylized bow and arrow in a sand mandala. Although these are his most interesting pieces, they take second place to the commanding center-stage presence of a computer.

Beaming digitally designed rudimentary mandalas on the wall, the machine distills the subcontinent's historic method of dealing with change. For centuries, India has maintained by absorbing and transcending outside influences. In the 13th century, traditional Hindu culture was disrupted by an Islamic invasion that brought with it the art of the Persian miniature. Indian artists translated the courtly style into their own terms.

After colonization by the British, Indian artists managed to adapt to a representational manner. As the empire crumbled, Indian intellectuals began to long for an art that would more authentically express the indigenous spirit with its rejection of materialism.

The leader of this nationalist movement was Abanindranath Tagore. Poet and polymath, he seemed to sum up a core Indian attitude of the day when asked what he thought of Western civilization.

"I think," he replied, "it would be a nice idea."

All the same, his big notion for revitalizing Indian art mixed yet another import--Japanese art--with reintroduction of the "subjective principle" as opposed to Western empiricism. By this time, however, the decadent West was developing its own theories of subjectivity through psychoanalysis and Surrealism, and its artists were furiously mining non-Western sources.

All of which goes some way to explain why so much of the art on view here looks like traditional Indian themes and motifs grafted to classic mainstream Modernism.

An iconic head by Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, for example, brings to mind a conservative version of the Russian Alexi Jawlensky. Abstractions by Champaklal inevitably recall Jackson Pollock.

Some of the most interesting pieces--most qualify as works on paper--clearly echo traditional Mughal miniatures. Matisse and Pollock seem to lurk in some pieces, but the works' sophisticated adaptations pretty well cover their tracks. What's really a bother for an American viewer is getting deja vu from images by unfamiliar Indian artists. It happens because the Persian-based styles of artists like Anjan Chakraverty and Biswarup Datta were adapted to Western decorative graphic art in the '50s.

Greater familiarity with contemporary Indian art would no doubt dramatize individual hands. Here, the most distinctive amalgam of international Modernism and the genius of India seems to emerge from abstractions by Sridhar Iyer. Working in a kind of spiky free-form geometry, the imagery suggests the spirits of fantastic insects dancing to the twang of a sitar.

Aside from that, the work sorts itself from other art by a shared reticence. Some will experience it as excessive shyness, others as laid-back lyricism.

In short, collective homogeneity seems to be winning the world in spite of battalions of talented artists. We're at the end of an immensely inventive century that may have discovered the limits of artistic originality. The cards are on the table face up. Nobody's sure whether all the combinations have been tried.

The exhibition's curator was Debashish Banerji, a critic and Indian art scholar who wrote an informative essay in the exhibition brochure.

* Loyola Marymount University, Laband Art Gallery, 7900 Loyola Blvd., to Feb. 21, closed Sunday through Tuesday (310) 338-2880.

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