New York

“Serpentology Drawings”

Jack Shainman Gallery

In Indian cosmogony, the serpent is assigned a variety of sometimes contradictory symbolic roles. According to Vedic legend, it is the first creature: Before the origin of the world, Vishnu sleeps stretched out on a cushion of rolled-up snake coils, floating in the cosmic ocean. In Tantrism, it is the link between earth and universe: Cosmic energy resides in the human body at the base of the spine, like a coiled and sleeping serpent, and unwinds toward the crown of the head on awakening (a result of meditation). It is the potential from which all manifestations come, the reservoir of all latencies, but it is also the creator of time, the Ouroboros that constantly devours its own tail: the representation of the cycle of births and deaths. And in this form it is the attribute of Shiva, creator and destroyer god.

In the most refined group of drawings, seventeen works in plant pigments and graphite on paper, the serpents take on a peculiar configuration: The sinuous bodies of royal cobras interweave to form intricate decorative motifs and arabesques reminiscent of Mughal architecture; the serpent winds in an elaborate, labyrinthine line to the center, where the head is situated. In fact, these drawings were made by architectural students. If the intention was to reflect on Islamic influences in the architecture of the Mughal empire, the drawings also represent an element of conjunction between Islam and Hindu traditions. In Hindu symbology, the serpent Ananta supports the world between its coils and ensures its stability. It was thus the tradition in India, before proceeding with the construction of houses, for a geomancer to locate the position of the underground naga at the head of which a foundation was sunk for the center of the building. The head of the serpent at the center of the drawings alludes to the tradition of the naga conferring stability on the construction.

Simard has enhanced the contemporary flavor of the images by wisely avoiding both academic classifications and narrative temptations in his installation, instead arranging the drawings in fifteen groupings according to symbolic resonances that privilege the unexpected, juxtaposing realistic and abstract, mystical and funny, simple and elaborate. If Tantric art has inspired a number of artists including Marina Abramovic and Francesco Clemente, on a formal level these drawings’ vitality also evokes Brice Marden’s convoluted lines; some of the serpents have the surreal quality of Louise Bourgeois’s early drawings, and some, with their sexual innuendo, could appropriately accompany a Nancy Spero love goddess. In mounting the show, the curator showed the same dedication as the Indian students in dealing with an icon that is both powerful and fleeting, like the serpent itself.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.