Magazine article Artforum International

Mrinalini Mukherjee

Magazine article Artforum International

Mrinalini Mukherjee

Article excerpt

Mrinalini Mukherjee

NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART, NEW DELHI

MRINALINI MUKHERJEE'S fiber sculptures are efflorescent in both form and technique, gradually blossoming into their final shapes, some standing more than seven feet tall. And her palette--a spectrum of deep greens, yellows, reds, blues, and purples complementing the material's natural browns--only adds to the works' lushness. For more than two decades, beginning in 1969, Mukherjee exclusively worked with fiber, producing the strange and singular oeuvre that was at the heart of her breathtaking retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, where she lived and worked since 1972. Like the work of other pioneers of fiber art, Mukherjee's resolutely physical, organic, three-dimensional creations broke through the gridded rational order and orthogonal frames of woven textiles and tapestries, pushing the medium beyond pictorial conventions into the realm of sculpture.

Curated by gallerist Peter Nagy, the exhibition spanned more than four decades of Mukherjee's practice, bringing together ninety-three works in natural fiber (predominantly hemp but also jute and sisal), ceramics, and bronze, the three very different materials she used throughout her career. Forgoing a more traditional chronological or medium-specific approach, Nagy distributed the work through the galleries, rhythmically balancing the verticality of the fiber pieces with the lateral arabesques and earth bound clusters of the bronzes and ceramics, a strategy that strengthened the impact of Mukherjee's abiding formal and thematic concerns while still allowing for comparisons between the materials. The show opened with a sampling of Mukherjee's work in each medium: Three large ceramics sat on a low plinth in the middle of the main gallery, while small rooms to the right and left showcased theatrically lit fiber and bronze pieces.

Mukherjee grew up surrounded by art. Born in Bombay in 1949, she was the only child of two artists. Her father, Benode Behari, was a renowned painter and muralist, and a pioneer of the Bengali modernism associated with Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore; he studied and then taught at Kala Bhavana (the Institute of Fine Arts) at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan in rural West Bengal, a famous school that encouraged the pursuit of learning in communion with nature, following the philosophy of its founder, Rabindranath Tagore. Mukherjee studied at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda from 1965 to 1972, training in painting, printmaking, and mural making with one of her father's students, K. G. Subramanyan. An influential artist-pedagogue, Subramanyan firmly rejected the Western modernist hierarchy between art and craft. In India, vernacular and artisanal practices still flourished in what Subramanyan called "the living tradition," and he urged generations of students to engage with this legacy by adopting its materials and techniques for their own expressive agendas. Mukherjee began experimenting with jute and was encouraged by Subramanyan to adopt natural fiber as her chosen medium once she began working with him in the murals department.

The large, curtain-like macrame piece Water Fall, 1975, the exhibition's earliest work, gives some indication of Mukherjee's beginnings. Hanging off a horizontal wooden rod, six plaits of natural rope, each with numerous variously patterned sections, rest atop a knotted backdrop featuring a spectrum of hand-dyed, watery blue-greens. Tangled up on the floor, the frayed ends suggest the churning currents at a cataract's base. Unlike weaving and knitting, knotting--the principal gesture of Mukherjee's technique--allows for the creation not just of two-dimensional surfaces but also three-dimensional volumes. Instead of the mechanical repetition of weaving, knotting enables greater complexity, allowing for both intuitive accident and human predetermination.

By 1980, Mukherjee had begun to move away from the wall, abandoning the flat, rectangular format and tethering her creations to simple, curved metal armatures instead of straight wooden rods. …

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