THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Patience, focus, time, persistence. These words could describe the artist’s practice as is evident in the compelling exhibition, “Nirmal Raja: Wrapping Air in Cloth and Other Seemingly Impossible Acts,” at The Alice Wilds in Milwaukee. During a conversation held at the gallery in December 2019, Raja, Jason S. Yi and Max Yela explored many terms and approaches to her work. The artist suggested “discipline,” as in a daily preparation for being open, showing up, and being ready and present. All of these terms apply, as hers is a thoughtful process, and a powerful one.
The tiny gallery space hums with this beautifully curated exhibition. One wall is given over to a set of the artist’s daily rituals, Flights of Thought. These are drawings—walnut ink, gouache, and pen, on wax hanji (Korean paper)—that the artist makes in groups of 101. They are the start of her daily studio experience, setting the tone and focusing body and mind in the midst of turbulence, political or otherwise. Months prior to seeing this show, I had the opportunity, during an evening open studio event, to sort through a stack of these drawings. Each numbered sheet is a unique universe, with intricate lines and varied textures. In the gallery they are hung on thin wires, suspended out from the wall so they sway and bob together in response to breath or the air movement of someone walking by. Installed in this way, the pages are removed from individual appreciation and become communal instead. They lie still or move in unison, responding like sea forms to water and wave action. This move from solitary to grouped is a subtle transformation but a significant one, as the works function both as individual drawings and as an installation. The sheets move easily between both presentations.
Nirmal Raja, Flights of Thought, 2018, [101 daily studio rituals]. Walnut ink, gouache and pen on hanji (Korean paper) installed with music wire. Approximately 8 3/4 x 6 3/8 inches (each). © Nirmal Raja. Photo by Tyler Jones.
The gallery entry is beneath a series of delicate panels that are suspended from the ceiling. Threshold hangings are usually a sign of welcome, but here, they are embroidered with the geographical markings of dangerous border areas from around the globe. The work was inspired by an item in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. The artist described embroidering the lines during a visit by her geographically distant mother. The two women worked on the pieces together. These delicate works, with their aggressive intellectual foundation, are defined by multiple modes of transgression—even entering the gallery requires moving past these stitched borders. They reference historical material, both in the form of specific items and, more generally, by engaging with the historical use of narrative embroidery, and they are collaboratively constructed in a cross-cultural, trans-global, temporally limited sewing experience shared by mother and daughter.
Needle and thread also make an appearance in a video work, Thread in Open Waters. A hand is shown sewing a single red horizon line that bisects changing imagery of water, all projected onto a gold-bordered cloth on the wall. The images are from the artist’s international travels over the past 10 years, and the depicted sewing is an act of gathering all of these experiences together. With repeated imagery and careful, methodical action, the artist creates a resonant metaphor, aptly describing the effort and instability inherent in memory. Across distance and through the passage of time, remembering is a task that requires consistent revisiting and attention.
Nirmal Raja, Wrapping Air in Cloth, 2019. Fabric and fabric sculpting medium, dimensions variable. © Nirmal Raja. Photo by Tyler Jones.
The titular works, Wrapping Air in Cloth from 2019, are bundles of fabric whose shapes are held aloft thanks to a fabric sculpting medium. They are grouped on pedestals and lie unobtrusively in corners or on tabletops, serving to visually guide visitors through the space but also as quiet reminders of the dimensionalities we inhabit and the distance between us and objects that make up our world. Like the plaster-based works that are displayed in groups on tables—Measuring the Sky and the many Contained: A Still Life pieces—these are material attempts at capturing something intangible. Whether it be the lives and experiences of loved ones who have migrated across great physical and cultural distances, the clouds and stars of the skies above, our memories of the past, or the very air we rely on for life, these are the “other seemingly impossible acts” of the title.
Only one work does not fit into the exhibition’s conceptual grouping. An intense hanging piece, Blurred Boundaries, is made of ink and screenprinted paper cut into the shapes that draw out the microscopic structure of hanji, the Korean paper that the artist frequently uses. The map imagery on the paper’s surface may reference the artist’s interest in a global experience, but the work seems to be grappling with bigger issues. Whether highlighting a relationship between the roads that crisscross the planet and the minute connections that form the very body of paper or referencing an ever changeable structure in its long sheets twisted and connected with paper clips, the work is slight in its materiality yet substantial and visually impressive. However, it is not necessarily directly related to the impossibility inherent in the accompanying works.
Nirmal Raja, Fault Lines, North Korea/South Korea, India/Pakistan, Syria/Turkey, Gaza Strip, Mexico/USA, 2019. Embroidery on silk organza, 21 X 48 inches (each). © Nirmal Raja.
Photo by Tyler Jones.
Nirmal Raja commands a rich conceptual vocabulary; the very materials she selects are metaphorically complex and visually engaging. Approaching her studio practice like a lab environment, her experiments with thread, fabric, plaster, watercolor, video, and paper are the beautiful result of patience, discipline, and an active mind. The artist described “keeping hands busy” as one aspect of creating art. A thoughtful and consistent practice, an appreciation of hope, and a desire for greater understanding are the spark and fuel that make Raja’s ongoing process so productive and resonant.
Ann Sinfield is an independent curator and writer. She is also Exhibits Lead at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“Nirmal Raja: Wrapping Air in Cloth and Other Seemingly Impossible Acts” was on view from November 8th through December 21st at The Alice Wilds in Milwaukee.
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