New York

“From India: Contemporary Anonymous Tantra Paintings on Paper”

Feature Inc.

An exquisite show: nineteen small, untitled paintings on paper by anonymous artists in the Indian state of Rajasthan, created between 1989 and 1999. Yet these works are much more “ancient” than their dates allow. Revisited from generation to generation, the images interpret traditional iconographic themes that have been appearing in Hindu tantric texts since the seventeenth century. The goal of tantra is to allow the practitioner to reach higher levels of consciousness, and finally enlightenment, through postures (asanas), gestures (mudras), mantras, breathing techniques, visualization, and codified meditation, necessary to reawaken the kundalini energy. Kundalini (“coiled up” in Sanskrit) refers to the female energy Shakti, said to exist in latent form in every human being as in every atom. Tantric practice brings this female energy into union with Shiva, the pure consciousness that pervades the universe. The iconographies in these paintings allude precisely to this symbolism: The phallic form (lingam) and that of the upside-down triangle (yoni) enable the clear visualization of these two fundamental energies.

Thus in one 1995 painting we see Shiva represented not only as a divine phallus but also as a container of universal energies, a multitude of red arrows pointing in all directions. In fact, the arrows signify both the incessant manifestation of energy and the vibration of atoms that compose matter and the universe, as well as the rays of sun that bring forth life. In a 1998 work, Shakti as cosmic matrix is represented by a blue square framed by a white-gold line that becomes an arrow pointed directly toward the square’s center, toward the yoni, the place of generation. But Shakti has several manifestations: She is also Durga, Chandi, Uma, Parvati, and Kali the destroyer. Blackness and redness are the attributes of these obscure manifestations of the female force. In one 1999 work, an upside-down red triangle appears in a black field: the ferocious tongue of Kali. This destructive and terrorizing aspect is the counterpart of Shakti as generator; the tantra practitioner must accept the two opposing polarities to understand the totality of existence.

Some paintings incorporate the spiral, a fundamental element of the tantric experience. The spiral alludes to the movement of the kundalini, which uncurls to move through the three channels of the human body (nadis) to connect sexual energy with pure consciousness. Since according to tantric principles there is a total parallelism between the microcosm of physical reality and the macrocosm of the universe, the revelation of these dynamic forces in the human body is said to lead to the comprehension of universal reality.

The gallery itself is interested more in the formal qualities of the paintings than in their spiritual significance, which helps explain how they got to Chelsea. Totally apart from their ritualistic meaning, the images have a lucidity, almost a transparency, that resembles geometric abstraction. One painting, a 1999 diptych of squares defined by horizontal and vertical lines, might have come from the brush of Agnes Martin. And there is a profound power, a magnetism of forms, as in an ovoid figure of an opaque blue so unfathomable it can generate a sense of vertigo—a feeling not unlike that provoked by Anish Kapoor’s blue “voids,” whose concave mass sucks in the viewer’s glance toward a bottomless center. It is the same clarity that enables the tantra practitioner to carry the forms into deep meditation that appeals so strongly to Western viewers.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.