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Taking the measure of a subcontinent

`Edge of Desire,' in Berkeley and Saratoga, spans regions, styles and perspectives to assemble several compelling new works from India.

July 16, 2006|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

Berkeley — GRACING the exhibition catalog cover for "Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India" is a detail from a painting by Nilima Sheikh titled "Firdaus II: Every Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams." In it a man holds open his robe to reveal an abdominal wound, vaginal in suggestion, as well as a landscape replete with tiny meandering rivers, stepped mountains, lush and arid lands, temples and villages, curly clouds and wayward winds. The landscape covers the man's uncovered torso.

Witnessed by an intimate and what seems to be an ancestral specter, the V-shaped opening in the figure's garment crops the landscape into a shape suggesting the long Indian subcontinent.

Sheikh's image is emblematic of the scope and task of "Edge of Desire," which attempts to reveal India to the world through contemporary art. Her work, like much of the art in the show, blends the sensual with the intellectual, traditional with modern, Eastern with Western, societal with personal, and always with the history, geography and culture of India as a backdrop.

The exhibition is organized by the Asia Society, New York, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia. As befits a project covering such broad geography, it has been split between two locations in both U.S. stops: First it was at the Asia Society in Manhattan and the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows; now in its West Coast incarnation it's divided between the northern and southern Bay Area, where it remains through Sept. 17. The UC Berkeley Art Museum houses the bulk of the show, covering an array of media, including wood-carving and neon (www.bampfa.berkeley.edu). Most digital and video work is at the project space at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga (www.montalvoarts.org).

Sheikh's large, scroll-like paintings in casein tempera on unstretched canvas convey vague, epic narratives in patchworks of images that have their roots in Indian miniature painting but also owe debts to Japanese prints, Chinese brush painting, Color Field painting and European stylizations of the figure ranging from the Byzantine to the Cubist. Hers are the loveliest and among the most stirring of the artworks in this uneven exhibition, which has its disappointments among its 70-plus works by 35 artists and collaboratives. But there is also enough compelling work to make this first exhibition of its kind on American soil a memorable venture.

The exhibition and catalog are broken into five thematic categories -- "Location/Longing," "Unruly Visions," "Transient Self," "Contested Terrain" and "Recycled Futures" -- but the strongest works in the show seem to envelop these categories rather than fall within any one.

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A comfortable commingling

"BIRD" by Sonia Khurana is a short film of the artist in an empty studio wearing nothing but her voluptuous birthday suit. With the help of a simple pedestal, she creates a physical comedy of attempts to transcend the body by searching within its gravity-bound awkwardness for the grace of flight.

Dayanita Singh's black-and-white photographs capture a culture by picturing not its people but their places and things. Several of her images document the ways in which beloved Indians are venerated in homes and businesses. A portrait of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar seems to have ascended a ladder and hung itself atop a wall displaying shoes. What at first glance seems a shrunken Mohandas Gandhi lounging on a vanity table turns out to be a photo-cutout of the leader in a household shrine. Other twists on place and scale turn up in Singh's photographs of backdrops for elaborate weddings, such as a wonders-of-the-world-themed set in which replicas of the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building appear to crowd together to get into the picture.

Playing upon the precedent of the "zenana" -- all-women studios in which 19th century Indian women would have themselves photographed -- Pushpamala N, a South Indian artist, and Clare Arni, a Scottish artist who has lived most of her life in India, together produce campy but often formally smart photographs depicting Indian women in both exoticized character portraits and quasi-ethnographic studies. These photographs are as critically clever as they are visually compelling and often unapologetically pleasurable.

On the back of a makeshift pedal-powered peddler's cart, Kausik Mukhopadhyay delivers found-object sculptural meditations on what it means for form to follow function in a society in which recycling is less about melting down bottles to make new ones than recasting the utility of common objects. In such a scenario, Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal flipped on its back, might have made more sense put to use as an actual fountain than placed on a pedestal as an avant-garde provocation.

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