View of “Prabhavathi Meppayil,” 2019. Foreground: sb/eighteen, 2018. Background, from left: l/hundred thirty six, 2018; l/hundred twenty eight, 2019.

View of “Prabhavathi Meppayil,” 2019. Foreground: sb/eighteen, 2018. Background, from left: l/hundred thirty six, 2018; l/hundred twenty eight, 2019.

Prabhavathi Meppayil

To gild is to transform, with intricate labor, the seemingly ordinary into the precious. Bangalore, India–based Prabhavathi Meppayil descends from a long line of goldsmiths, and she embeds the precise technical language of those craftspeople in her spare and stripped-back work, literally entrenching their processes in the work’s surfaces. Made of painstakingly applied layers of gesso, each of which takes hours to dry, her pieces feature the imprints of endless horizons of tiny geometric shapes made with a thinnam, an Indian goldsmithing tool traditionally used to embellish bangles. Many of the works are serial: Sixteen panels, eight panels, or two panels of enigmatic, barely textured white gaze back serenely as the eye adjusts and the details come into focus. Lines, ovals, corrugated rectangles, squares incised with smaller squares, diamonds, dots, and dashes: Each repeated component is just a few millimeters wide. One large panel combines alternately horizontal and vertical rectangular sections of varied thinnam patterns, punctuated by swaths of untreated gesso, like rigid quilting.

“The practice, the process, is a way of life” Meppayil has said of these pieces, of a kind that first came to broad attention in the West when her work was included in Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale. But there is no gold used, only the holy abstraction of white on white, a geometric snow blindness that reconstitutes, if you submit to it, how and what the eye can see—an additive stripping away, adornment in the negative. Instead of encircling a wrist, dangling and chiming as the wearer gesticulates, the jewelry patterns lie flat, in matte silence. But delicacy does not mean simplicity, and as these marks invoke the tools that made them, they likewise summon the time and effort. Within the quiet is noise, the tap, tap of the tool as it is impressed on the gesso-primed surface—a tiny geometric metronome, counting endlessly into pictorial space.

Agnes Martin, Lygia Pape, Robert Ryman, and other heavyweight Minimalists and post-Minimalists are often invoked to contextualize Meppayil’s work; so, too, are artisanal legacies, Indian culture, and traditional craft and technique, which also means their ongoing obliteration by industrial technologies. For Meppayil, these histories and practices are not mutually exclusive, but combine, collapse, and repeat in different iterations—a global modernism par excellence. Named according to Meppayil’s idiosyncratic, nonhierarchical ordering system, l/forty seven and l/hundred thirty one, both 2018, hinted at the grid, a structure emerging from copper wires that Meppayil covered in thick layers of gesso, then sanded in places to expose the oxidized lines that shimmer green, purple, blue. As in the patterned gesso panels, tiny differences glimmer with the viewer’s shifting perspective; these works contain devotion and ask for yours in return. Likewise, sb/eighteen, 2018—a freestanding wall that divided the gallery in two—displays 875 found iron, copper, and brass goldsmith tools in a low-relief grid. Craft relic and art object combine, become one.

Transcendent, pure, mystical, essence, presence: These words are used again and again to describe Meppayil’s art. They are not wrong, these tropes of geometric abstraction, but the material and cultural specificity of her practice gives it another dimension; her work requires time, physical encounter, and attention to detail. If there is a language here, it is one of duality and shifting syntax: a metonymy both traditional and contemporary, in which the simplest mark becomes the tool, becomes the fingers, the hand, the arm, the body, and all of the bodies before and after it, a temporal and corporeal flood behind the white that delivers calm and escape from all of the above.