Perhaps the most surprising feature in the first segment of the Mattress Factory's two-part exhibition, India: New Installations is the universal marginalization of color. Visitors might anticipate a bazaar-worthy panoply of hues to dominate the site-specific works at 1414 Monterey (the museum's row-house annex). Instead, the first four installations focus on sensuous visual texture and rich, if sometimes obscure, concept.
The wholesale rejection of color is an intriguing aesthetic choice for 46-year-old Sudarshan Shetty, who was formally trained as a painter. However, the effect of Shetty's snow-white palette in the mixed-media installation "Pure" is mesmerizing.
Heaped in an enormous, brilliantly lighted transparent box are hundreds of glass vessels. Vein-like white tubes wind through the fragmented piles, and jet white water over them. Nearby, a tree made of PVC pipe and elbow joints pushes upward from a longer length that snakes back to a porcelain toilet, mounted to the wall with bowl-belly outward. China plates, stacked waist high, stand to the right of the entrance and serve up projected images of auto traffic. Cars speed across the plates' faces like rolling peas. Shetty, who seeks to create visual poetry through the juxtaposition of incongruous elements, has succeeded.
A funereal black is the prevailing color in Krishnaraj Chonat's "Untitled." Water and its absence also play a significant role. Desiccated earth greets the viewer at the installation's second-floor threshold and continues into the two-room installation. Ironically, water circulates noisily in a corner-style Jacuzzi tub. Mirrors just behind it reflect the black-trimmed opposite wall, which is covered with an inverted image of dense jungle foliage. In the neighboring black-walled room, a lifeless tree, spot-lit and roots exposed, spins endlessly beneath a circular, red rope-light -- an amazing visual effect that suggests certain disaster.
Chonat, 33, has previously created installations interpreted as disdainful of middle-class ambitions. Here, he again comments on the bourgeoisie's wastrel ways: Even as the earth thirsts and rain forests are uprooted, the middle class will still bathe lavishly.
All of the participating artists were selected through studio visits made by Mattress Factory curator Michael Olijnyk and executive artistic director Barbara Luderowski; each artist is a life-long resident of India. Yet, the artists employ no obvious iconography, either religious or secular, that might reveal their national origin. Instead, their work looks elsewhere for inspiration, suggesting a distinct attention to global artistic experiments.
This is especially true of Mansi Bhatt, 33, whose photographs of herself dressed in costumes and prosthetic make-up recall Yasumasa Morimura's gender- and ethnicity-bending self-portraits. While Bhatt's images appear in color, her installation -- like the others -- is dominated by one color, red, which appears in a carpet meant to evoke the idea of Hollywood and its awards events.
White returns as the governing color in 33-year-old Navin Thomas' "Untitled." Furniture, mirrors and paintings are carefully covered by opaque white sheets that suggest the room's purposeful suspension in time. A static-heavy transmission, itself a white noise, issues from an exposed radio. Near the room's windows, a life-sized, ball-shaped construction, surrounded by organic detritus, holds a chair and a television set on which a live video feed from outside the museum plays endlessly. Meanwhile, and surprisingly, live baby crickets hop from furniture to floor and back and, occasionally, around visitors' feet.
This denial of the expected -- the 180-degree turn from sensuous jewel-tones, traditional icons and heavy ornaments -- is just one of the characteristics that makes India: New Installations, Part I so captivating. Three of the four participating artists have created entirely new realities -- works all but pure of associations with existing cultures -- while the fourth, Bhatt, uses tried-and-true modes of expression to fabricate personas. Charting culturally unfamiliar territories, these artists reveal the ongoing evolution of South Asian creative identity.
India: New Installations, Part I continues through Nov. 25. The Mattress Factory Annex, 1414 Monterey Ave., North Side. 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org
- Bath during drought-time: Krishnaraj Chonat's "Untitled."