Painting that goes in search of the self is an idea that has persistently regenerated itself in the course of Modernist art. It is both an aesthetic and a deeply philosophical search. Such an approach to painting not only raises questions concerning the ontological nature of the self but also points to a broader spiritual dimension that evokes theological questions about the existence of a Divine Being. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this approach to painting was carefully articulated by such early Modernist masters as Kandinsky and Klee, and practiced by others, among them Emma Kunz, Hilma af Klint, and Frantisek Kupka. This is not to suggest that the relationship between the self and spirituality was limited to Modernism, but it does show that the individual search for meaning and truth once played an important role in the development and evolution of abstract painting. Clearly, as Anil Revri has demonstrated, these concerns are prevalent in both Middle and Far Eastern thought. Over the centuries, aesthetic manifestations of spirituality have applied to such mediums as painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, tapestries, and printmaking. Revri’s point of departure — indeed, his original contribution — is the way in which he connects Modernism with traditions of spirituality in India and in various regions of the Middle East.
Revri, who completed his undergraduate design studies at the prestigious Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay (1977), was later trained as a graphic designer at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, from which he graduated in 1995. By the late nineties, he had adopted the visual language of geometric abstraction in his paintings, working primarily with oil and metallic markers on canvas. Revri addresses himself through his paintings. By addressing himself, he acknowledges a spiritual source of understanding. As indicated by the title of his major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, In Search of Self, the question arises whether Revri is referring expressly to the nature of himself or to another, universal self. As suggested in his Veiled Doorways (1998–2000), this seemingly dualistic idea may eventually fold in upon itself as the concepts of the individual and the universal self conflate into each other. Through this process, a unity is formed whereby the self is absorbed into a heightened epistemological and ontological awareness. Where painting is concerned, this may elicit additional questions: Are Revri’s geometric forms simply the result of meditative practice? Or does the image itself create another level of complexity, a simultaneous folding inward toward the nature of the self and outward toward a form of consciousness that is associated with a divine Being?
According to the Upanishads, the sacred Hindu scripture, the individual self and the universal self are simply two manifestations of one force within the greater cosmos. This differs from the Western concept of the self, in which the duality of consciousness prevails. Whereas the Western concept of self perpetually defines itself in relation to the “other,” this is largely unfamiliar in the East. This Western dualistic orientation is further manifested in the separation of the ego from the id, as in Freudian psychoanalysis, or in the separation of the conscious from the unconscious mind. In contrast, most devout Hindus believe they are one infinitesimal aspect of a single universal consciousness. From a Buddhist or a Taoist point of view, the nature of self is indivisible. Buddhists adhere to the void (Sunyata), in which non-Being spurs enlightenment (samadhi) through meditative practice. Through non-Being the Buddhist empties the mind and thereby enters into a state of “no mind” (wu-nein), or absence of selfhood.1For Hindus meditation is less about emptiness than about seeking universality through the unity of Atman and Brahma, the divine and earthly manifestations of the same cosmic force. In the Bhagavad Gita, there are references to worldly renunciation as spoken through the voice of Arjuna, when he says, “I want to learn the truth about renunciation and non-attachment.” On the battlefield, Sri Krishna responds that “renunciation means the complete giving up of all actions which are motivated by desire”… and “that non-attachment means abandonment of the fruits of action.”2 This, of course, is comparable to the Buddhist notion of the denial of selfhood as an attribute of the material world. Sri Krishna’s words also have an affinity with Lao-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher from the sixth century B.C.
In Taosim, the path or the way, represented by the Tao, “come[s] together in a field of polar energies — thus implying the absence of dualism, as “these forces create the world in which all life plays, and instill in us the instinctive knowledge of the primal forces at work in the human psyche.”3
To look at the paintings of Anil Revri is to understand the unity of the self-based on the essential unity of diverse spiritual beliefs, which have become institutionalized as religions over the course of time. Revri’s paintings are essentially about the focal point of this unity, the coming together of polar energies. This is evident in the Veiled Doorways and in the later Fractals (2004–07), which constitute the basis of the current exhibition. The recent works, which combine metallic markers and acrylic paint on canvas, might be interpreted as paradoxical emblems of non-Being in search of the fertility of Being, or true Selfhood. As the Tao Te Ching makes clear, Being does not exist without non-Being:
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.4
From a Western perspective, one might understand the Self in Taoism not as a duality, as would be the case in the philosophy of the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”), but as an absence that underlies the structure of presence. Being present in the world is contingent upon absence, and absence is the emptiness that reveals the presence of the Tao. There is nothing imposed or forced. This is only the process by which nature — and hence the true Self — unfolds in relation to time and space.
