Anil Revri: Intimations of Infinity
Michael J. Amy, 2006
Art Critic, Art in America
Anil Revri’s recent abstract drawings and paintings offer intimations of infinity. Composed of lines and particles, they suggest a conflation of atoms and molecules, as well as the universe, all at once. These are the realms in which the forces of creation are unleashed.
Anil, whose art is concerned among other things with making dualities visible, delights in achieving a balance between opposites. Antithesis, as he rightly concludes, adds richness to one’s work. However, the contradictory impulses Anil holds magically in check do not instantly reveal themselves to the beholder. Indeed, the things that first strike us as we come upon this artist’s recent drawings and paintings, are symmetry, the works’ surface-stressing patterns, as well as the opposite, namely the illusion of dynamic and precipitous depth. Anil aims for tension. The patterns act as veils stretched over the illusion of depth generated by the very constituent elements of the patterns in question. The works’ spiritual dimensions reveal themselves to us more slowly.
We often think — most likely as a result of our experience both of our own bodies and of the bodies of others — that symmetry amounts to stasis, for when a person assumes a symmetrical pose he or she seems frozen. However, Anil Revri reminds us that symmetrical configurations may incorporate velocities that are seemingly even greater than the speed of light. He achieves this by arranging the particles in his drawings along orthogonal lines, which repeatedly lead the eye from the sides — which it seeks — into the immeasurable depth situated at the center of his compositions. In fact, when confronted with many of the recent drawings with their preponderantly muted palette, I am reminded of that unforgettable scene towards the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the spaceship zips through a seemingly endlessly changing corridor of light, color and signs. There is a metaphysical aura to that movie and there is a deeply spiritual dimension to the art of Anil Revri.
2001 brings us to another characteristic of Anil’s art, namely its ability to refer to ancient traditions and rituals while at the same time pointing towards the technologies and experiences that lie ahead. This artist’s works are built up of a great number of small, finely drawn units, bringing the work of miniaturists of bygone ages to mind, while simultaneously hinting both at the most intricate electrical grids and networks embedded within computer chips. Anil has these powers of synthesis. He finds the links tying different traditions and cultures together, so that these can merge into unified and harmoniously balanced wholes. As a person from India who is particularly receptive to western ideas, Anil found considerable beauty in the Renaissance ideals of unity and harmony, and in the Renaissance notion of the picture functioning as a window offering us a view of something lying beyond it. Linear perspective — a classical mode of arranging gradually diminishing forms in space, which was refined during the Renaissance — offered this artist a means of achieving a compelling illusion of spatial recession, which he proceeded to make his own. In fact, when looking at Anil’s drawings, I am reminded of those 15th century views of ideal, classicizing, Albertian towns, with their piazze at the center, exquisitely balanced on either side by a succession of palaces receding along diagonal lines towards a point located on the horizon line. Since many believe that the human body is made in the image of God, the body’s divinely ordained symmetry must express the highest ideals of order and perfection. Like those immaculately calibrated Albertian cityscapes, the compositions by Anil Revri make ideals of order and perfection visible.
However, they do so in unusual ways, since this artist depicts the intangible. The architecture is dematerialized and the compositions suggest immense, continuous depths that either unexpectedly flip back to the surface of the sheet and stress the plane, or articulate a succession of diaphanous planes parallel to the picture field. Anil obtains considerable mileage from these optical tricks alluding to dimensions — and thus to realities — beyond our own. He has found a style and mode of composition allowing him to render the immaterial and thereby evoke the spiritual.
Spirituality occupies an important place in Anil Revri’s thinking. Witness Cultural Crossings, the suite of eighteen drawings executed with metallic markers and graphite on paper that explore the similarities existing in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, six of the religions practiced to this very day in the artist’s native India. In these works realized from 1998–2001, the artist translated these faiths’ teachings on peace, desire/lust/greed, and renunciation into small, extraordinarily refined images dense with graphite, thereby arriving at three sets of six drawings each. In the drawing from Suite I illustrating the Hindu view of peace, the large canopy borne by two columns simultaneously occupies the foreground and middle ground of the composition, since on the left side the canopy overlaps the interior margin of the frame surrounding the configuration, but on the opposite side, the architecture is located several bays beyond the frame. Since the laws of nature do not permit this, the artist is here evoking a realm in which our worldly notions of time and space do not prevail. This place is a deeply spiritual one, as the inscription on the frame and the iconography of the architecture emphasize. Anil renders miracles with the precision of an Old Master.
