Rupali Patil, Eco-echo, 2014, watercolor on paper, 42 × 59".

Rupali Patil, Eco-echo, 2014, watercolor on paper, 42 × 59".

Rupali Patil

Clark House Initiative

Rupali Patil, Eco-echo, 2014, watercolor on paper, 42 × 59".

Clark House Initiative frequently hosts shows dealing with Mumbai in historical and contemporary perspective, often with a view to the life and culture of the marginalized peoples whose labor drives the city. Rupali Patil’s debut solo show, “Everybody Drinks but Nobody Cries,” continued this tradition. Working with whimsical metaphors in drawings, watercolors, sculptures, and sound, Patil creates oneiric worlds out of the contradictions of “development” in Mumbai and Maharashtra, the massive and largely rural state of which Mumbai is the capital.

Sleeping and the physical sensations associated with dream states (rocking, floating, drifting) are frequent motifs in Patil’s work, which is strongest when most absurd. Eco-echo, 2014, is a large (forty-two-by-fifty-nine-inch) monochromatic watercolor depicting a man sleeping wrapped in a mattress like a human hot dog. Next to him is an uprooted tree in the same cozy but confined state, suffocating expressionlessly from too much human comfort. Land Escape, 2014, another large watercolor, shows a small forest of speech-balloon-shaped trees launching across water on boats, as if refugees from environmental catastrophe. At the center of Tortoise Diary, 2014, a smaller watercolor, is an alarm clock with a face depicting the hilly landscape of Maharashtra’s interior, set on a table that stretches, Dalí-like, impossibly into the distance and out of the frame. Below the table are more than two dozen smiling turtles walking or resting. Tiny, nostalgic pictures of rural kitchen stoves, haystacks, and village temples appear on their shells, marking them with the knowledge (acutely felt by urban migrants) that a shelter is not the same as a home.

Displaced Gravity, 2013, may someday be remembered as Patil’s signature work. Each of the five paper sculptures in the piece features a boat modeled after the brightly colored ones used by the Koli fishing communities who have inhabited the Mumbai area since before the British, but now largely live in substandard waterside settlements. On the prow and stern of four of the boats are pairs of miniature objects illustrating contrasts in regional development: a suit and tie versus a slum shanty; the arm of a mechanical excavator versus a pickax; a streetlamp versus a no-parking sign, on the backside of which is drawn a man sleeping in a parking spot; an electricity pylon versus a village house. Each boat is mounted on a pendulum, inviting the viewer to make the sculptures rock, leaving local working-class communities to bob about helplessly on the sea of capricious and imbalanced development policies.

Failed governance and broken promises were also explored in a set of four untitled motorized sculptures from 2014. The base of each is an aluminum track mounted to the wall. Little sculptural assemblages made of paper, clay, and scrap materials clatter back and forth, powered by chain drive. One sculpture shows a sideways bed frame perpetually moving toward and away from a person sleeping on the ground. Another juxtaposes a photograph of a community looking on with an electricity tower that approaches and recedes, a simple but effective visualization of the government saying “nyah-nyah” to the people. The crude construction and literalness of these pieces, as well as their humor, recall the kind of work that comes out of NGO workshops with children and young adults. Nearby were the pages of a poetic narrative with images partly inspired by Gond tribal art—Patil’s contribution to a forthcoming anthology for rural youth about coping with the all-too-recurrent devastations of crop failure and suicides.

Unfortunately, in the art world, few things sound ruder than saying that so-and-so’s practice is suited for children. But especially now that socially conscious artists have begun thinking seriously about efficacy, why should that be the case? There’s no good reason for artists to shun viewers whose minds might actually be shaped by the sort of rudimentary facts and metaphors in which so much contemporary art trades. Patil’s cute drawing style, her storybook surrealism, her anthropomorphic animals and plants, and her toylike contraptions would be perfect for pedagogical ends. Getting a future generation to start thinking about important issues from an impressionable age would certainly be more productive than hoping against hope that hardheaded adults will be softened by a lyrical reiteration of what they already know.

Ryan Holmberg