The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.5
The drawings and paintings of Anil Revri are concerned with the spiritual journey of the self. There is something unequivocal about these works, something indelible about the manner in which they are constructed. They are the result of a sequence of layering, a nearly systemic process of thought. The translucent quality of the Veiled Doorways, which seem to vibrate, is achieved through a process of discrete layering. Although it is different in concept and appearance, the Fractals reflect similar optical qualities. Both series contain an interior vision, which alludes to the spiritual yet somehow always comes down to a way of seeing, a cognitive mode of perception, a sensory illusion of form topologically choreographed through the intricacy of flattened space. Within this process, the self may reflect on cognitive meaning — that is, how one perceives and understands routine existence in the material everyday, mundane world. The focus of Revri’s paintings moves inductively from the immanence of visuality and perceptual existence toward a potential transcendence.
Revri’s work — whether it is the Veiled Doorways, Cultural Crossings, or his Geometric Abstractions and the recent Fractals— reflect the phenomenological circumstances of the everyday world, but elevated to a higher plane of focus and concentration. While these series are optically, visually, and conceptually intertwined, they express their own spiritual truths through variations on symmetrical geometric motifs. I sense that Revri’s need to express or encapsulate feelings of spirituality in his work may offer a fresh interpretation of the term “identity” as it is bandied about in today’s chaotic, media-driven art world. While the spiritual dimension of identity was more closely associated with the artists of early Modernism, such as Kandinsky, Kunz, and Kupka, it virtually disappeared among painters who emerged from the postmodern cynicism of the late twentieth century. Neither Op Art in the fifties and sixties nor Neo-Geo in the eighties was particularly concerned with spiritual content. While the progenitors of Op Art may have carried a greater sincerity of intention than did those of Neo-Geo, painters like Vasarely, Anuszkiewicz, Morellet, Riley, Cruz-Diaz, and Jesus Raphael Soto were more interested in creating a new language of form than in signifying spiritual intentions.
In 1998, Anil Revri embarked on what some observers consider to be his magnum opus, a tripartite series of drawings entitled Cultural Crossings. He took as his premise the idea that the search for self is contingent upon a more accurate historical and theological understanding of the unifying factors found in diverse expressions of spirituality. He began by examining the questions: What gives the major world religions a common ground? What are the basic tenets within these institutional forms of religion that advocate a humanistic way of life? As the critic J.W. Mahoney asserted, “It is exquisitely dangerous work.…To state, in art, that the Deity is greater than any approach to It can be, while honoring each approach, is an act of supreme diplomacy.”6 Indeed, Revri completed this work a few months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place. One reason for the attacks, we have been given to understand, is that frictions between different religious beliefs and persuasions in the Middle Eastern countries were not being acknowledged in relation to either American or European diplomacy. Had this issue been approached differently, perhaps history would have taken a different turn.
Having traveled through various cultures, both within and outside his native India, Revri had encountered many religious viewpoints. For Cultural Crossings (1998–2001), he chose six religions that he felt best expressed his concept: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. While this work has been discussed in much detail, it is important to note that Revri’s implementation of geometric symbols, including references to sacred architecture, signifying holy ground, and the application of indigenous linguistic symbols within the artist’s rendering of architectonic spaces, makes for a dense reading — a palimpsest of forms in relation to languages that evokes the historical past as well as the present.
These geometric, and highly formal, palimpsests signify the intertwining of religion and history, the process of layered writing over sacred symbols, and the spelling out of a spiritual authority in the case of each religion. Yet Revri’s selection in each of the three suites of drawings (eighteen in total) ultimately refers to universal themes. They have political as well as personal implications. The gold and silver markers, along with graphite, precisely applied to the Arches paper carries both a certain tension and a resonant affect. Revri’s ability to evoke optical effects on the surface (though they give every appearance of being embedded in the paintings) seems, at times, uncanny in its saturation, its clarity and consistency. Cultural Crossings posits the universality of the great works of Indian architecture and the decorative arts, yet within this carefully selected system of visual articulation each religion is given equal space and time as the forms concentrate on the intrinsic meaning of the respective sacred symbols. One may be tempted to attribute the visual structure in Revri’s work to Minimal art, but I think this is too limiting. These deeply refined drawings soar beyond the literal into the realm of the metonymical sign: the emblems of spiritual essence or prophetic dreams that hold the picture plane intact. I am reminded of the painter Agnes Martin, who never disregarded formality as a necessary means of signifying the spiritual values that she so frequently attributed to her work. In her highly reflective and intuitive writings, Martin often alluded to this phenomenon:
In our minds, there is awareness of perfection;
when we look with our eyes we see it,
and how it functions is mysterious to us and unavailable.7
In view of the way he structures the suite of drawings in Cultural Crossings, Revri can be said to have a similar outlook. These drawings possess a certain equanimity, but they are not modular. They are not units that progress according to seriation. Instead, Revri has focused on how the semiotic structure in these drawings can best facilitate his message. Rather than turn the narrative into a solipsistic form of contemplation — a problem not foreign to Hindu religious thought — Revri offers the viewer a significant challenge that extends beyond a purely aesthetic vision: Either we agree on the right of all people to worship what and as they choose or we participate in the perpetuation of conflict and destruction. The position of the Self in relation to this incisive challenge constitutes nothing less than a world view, a vision for healing a divided world in which those who have and those who have not can share a common language. Cultural Crossings is an exegesis on shared values that are understood to be beneficial to the entire human race, no matter how diverse these values may appear. I would argue that Revri’s point is to reveal that each religion shares these values, and that they appear to be different only because people themselves are different. Whether his message continues as a life force under the shadow of corporate exploitation is another question — one that largely depends on whether global financiers are willing to compromise with the essential differences that govern the persistence of these common values. In short, common values depend on difference. Without difference, there is only repression and a lack of trust among those who feel that they are being coerced into conforming to standardized practices of living that erode the basic values they believe represent their identity as human beings.
