Preetika Rajgariah: Servicing Self
On ViewBill Arning Exhibitions
Preetika Rajgariah: Servicing Self
September 10–October 30, 2022
Hudson Valley, New York
The poetic potential of yoga mats, it’s safe to say, has rarely been explored in painting. In the hands of Preetika Rajgariah, however, second-hand plasticky pads transcend novelty and become the underpinning for self-portraits that are a sexy brew of eye candy, conceptual smarts, and earthy physicality. The add-ons of Rajgariah’s intersectional complexity—a daughter born to a conservative family in India but raised in Houston, a multi-media artist reconfigured from a pre-med student, a lesbian in a committed relationship—contribute even more texture to this tapestry. Servicing Self, at Bill Arning Exhibitions’s Kinderhook gallery, witnesses the artist moving away from the broad strokes of thesis/antithesis into the greater subtleties of synthesis.
Rajgariah’s earlier performances sowed the seeds for these paintings. In one, she arranged ninety yoga mats into a swastika, clawing back this Hindu symbol of divinity from its appropriation by Nazis. In another, mats became a surface for playing Twister. The alpha and omega of this work is identity but, when Rajgariah detours from contemporary discourse into the personal, things get interesting fast.
The triptych the difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment (2022) features a key detail. Here, a nude figure holds a cracked mirror that reflects a phone showing an image of a nude holding a mirror. This subject/object duet parallels struggles for congruity between what one knows on the inside and how one is processed on the outside. In several paintings, Rajgariah displays or examines her body—like how a Doubting Thomas’s wounds are probed in Renaissance paintings—as if querying what is “real,” where she came from, and how she grew into herself.
May all beings be happy (2022) tells much of that story. This painting, with its sexualized recumbent figure and riot of pattern, alludes to Gustav Klimt’s Danaë (1907). But where Klimt showers gold coins across his figure’s body, Rajgariah chooses bindis, a nod to girlhood memories of her mother, focused on assimilating in Houston, sticking bindis to her mirror for safekeeping. One can imagine young Preetika studying her own reflection overlaid with her mother’s accessories, wondering about her relationship to that traditional ornament and comparing herself to her mother. She wouldn’t be the first. Dress-up has taught many daughters how sartorial costuming impacts how we are read in the world.
The relish with which Rajgariah paints the bindis, indulging in their chroma and sparkle, suggests affectionate sense memories. Same with the overflow of pattern, much of which comes from pieces of saris affixed to the mats with matte medium. The fabrics drape Rajfariah’s figures and sometimes become skin itself. The patterned body parts in “bring me the sunset in a cup” (2022) recall Dee Shapiro’s recent collages of famous art-historical nudes.
As with crazy quilts, the found fabrics, not to mention the thrifted mats, bring along their past. That the saris were worn by Rajgariah’s mother is tender stuff. In classic synecdoche, this unseen woman reverberates throughout the series. That strangers’ bodies strained and sweated on the yoga mats adds intimacy even more proximate than say Rajgariah’s representations of her breasts or vulva.
In the still life “what can you appreciate in this moment?” (2022) Rajgariah portrays herself through different means, double-dipping from commercial culture and personal iconography. Bunched up fabrics in labial colors held aloft by a net form a body. For the head Rajgariah paints in a package of Parle-G Gold biscuits, the ubiquitous Indian snack available here through Amazon and Walmart. The package’s visage of an Indian child must have been one of the few places in popular culture that young Preetika saw depictions of girls “who look like me.” The painting’s swags, decoupaged patterns and pigeons (in Hindu mythology they stand for, inter alia, fertility and love) share some elements with Fred Tomaselli’s work, but Rajgariah’s delving into herself is consistent. Even her depiction of used teabags has thematic content to share. The dangling bags’ tags identify some as Yogi tea, a brand that sounds Indian but comes from Oregon, and some as Wagh Bakri Chai, an actual Indian brand.
It’s challenging to import so much content into a satisfying gestalt, yet Rajgariah succeeds. The balance in these paintings of visual feast with conceptual fist keeps them from devolving into decoration, though the visual pleasure provided does buoy the mood and gratify the eye. Rajgariah’s investigation into the interstices of her identity seems an ongoing one. It’s open-ended enough to embrace the dynamic nature of evolution while never risking falling victim to the full stop of resolution.