Amba Sayal-Bennett, Aera, 2017, drawing, projection, and mixed media, 10' 4“ x 10' 7/8” x 4' 10 5/8".

Amba Sayal-Bennett, Aera, 2017, drawing, projection, and mixed media, 10' 4“ x 10' 7/8” x 4' 10 5/8".

Amba Sayal-Bennett

Amba Sayal-Bennett, Aera, 2017, drawing, projection, and mixed media, 10' 4“ x 10' 7/8” x 4' 10 5/8".

While drawing is the undeniable core of Amba Sayal-Bennett’s practice, this strong, self-assured exhibition, “Plane Maker,” provocatively and playfully expanded the field of drawing into other dimensions. The thirty-four small abstract drawings that were shown here, along with a pair of sculptures and an installation incorporating a projected image of a drawing, intuitively combine references derived from a broad spectrum of diagrammatic sources, suggesting everything from scientific schematics and architectural drawings—both plans and cross sections—to mystical charts and esoteric totems.

Made with marker and graphite, the line drawings typically feature enclosed areas filled in with muted washes of colored ink, to which the London-based artist adds texture through delicate and often whimsical patterns made up of a variety of smaller marks: dots and lines, loops and squiggles, bacterial and cellular forms that suggest a microscopic architecture. A recurring bilateral symmetry—rarely quite complete—occasionally suggests a schematized face or body. Sayal-Bennett’s drawings achieve a delicate semiotic balance; their constituent parts point to referents without declaring them outright. Open-ended and generous, they are also promiscuous, bringing together such an abundance of references that their allusions become hard to place or impossible to read. Each drawing closes in upon itself, displaying an autonomy that verges on the hermetic. Though they are given unique, usually one-word titles—Ponty, Leblon, Bab, Morter (all works 2017)—these are often so mysterious or nonsensical as to further frustrate our quest for meaning. Assiduously and endlessly deferred within the drawings themselves, the onus of interpretation falls firmly on the viewer, reminding us of how uncomfortable the unknown can make us and how powerful compulsion to make meaning is.

Enlarged, three-dimensional translations of her drawings, Sayal-Bennett’s sculptures are built up of numerous smaller components, all fabricated out of MDF, their surfaces covered in slick, seamless coats of vivid acrylic paint. Harth resembles an altar, or a console table— in a style best described as Art Deco meets The Jetsons—bearing a strong resemblance to irreverent Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass’s iconic room divider Carlton, 1981. Spilling forward onto the floor from a pair of brick-red pyramids, Katkin suggests an architectural model of an ancient temple complex or city cobbled together from an enlarged set of children’s building blocks. While the spatial presence of these sculptures is undeniable, it comes at a cost, as some of the drawings’ playful ambiguity is lost in translation.

Another attempt at pushing drawing into the expanded field—by opening it up to other media such as murals and slide/film projection—was more productively elusive. For Aera, Sayal-Bennett used an overhead projector to enlarge an image of one of her drawings and cast it on the wall. A paper cutout carefully laid on top of the painted transparency determined the projection’s outline. Pieces of colored tape and loops drawn on bits of paper applied directly to the wall introduced marks that were literally present, not projected. And sheets of paper lying on the floor and leaning against and standing at angles to the wall subtly introduced multiple, overlapping surfaces and depths, which dismantled the unified plane of the projected image. The semiotic uncertainty of Sayal-Bennett’s curious abstract compositions expanded into space and also more deeply into the viewer’s mind.

Murtaza Vali