Anil’s desire to highlight the similarities existing in six religions originating in the East struck a chord in the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Suddenly, this artist’s project achieved increased resonance and in 2004, Anil Revri became the first contemporary artist of Indian origin to be granted a comprehensive exhibition by a major American museum, namely the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Anil Revri’s œuvre can be divided into two large groups. The first group consists of the superb abstract drawings and paintings executed from 1976 to 1996, which exploit the liquidity of the medium to arrive at biomorphic formations seemingly in a continuous state of flux. In these works, in which chance plays a key role during the process of artistic creation, we find reflections of ideas and techniques associated with Surrealism — Anil, it may be noted, is an avid reader of Jung. The second group of works, begun exactly a decade ago in 1996, is sur-real in that it seeks to give form to experiences of a spiritual nature, through the techniques of geometric abstraction. Thus, Anil is developing in a way somewhat akin to Wassily Kandinsky, who introduced abstraction into western easel painting as he searched for the language best suited to express the spiritual. Kandinsky moved, like Anil, from a painterly world of forms evoking higher states of being, to a realm of harder and more tightly organized geometric shapes. However, the comparison stops there, for although Anil is obviously deeply interested in spiritual values, he does not adhere to any one particular religion, and both his organic and geometric abstractions are worlds apart from Kandinsky’s. Reminiscent of ancient, symmetrically inlaid patterns on furniture and architecture, and of the regularity and all-overness of tapestries and fabrics, the works from the Geometric Abstraction series are indebted to the trick illusionism of 1960s Op Art, with its surface/depth oppositions achieved through its mastery and deliberate perversion of the laws of one point perspective. Op Art — that highly decorative take on Synthetic Cubism — uses line and number to convey optical sensations with great immediacy, though these visual impressions are ephemeral. Consequently, a mode of abstraction in the line of Op Art becomes a perfect vehicle for the articulation of visions — including those visions appearing in the guise of spiritual revelations.
For this artist, the process of painting is as important as the finished work of art. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that Anil makes his own paper for the Geometric Abstractions. The base sheets are essentially pulp paintings incorporating cloud-like formations and background color. Once these have set, the compositions are developed around the existing patterns in the paper to maximize the depth of field. The Geometric Abstractions can be divided into two groups. In the first, the eye is directed from the outermost deckled edges of the paper towards the center, where the vanishing point lies. This configuration may be compared to a one-way street. As our eye travels towards the void in the second group of drawings, a purely optical phenomenon seems to rush towards us.
This is most noticeable in Geometric Abstraction 4 (2005) with its frayed edges and checkerboard pattern of black and silver squares acting as a frame on all four sides. This surface-stressing pattern surrounds a narrow flat silver frame beyond which we see wide, alternately silver and black orthogonals rushing into depth and abruptly coming to a halt once they have reached another silver frame offering us a view of a black void — infinity. The red splatters in the center of the configuration allude to blood. However, the artist explains that these drips are also representative of Shakti, or the Cosmic Female Principle in all Her splendor, and are meant to represent birth and creativity.
The Fractal paintings Anil began producing in 2006 mark an important new development for him (mixed media on linen and canvas). Significantly, it is a development that once again seamlessly ties ancient traditions to ongoing currents in modern abstraction, and binds East and West together in highly idiosyncratic ways. These new paintings consist of straight and curvilinear lines of even thickness circumscribing small flat islands that have a minimum of three and at most five corners — though the latter are rare. The islands are all painted the same color in a given painting, and the avenues weaving between them are either all left blank — thereby allowing the color and texture of the linen to rise to the surface of the picture — or are painted in a different hue. When there are shifts in tone, the paintings flicker with greater intensity and gem-like effects are achieved. The lines, or avenues as I prefer to call these, are often punctuated by black dots of more or less the same size and density, running at more or less equal distance from each other down the middle of the avenues. We thus often have three systems — namely lines, dots and planes — that harmoniously coexist. This marriage is made in heaven. Unsurprisingly so, for lines consist of an accumulation of dots and are used to delineate planes.
What makes this new crop of paintings so very compelling is that Anil uses his miniaturizing tendencies to fill large square fields in their entirety with his intricate network of avenues, dots and islands, thereby opening a new chapter in the history of all-over painting. All-over paintings are images in which every area of the composition receives equal attention — in other words, all hierarchies are abolished. In Anil’s compositions, the avenues delineate the islands, and without the islands, there would be no avenues.
In the West, the story of all-over painting begins in the wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when non-classical ideas about the beauty of pervasive abstract pattern migrated with the invading peoples from the East and Germanic North, and were eventually transferred from the realm of fine metalwork to that of book-illumination in the scriptoria of Early Medieval Irish, Scottish and Northumbrian monasteries. The origin of abstract all-over painting in western art is significant in light of Anil’s new paintings, considering that the Hiberno-Saxon miniatures I am referring to — the so-called carpet pages — are extraordinarily detailed works that were executed on a small scale to accompany texts drawn from Scripture. Those highly intricate early medieval patterns were obviously considered ideal vehicles for expressing the beauty of the divine and the mysteries of the faith, as well as helpful aids to meditation. Considering that this and other forms of abstraction are so perfectly equipped to express spiritual values, it is certainly surprising that we will have to wait until the 20th century for abstraction to appear as an entirely autonomous mode of expression in western easel painting.
