Exhibit of the week
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, through March 31
The art of Rina Banerjee takes the logic of a cabinet of curiosities and flips it over—“almost literally,” said Serena Qui in Art in America. Instead of forcing a sense of order on disparate objects, the Indian-born American artist uses sundry man-made and natural materials to create diaphanous but “spectacularly imposing” sculptural installations that insist on the world’s complexity. Some two dozen of them are now scattered about the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ flagship 1876 building, initiating a lively dialogue with the institution’s permanent collection of stately American and European paintings. “It is jarring, for example, to look through an archway bracketed by two monumental portraits of George Washington and see The Promise of Self-Rule,” a Banerjee work in which a length of mesh netting hangs from a broken parasol and the skeletal remains of a Victorian-era chair. As usual, she is staging a collision of cultures, contesting the very idea of cultural purity.
She came by her interests honestly, said Pamela Forsythe in BroadStreetReview.com. Born in Kolkata in 1963 and raised mostly in the U.S., Banerjee worked for several years as a polymer research chemist, which helps explain why one of her installations is an 18-foot-tall re-creation of the Taj Mahal made of pink cellophane. Many of her sculptures hang gossamer-like from the ceiling or walls, and they are “handmade to an extraordinary degree,” whether the detailing is achieved with plastics, feathers, or beads. The works’ overlong titles encourage questions instead of supplying answers, said Thomas Hine in The Philadelphia Inquirer. In one 2009 sculpture, whose 38-word title can be shorthanded as The World as Burnt Fruit, a toothy crocodile skull that has been adorned with electric-light eyes emerges from a large seedpod-like sphere rimmed with cowrie shells. “I can’t tell you what it all means. But I can tell you the experience of encountering it is at once creepy and exhilarating.”
The show’s pièce de résistance is a 2017 sculpture we’ll call Viola, said Stan Mir in Hyperallergic.com. The full, 179-word title of the work relates the real-life story of an African-American tradeswoman who married a Bengali man in 19th-century New Orleans. But the winged figure Banerjee created is not merely human: Its face is an African mask, its hind feet a pair of Indian rakes, its body a hollow steel frame, and its wings an array of Indian and Korean silks. Like much of Banerjee’s work, Viola is impossible to summarize without leaving something out. In that way, it perfectly represents what any truly contemporary art must be: “a mélange upon a mélange of images, ideas, and information existing in contrast to the fact that we can never know everything.”