Black Devi by Mrinalini Mukherjee. Dyed hemp. 1980. Photo courtesy of Met Breuer.

NEW YORK – The unique fiber works of the late Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) is the subject of a revelatory retrospective at The Met Breuer. ‘Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee’, on view through September 29, 2019, mark the first comprehensive display of the artist’s work in the United States.

Bringing together 57 pieces by Mukherjee, the exhibition explores the artist’s longstanding engagement with fiber, along with her significant forays into ceramic and bronze from the middle and latter half of her career.

Born in Mumbai to artist parents, Mukherjee studied painting, printmaking, and mural making at the M.S. University in Baroda, Gujarat, with the influential artist K.G. Subramanyan, who had studied under her father.

Subramanyan firmly rejected the Western modernist hierarchy between art and craft and encouraged his students, including Mukherjee, to engage with this legacy. It was under his guidance that Mukherjee first experimented with fiber.

A committed sculptor who worked intuitively, never resorting to a sketch or preparatory drawing, Mukherjee in her forms explored the divide between figuration and abstraction. Nature was her primary inspiration, and this was further informed by her enthusiasm for Indian historic sculpture, modern design, and local crafts and textile traditions.

At a press preview last week, Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, who organized the exhibition, and met Mukherjee in New Delhi when he was a graduate student, explained that her fiber forms are physical and organic.

Adi-Pushp II by Mrinalini Mukherjee. Dyed hemp. 1998-99. Photo courtesy of Met Breuer.

Mukherjee never worked with a loom; instead, knotting became her primary technique and it imbued her sculptures with three-dimensional volume and a sense of monumentality. She used natural as well as hand-dyed ropes sourced from a local market in New Delhi, where she lived and worked. The forms she fashioned are replete with sexual imagery, while some of her large anthropomorphic pieces—in which the vegetal, human, and animal coalesce—at times suggest the imagery of classical Indian sculpture.

‘Phenomenal Nature’ also presents the latter half of Mukherjee’s career in the mid-1990s, when, prompted by a residency at the European Ceramics Work Centre in the Netherlands, she began working with ceramics, eventually taking on bronze in 2003. Probing the divide between figuration and abstraction, she would go on to fashion unusual, mysterious, sensual, and, at times, unsettlingly grotesque forms, commanding in their presence and scale.

Max Hollein, Director of The Met commented: “Mukherjee combined her mastery of modern sculpture with inspirations drawn from nature and local Indian tradition to create an outstanding—and groundbreaking—body of work.  This important exhibition invites viewers to revel in the commanding presence of these mysterious and sensual objects, while appreciating the innovation and intuition she brought to her art.”

The exhibition is made possible by Nita and Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance Foundation.

Most of the fiber works of Mukherjee are suspended from the ceiling at the Met exhibition, giving it a larger than life look. Nag Devta (Serpent Deity), 1979, is reminiscent of the ubiquitous serpent deity found in Indian shrines and temples. The portion attached to the wall suggests the snake’s poised hood and the trail on the floor its coiled tail.

Abounding with fecundity and vitality, the piece comingles male and female sexual attributes in a single form, whose sensuous blends and folds envelop a phallus shape.

The mostly Sanskrit titles of her works identify the works as personifications of deities and divinities drawn from Indian mythology. Representations of these nymphs and forest spirits form part of the traditional iconography that Mukherjee observed at large temples and roadsides shrines during her frequent travels across the country.

Many of her works that project from the wall are reminiscent of temple bas-reliefs, yet her evocation of such iconography is interpretative rather than imitative and transforms the classical into modernist abstractions.

The imposing, purple-hued Rudra (Deity of Terror), 1982, refers to the deity in the sacred Indian text Rig Veda who is a personification of terror. Rudra’s central cavity fans out symmetrically and extends into long tassels that reach the ground. The word suggests the artifice of theatrical costumes used by performers to project reverence, mixed with fear, to their audiences.

Unlike her fiber works, Mukherjee’s bronze sculptures appear not to wrestle with gravity at all. Marvelously engineered, they are cast in arrested movement. Each also has a furtive anatomy. Palmscape I contorts like a serpent while Palmscape II is coiled like a scorpion, that endows it, with, at times, a sinister and baleful temperament.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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