Writing in Chicago’s New Art Examiner in 1979, Keith Morrison complained that black artists in the city couldn’t get the exposure they deserved because an aesthetic many of them shared — an interest in bold colors, pattern and decoration that Morrison described as “more is more” — just didn’t make sense in a cultural environment dominated by the comparatively white sensibility that “less is more.” As a result, Morrison lamented, art by many black artists didn’t appear interesting or valuable to art world gatekeepers like critics, who literally couldn’t see art in an aesthetic they didn’t appreciate.
More than 30 years since Morrison wrote, the cultural quagmire persists — perhaps made even more complex by an increasingly globalized world in which artists of all backgrounds collide with audiences and institutions in communities of varied diversity.
That unfirm terrain — a slippery zone of cultural relativity and indeterminacy — is where Ina Kaur navigates her artwork. Through June 20, an exhibition at HCC Ybor’s School of Visual and Performing Arts Gallery gives the New Delhi-born, U.S.-educated artist a platform for her prints, sculpture and installation. It’s art that could be taken as intrinsically Indian for its devotion to ornate patterns and bursts of vermillion, or solidly postminimalist in the more American-International sense for its reliance on simple, organic forms, repetition and a restrained palette (lots of grays and whites in addition to the fiery red). Her art’s identity, and to a certain extent her own, often winds up resting in the eye of the beholder — a predicament of which Kaur is keenly aware.
“I just take everything with a smile,” she says. “Because of my identity perhaps, when I show my work in Western countries, it’s perceived as more Oriental. In India, it’s perceived more as abstract. They see a lot of Westernization in it.”
The place where cultures collide with the most impact is in Kaur’s prints. The six on display at HCC function as variations on a theme, alternately combining a mandala-like series of concentric floral bands (bursting with life) with small, obsessively drawn circles (cells afloat in the compositions) and meandering lines (from a dense thicket of fine strands to spaghetti-like vines). Here’s where, depending on your inclination, you might see a connection to Indian textiles in what Kaur’s stylus has inscribed onto an etching plate, or a nod to minimalism when she embosses a white pattern onto white paper.
Kaur intends the exhibition’s title, Ink Link, to conjure an image of bridging artistic and geographical divides.
After growing up in New Delhi and being drawn to printmaking as an undergraduate in India, Kaur moved to Indiana to continue studying art at Purdue University. The medium of printmaking attracted her with its combination of technical challenges and artistic possibilities. From Purdue, she went on to teach at Bowling Green State University. Three years ago, the University of Tampa hired her to oversee their drawing and printmaking programs.
She describes her work as a document of organic thought, a visualization of the way people’s minds uncoil and recoil in scrolling patterns. She picks shapes — like the cellular circle — that have deep personal resonance and deploys them again and again in different methods of printmaking as well as other media.
“I want to find a fine balance between the concept and the mark-making, or the process and the techniques,” Kaur says.
When she hits that balance, the result is delightful objects. My favorites, after the prints, are a series of tree trunk sections carved with the same, or similar, concentric circle and floral patterns as adorn her 2D work. Less successful is an installation that pairs a massive tree branch, meticulously wrapped in thread, with a video of hands at work wrapping the tree. The video, in my eyes, only blunts the punch of realizing how much labor must have gone into wrapping the tree with delicate orange, red and white thread, offering too much information about an object that could be more enticingly mysterious. Suspended from the ceiling, the branch becomes a network of dangling roots of different colors — another possible metaphor for hybridity, but in the dim light of the projected video not a very compelling one.
An installation of handmade paper circles on an adjacent wall — the organic forms of Kaur’s prints translated into three dimensions — offers still more to consider. Collectively, her work emits a polyglot murmur that is sometimes mesmerizing and sometimes not, but eminently worth listening for.
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