New York

Rina Banerjee

Admit One Gallery / Debs & Co.

RINA BANERJEE WAS ONE OF THOSE new faces that got lost in the crowd at this year's Whitney Biennial. Her sculpture went unmentioned in most reviews, and where her presence was noted, she must have regretted it: Jerry Saltz, for instance, discussed her work in terms of “generic installation art” in his review for the Village Voice. But a recent full-scale solo show and a simultaneous project-room installation have brought her work into focus for those of us who gave her short shrift earlier in the year, and it turns out to be a compelling mix of visual pungency and literary guile, a subtle blend of sensuality and irony.

Yet even when seen in quantity, Banerjee's work remains as elusive as it is vivid, which may be why it did not attract much notice in the mob scene of a Biennial. The way her sculptures hug the wall suggests an aversion to drawing too much attention. The identity of each piece seems to be transitory, situational, making it hard to tell where one work leaves off and another begins. For instance, a single, almost paragraph-long title beginning In the land of milk and fat (all works 2000) turned out to cover what looked like three separate installations on a wall at Admit One Gallery. There was a physical spareness in a lot of the pieces, a demonstrated desire to eke the most resonance out of the least material. But the extravagant range of materials—blueprints, twigs, beaded pins, lightbulbs, sari cloth, saran wrap, rubber tubing, etc.—hardly projected restraint or modesty; rather, Banerjee's strategy seems to be mainly one of stealth. The sculptures tend to sneak up on you: On close inspection, abstract forms seem to be spying on you with googly doll eyes, or preparing to crawl away on insect legs.

Born in Calcutta, Banerjee has been a US resident since childhood. Undoubtedly her dual identity has determined her chosen subject: the lure and fear of the exotic. As the title of one work has it, In the Garden: Scientists dreamed of penetrating this forbidden vegetable kingdom that was Asia. They even welcomed an uncertain danger, tired as they were of the “Age of Reason.” Such titles—their very length mimics the notion of profligate, irrational vegetative growth common to orientalist fantasy—give literary expression to an ambiguity that emerges just as clearly in the formal nuances of the sculpture, in which organic and synthetic, Eastern and Western mix promiscuously. Raymond Schwab, the French scholar who proclaimed the age of Romanticism to have been an “Oriental Renaissance” in which Western culture renewed itself through Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese thought, noted that it was in the realm of the plastic arts that Europe remained hopelessly resistant, experiencing ''terror in the face of the multiform gods . . . to whom one could always add another appendage intended to divert it into various adjacent, but contradictory, actions." Banerjee appears intent on taunting viewers with their own chimerical imaginings of the seductive yet threatening East. Oddly, she makes giving in to them and resisting them seem equally compelling.

Barry Schwabsky