Kolkata

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Spic and Span in February, 2016, silk paper and graphite on canvas, 79 1/2 × 74".

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Spic and Span in February, 2016, silk paper and graphite on canvas, 79 1/2 × 74".

Nadia Kaabi-Linke

EXPERIMENTER, Hindusthan Road

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Spic and Span in February, 2016, silk paper and graphite on canvas, 79 1/2 × 74".

Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s art is a record of her wanderings. She has taken wax and ink prints from the walls of a coastal railway terminal, a suburban schoolyard, and the Ministry of Tourism in Tunisia; from an old mausoleum and an elevated train line in Berlin; and, most recently, from the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Another work involved stray paint chips collected in cities ranging from Bizerte to Cologne to Marseille. It might seem surprising for an artist as cosmopolitan as Kaabi-Linke—who is half-Tunisian, half-Russian; speaks six languages; and has lived much of her life in Dubai and Berlin—to focus so intently on the textures of place. Yet her scrutiny of familiar urban sites yields secret histories and uncanny metaphors that many locals might miss.

Her recent exhibition “Lost and Found” demonstrated these abilities to great effect. The show featured six new works from “Color of Time,” 2014–, a series of paintings made from composites of slivers of paint found at historic buildings around the world. The works in this show used materials from buildings in Tunis, Berlin, and Kolkata, but the project first started in London with an excavation at the Mosaic Rooms, a nonprofit gallery and bookshop devoted to contemporary Arab culture. Under layers of plaster, distemper, and emulsion paint, Kaabi-Linke found gold leaf from the time of the building’s nineteenth-century owner, Imre Kiralfy, a wealthy Hungarian-born showman who helped organize the 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition of colonial exotica, which featured two hundred South African tribespeople. The gold leaf in Kiralfy’s former salon likely originated in African mines.

Like the other “Color of Time” works, the resultant painting, Color of Time: Tower House, 2014, is an earthy, evenly balanced monochrome, suggesting on first glance that the color of the original layers of paint—along with the moments in history they signify—has been obscured in a natural process of decay. On closer inspection, lighter hues of paint emerge from many of the grainy works. This tonal complexity, like Kiralfy’s gold leaf, is an integral truth buried under the surface of what appears routine.

Kaabi-Linke’s work highlights what is overlooked in everyday life. Sometimes, as in Rialto, 2016, her subject is hidden in plain sight. Using dirty urban shades of white, gray, and black, she registers the scrawls and scratches of a part of the bridge where many visitors leave graffiti. Normally, these barely legible markings would be passed by without notice, but in Rialto they can be read as snippets of ongoing text, part of the classically urban struggle to leave a trace amid the din of city life. Like the flowing scribbles of Cy Twombly’s blackboards, Rialto celebrates expression itself over and above any particular message.

Allegory on such a grand scale can also lead to a less engaging form of abstraction. Spic and Span in February, 2016, a meticulous graphite drawing on silk paper of a webbed black mass seeming to encroach on the rest of its white support, lacks the flâneurial insight and moral subtlety of Kaabi-Linke’s best work. A synthesis of her aesthetic, analytic, and political impulses may be most clearly realized in Flying Carpets, 2011, currently on view at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the exhibition “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise,” curated by Sara Raza. The piece is a prettily undulating, open-ended cage, hanging by an abundance of carefully spaced threads. Its proportions are based on the carpets illegal immigrant hawkers use to display their wares—or to bundle them up as they flee from the police—at Il Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice. Kaabi-Linke evokes these nameless salesmen, and so many other unnoticed parts of city life, with a precision and gracefulness that come from sustained acts of attention.

Alex Traub