By Sahar Khraibani
September 27, 2019
Mysterious, sensual, grotesque: Mrinalini Mukherjee’s works in Phenomenal Nature, currently on view at the Met Breuer, are commanding in their scale and dominant in their presence. Organized by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition marks the artist’s first retrospective in the United States, bringing together fifty-seven works spanning her forty year career, exploring her engagement with fiber, along with her significant forays into ceramic and bronze.
Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) who worked intensively with fiber, was among a group of post-Independence Indian artists who did not abide by the then dominant tradition of figure painting. While nonrepresentational forms of fiber art emerged in the West in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mukherjee was never part of that movement. She worked instead in near isolation in India, integrating traditional craft techniques with a Modernist visual vocabulary.
The unconventional exhibition layout creates a labyrinthine, fantastical backdrop for her work. A grey stage curtain, envisioned by the exhibition designer Alejandro Stein, snakes through the entire gallery, enhancing drama. The works are democratically positioned next to one another, with some suspended from the ceiling or spilling onto the floor without a base. Written or archival material is absent from the show; the viewer walks through guided by the works. No solid walls or barriers separate the different phases of Mukherjee’s work. This disorientation, however, serves a purpose. The tensile presence of the artist’s intricately woven objects draws the viewer through in a spellbinding trance, like walking through a dense forest.
The artist’s appreciation for the natural world may be traced to a childhood spent between the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in Dehradum where her mother Leela (also an artist) taught at an all-girl’s school, and the rustic landscape of Santiniketan, West Bengal, where her father, the legendary scholar-artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, taught at Visva Bharati University. At age sixteen, Mukherjee enrolled at Maharaja Sayajirao University, where she earned a diploma in painting in 1970. She then studied mural design under her father’s former student K. G. Subramanyan, who advocated for engagement with the entire spectrum of historically Indian artistic and craft traditions, and encouraged the use of unconventional materials and techniques. Mukherjee’s attraction to fiber stemmed from this mentorship, where she was pushed outside the studio to find inspiration in earthly materials. Her earliest works were wall hangings evocative of scenery or flowering vine species.
The diverse references that populate her imagery go well beyond the representational to trouble the divide between figuration and abstraction. Using the tactile and laborious process of working with her hands, the artist’s forms draw attention to the marvels of growth and fruition in the natural world. Lotus Pond (1995), made up of thirteen terra cotta components with shifting earth tones, hints at the gradation apparent in nature. By deploying different kiln temperatures, she achieved a variation in hues that occurs through natural means. As with her early fiber sculptures, Mukherjee drew on floral. Some of the lotuses’ gaping buds and crevices resemble open mouths, while others are covered with twirling, petal-like foliage. On the other hand, some of her earliest fiber pieces, including Squirrel (1972), the first work on view at the entrance of the exhibition, are a testament to Mukherjee’s interest in the relationship between figuration and abstraction. The three-dimensionality of Squirrel, a bricolage creature with a crocheted head and a carpet-brush body, hangs by its tail from a net of loose jute, and appears to emerge from a knitted backdrop. Squirrel is Mukherjee’s first animal form, and foreshadows her later fiber works, which exist somewhere between the realms of plant and creature.
Representations of forest spirits and nymphs are part of the traditional iconography that the artist observed at temples and roadside shrines during her frequent travels, and later adopted in her fiber works. However, her evocation of such iconography is interpretative rather than imitative. Her biomorphic objects were symbols of metamorphosis, transfiguration, and a new way of looking at the natural world. She saw nature as a living thing: fertile, aggressive, and at times, erotic. Her extravagant and inventive visual language communicates irrepressible growth that is both grandiose and terrifying. Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982) is a prime example of this interpretive and authoritative effort. The imposing, purple-hued fiber sculpture refers to the deity in the sacred Indian text Rig Veda, who personifies horror. Mukherjee was not timid about pushing her works into the realm of the frightening to induce a sense of awe in her viewers. Rudra’s central cavity stretches out symmetrically and extends into long tassels that pour forth onto the ground. The artifice and grandeur of Rudra suggests that of theatrical costumes seen in the classical Indian dance form Kathakali, which are sometimes used to project reverence, and occasionally fear, to their audiences.
In the second half of the 1990s, Mukherjee’s output of fiber sculptures diminished. A number of factors hindered her production: working with fiber was physically demanding; the manufacture of the rope that Mukherjee preferred was altered, the material now combined with synthetic fibers; and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units she needed to achieve her colors. As her production of fiber works decreased, she found refuge in ceramics. Unlike knotting rope, which was slow but malleable, allowing for control of the work’s form, handling clay required Mukherjee’s immediate reactivity and attention. Her transition to other media was not a rupture from fiber, but rather a continuation of her process of using natural materials. She worked additively by layering individual slabs of clay, and her use of contrasting glazes enlivened the ceramic works and heightened their artifice. Late works such as Outcrop VI (2007-8) and Palmscape (2013) demonstrate her layering of leafy scapes to create an invented species. These final works reversed the weight of her fiber sculptures: her bronzes appear not to wrestle with gravity at all.
Throughout her career, Mukherjee created extraordinarily diverse forms that bring forth the phenomenal forces of nature—lush, expandable, all consuming, and eventually, deteriorating. Phenomenal Nature demonstrates the artist’s radical interventions in her adaptation of craft, creating a new approach to modernism. Transgressing art-historical categories and imbued with contemporary ethos, they bask in undoing the distinction between the traditional and the modern, and blur the line between what is known and what can be imagined.
Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee remains on view through September 29th at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York