The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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MARCH 2023 Issue

Nasreen Mohamedi

Nasreen Mohamedi, <em>Untitled</em>, 1980. Ink and graphite on paper, 20 x 27.25 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, 1980. Ink and graphite on paper, 20 x 27.25 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.

On View
Sunaparanta Art Center
October 14 – November 18, 2022
Goa, India
On View
Space Studio
December 8, 2022 – January 15, 2023
Vadodara, India
On View
Vadehra Art Gallery
February 3 – March 2, 2023
New Delhi, India
On View
Bikaner House
March 10 – April 4, 2023
New Delhi, India
On View
Pundole Art Gallery
April 20 – May 26, 2023
Mumbai, India

Over the course of her career, spanning London, Paris, New Delhi, Mumbai, Vadodara, and Bahrain, Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) developed a rigorous practice of abstraction. On view in Vadodara (shown previously in Goa and traveling to New Delhi and Mumbai) is the full set of Mohamedi’s works from the Glenbarra Museum of Art in Himeji, Japan, which began in its founder, Masanori Fukuoka’s, food-processing factory in the 1990s. It is a comprehensive introduction to her art, bringing together not only each decade, but also most mediums, of Mohamedi’s career: an early portrait in felt tip on paper; three sleek oil paintings; a lithograph; two collages; a few works on graph paper; and several photographs, watercolors, and drawings. Though Mohamedi abdicates the represented body, her art continues to represent its physicality, and her works swoop, swim, and levitate across the room.

Both Glenbarra’s origins, and the experience of Space Studio, a gallery built over a chemical factory, reiterate the industrial qualities—repetition, sameness, and mechanical production—one might, in passing acquaintance, associate with the abstraction on display. Mohamedi certainly worked hard to achieve such an effect through the 1970s, excising paint and canvas for ink, drawn in bow pens or Rotring Isographs; readymade paper; and the colors produced between them. Parallel to her professorship at the Faculty of Fine Arts Maharaja Sayajirao University (a position she held until her death), which facilitated a close study of the utopic avant-garde Mohamedi, in the guise of engineer, deployed drafting instruments (straight edges, framing squares, perpendicular T-bars); incorporated mechanical references (distortions of camera lenses, manipulations in the dark room, cut and found readymade materials), and steadily worked on compressing the scale of her works from all-over surfaces to suspended bars, discs, vectors, and other graphic icons.

Nasreen Mohamedi, <em>Untitled</em>, 1970. Ink, watercolor, and collage on paper, 8.25 x 8.25 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, 1970. Ink, watercolor, and collage on paper, 8.25 x 8.25 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.

But Mohamedi’s oeuvre, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, is also a significant reminder of abstraction’s position between the readymade commodity and handmade work. Mohamedi embraces intimate, even violently rendered, contingencies such as drags of the pen, lines empty of ink, and holes. And the more one crouches and circles, bringing with such embodiment a visual capacity encompassing the physical environment of the room—the light and air and spacing—it becomes quickly apparent that the content of these works is not flatness or sameness or duplicability, but the labor that resists any easy contract with mechanized life.

Each work painstakingly introduces subtle spatial definition against the two-dimensionality of industrially or mechanically produced materials. Positive markings, planes, and geometrical shapes made up of scores of lines, are often carved by incised edges where the paper’s flesh is drawn up. Photographic negatives are cleanly scissored and then handwoven into relief. Pictorial space is built through perspective—the longer lines “in front” and the shorter lines “distant”—to animate the surface. Often, what seems like a system breaks and warps. In one large watercolor, triangles taper left to right end to join other tapering triangles, as if serially moving across the page; between them is formed their negative, reverse movement from right to left. In an embossed work, diagonals move between vertical lines, joining them to form bolts of lightning. In the large grids, columns and rows angle at intervals to form lozenges, vectors, and right angles. In one, a bilateral symmetry of chevrons concludes with a flat x in the middle against which its diagonals become winding rivers. It is as if pictorial construction seizes the support, producing a landscape for the work of the eye, spatially innovating a feeling of both ground and sky, tethering and flying.

Nasreen Mohamedi, <em>Untitled</em>, 1985. Graphite, gouache and ink on paper, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, 1985. Graphite, gouache and ink on paper, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy Glenbarra Museum of Art.

In following such movement, we move too, the eye considering both the underlying nature of pictorial construction (perspective, volume, geometry) and the structure of perception (approaching, recognizing, disassembling) itself. We ourselves take on the quality of the lines, regular and then transformed, scattered, in parts blind. Our body is shown in its own mechanics, as the lens of our eye, say, and its organic fallibility, in the spots where we go have to refocus, or concentrate, or attend to something. Such reciprocal work on either side of Mohamedi’s art is best understood by the alchemy of refraction. Light, when it passes through a transparent medium, changes—as magnification, distortion, or color division—to match varying optical densities. Refraction’s “slowing” or “bending” produces angles, the mark of a passing between substances such as light and air or water. Such movement, governed by laws, throws up the color spectrum and the mirage, the seeing of something constituent of all perception as well as the production of an illusion, the core and the dream.

The passing, the flying, the freeing—the living—is always wrested from something else that it is not, allegorized as a shadow. In one large, late work, thin vertical strings are welded to diagonal counterparts, a material blocking of light shown as a line. The lines joined by their shadows reappear above, in serial narrative, literally lifting and repeating again to transcend the indicated joinery, as if it is such simplicity that awaits those who work. Following them, one is left with the memory of love, desire, death, longing, an epic quest. One is exhausted and challenged and lifted and released. One is moved.


Meghaa Ballakrishnen

Meghaa Parvathy Ballakrishnen is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University and the current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Center of Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts (CASVA). She studies abstraction and 20th-century Indian art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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