Cultural Crossings was first shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2004. In many ways, the timing for exhibiting Revri’s works was right, despite the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which according to the artist, may have inspired the exhibition. The title of the show, In Search of Self, reflected not so much a direct focus on the potential controversy of Cultural Crossings as a mid-career survey. The advantage of showing this work within the context of a larger survey of other, related works adroitly circumvented the problem of placing the artist in the position of having to defend his work as being more than simply illustration. Such disclaimers often occur when art writers are expected to deflect controversy under the threat of editorial curtailment, which prevents them from dealing directly with the work’s content. A case in point is the reviewer of a New York art periodical, who resorted to carefully worded descriptions of a few selected works, clearly excluding any in-depth interpretation that might shed light on the real power of Revri’s drawings.
It is much to the artist’s credit that he chose to depart from the conceptually narrative content of Cultural Crossings and to point his visual vocabulary in a new direction, while still following the logic of his stated intention. While the issue of the self may continue to occupy the artist, he has clearly achieved a certain distance based on maturity and growth, and an awareness of his own aesthetic evolution. I refer here to the Quantum exhibition shown at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in 2005, which dealt largely with the Geometric Abstractions. This exhibition served as a necessary transition between the artist’s personally explicit commentary on religion and the question of the self in a more scientific and optical approach to painting. The Fractals series is, in fact, an extension of the Geometric Abstractions, with the addition of acrylic paint, which allows the molecular interstices of the painting to revivify themselves and thus create a new spatial relationship to the viewer’s perception of the work. Having studied these paintings in some depth, I can see that Revri has crossed another threshold, a manner of painting layer upon layer (as before), but with a freshly conceived process-orientation that is fully visual in the sense of the painting’s compositional and formal value.
Revri’s work — whether painting or drawing — is ultimately pictorial in a way that retains its signifying content. With the Fractals, his painting has become more resolutely abstract, in the sense that one views these paintings without a narrative. The narrative has been replaced by visual aggregates resembling biomorphic structures within the body or within natural rock clusters, tree bark, or alligator skins. There is a new emphasis on rhythmic structure. This suggests a leap in the painter’s awareness as he approaches another field of inquiry — indeed, another territory whereby the viewer’s engagement with the painting is more about filling in the interstices, and thus opening a spatial arena through the language of optical vision. With these new Fractals, Revri assumes a post-structuralist approach to optical painting whereby the intricacies of the illusionist surface play off one another to create a seismographic optical experience that has more to do with coming to terms with what the painting hopes to reveal than with illusion — namely, the pulse of time and space as a unified element, a retrieval from the former disintegration of the self. The Fractals suggest, or, more accurately, assert that the artist is engaged in transforming his approach to painting — that he is coming to terms with the language of painting through a coalescence of content that is contingent on the act of perception. In the Fractals, the content is more within the limits of what is directly seen, which means that the viewer may encompass the self as a non-dualistic being within the perception of the painting itself.
1. Robert C. Morgan, “Samadhi: The Contemplation of Space” (New York: Chelsea Art Museum, November 2002-March 2003). The catalog text appeared in Leonardo Electronic Almanac , vol. 11, no. 2, February 2003.
2. Bhagavad-Gita:The Song of God, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Introduction by Aldous Huxley (New York: Mentor Books, 1951; originally published by the Vedanta Society, 1944), pp. 120-121.
3. Alan W. Watts, What is Tao? (Novato, California: New World Library, 2000), p. xviii.
4. Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), verse 11.
5. Ibid, verse 37.
6. J. W. Mahoney, “Anil Revri’s Transmodern Singularities,” Anil Revri (Washington, DC, 2004; privately printed, unpaginated).
7. Agnes Martin, “Reflections” (1973), in Paul Fabozzi, Artists,
Critics, Context (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002), p. 184.