This brief synopsis takes us far from the Nymphéas of Claude Monet’s Symbolist period, which are generally regarded as the roots of all-over painting in modernist practice. Unlike Monet, Anil carries on the Early Medieval artist’s wish to express the sacred through purely abstract means. He has blown up the size of the Medieval artist’s support, for all-over patterns can theoretically go on and on. However, Anil’s patterns — often reminiscent of little bits of shattered glass — are very different from those mesmerizing systems of interlacing bands that were developed in the 7th and 8th century. The key word here is systems. Like the Medieval artist, Anil uses a more or less strict method to organize his compositions, so that we have clusters of elements that appear to echo or reverse other clusters of motifs.
Among non-western practices, I would not want to overlook an important precedent of great antiquity that shares characteristics with Anil’s new body of configurations. In the Aboriginal paintings of Australia, we likewise find dense, surface-stressing patterns, which however almost always include hierarchical zones and often incorporate areas of figuration. Significantly, there too, we find the use of bands and/or great numbers of dots, and islands enclosed within those compact systems of signs. There too, abstraction — in combination with or without figuration — is used to express spiritual ideas.
Then there are the nets expressing infinity that the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has been painting since the Sixties, in which small, more or less half-circular interconnecting bands encircle discrete zones. Kusama’s pictures have rhythm — a particular pulse. The same is true of Anil’s new paintings, which are nevertheless very different from Kusama’s. Although Anil’s patterns emphasize the plane, when we focus upon these they break down into clusters that contract, thereby hinting at a warped surface. Once again, we are confronted with the tensions underlying Anil’s compositions and to parallels with the visual effects achieved in 1960s Op Art. The solid and contained square format of Anil’s pictures controls the vectors of movement within his compositions.
All these words do not suffice to do justice to the beauty of these recent paintings. Fractal 14 is built up of countless gold-yellow shards that characteristically assume only a small variety of shapes and sizes. These islands are separated by bands of exposed linen over the middle of which run white lines that are punctuated by a procession of black dots. The velocity is heightened considerably in Fractal 21, in which small, flat, irregularly shaped areas of scarlet red are arranged so as to preserve bands of raw linen over the middle of which runs a thin line of yellow — the dots are withheld. The warmth of this painting makes way for the icy chill of Fractal 17 with its avenues of raw linen — punctuated along its central axis by an alternation of white and black dots — navigating between zones of white. Anil manages to evoke very different moods by modifying his color scheme, the tightness of his compositions, and the shape and size of the individual parts of his configurations.
Not only do Anil’s recent pictures demand a considerable amount of planning, technical skill verging on virtuosity and physical labor — they are akin to imaginary maps, made visible — but also more than a little daring. For — as strange as this may seem — aiming for beauty is not among the highest priorities in contemporary painting. It is almost as if beauty has become somewhat suspicious — morally bankrupt. Beauty, when we find it in contemporary work, is often ironic or cynical. It’s a sham, a façade, for in our culture, everything seems to mask something else — beauty as camouflage, so to speak. However, none of this applies to Anil’s drawings and paintings.
Anil Revri has an uncompromising passion for pattern and decoration, for ornament and — at times — opulence. He believes abstraction is able to convey thought and feeling — even when employing methods of repetition — though more elliptically than figurative art. Abstraction consequently more easily achieves effects akin to poetry. Aiming for a form of abstraction that is oriented towards pattern and decoration requires additional courage, for work of this order is traditionally associated with the anonymous artisan class and the so-called minor and decorative arts. In light of these attitudes, the elevation of these systems to the rank of fine painting tailored for careful aesthetic analysis suddenly seems a bold move. All successful artists develop systems allowing them to structure their thinking and practice, or toppled previous systems in order to arrive at novel strategies. In Anil’s paintings, systems are translated into captivating patterns.
Anil Revri’s abstract works, offering us views onto realms above and beyond our own, allow us to achieve a state of contemplation. Anil’s art is also about process. Countless hours were required to complete these works, and more than one beholder will retrace in his or her mind the many steps that went into the execution of these compositions speaking of such discipline and concentrated labor. Interestingly, the artist reports achieving a trancelike state while drawing and painting his compositions, thus echoing the state in which we may find ourselves when viewing these drawings and paintings.
Anil Revri’s work invites introspection. In its search for what ties us together across cultures, it is exactly what we need in this age of seemingly greater and greater ignorance, paranoid behavior and intolerance. Abstraction is, after all, a universal language.