New York

Jitish Kallat, Epicycle, 2021, double-sided multilayer print on 20 LPI lenticular lens, teakwood, 89 × 52 × 24". From the series “Epicycles,” 2020–.

Jitish Kallat, Epicycle, 2021, double-sided multilayer print on 20 LPI lenticular lens, teakwood, 89 × 52 × 24". From the series “Epicycles,” 2020–.

Jitish Kallat

Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat toys with scale, often collapsing the infinitesimal and the infinite, the commonplace and the cosmic, into a single object. In the past, he presented the phases of the moon as pieces of roti, a whole-wheat flatbread that is a staple across much of the Indian subcontinent, and transformed close-ups of fruit into celestial fields with lenticular lenses. Yet regardless of perspective, the human, as image and/or condition, remains a central concern, as the three distinct but interrelated series that constituted Kallat’s exhibition here demonstrated.

The scale, format, and ambition of “Epicycles,” 2020– , which consisted of three double-sided collages sandwiched between clear plastic and framed in teak, each roughly seven-and-a-half feet tall, recall Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, a vast visual compendium that traces symbols and motifs across cultures, from antiquity to modernity. In every one of Kallat’s panels, color images capturing the entropy of nature—a gnarly branch, furrowed tree bark, dried leaves pockmarked with holes eaten by insects—are juxtaposed with human figures culled from “The Family of Man,” the 1955 exhibition of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art curated by Edward Steichen. (The show was intended as a testament to the human condition after the global trauma of World War II, but it was also criticized: Roland Barthes dismissed it as an example of “conventional humanism,” a feel-good universalism that erased global inequality and cultural difference.)

The “Epicycles” focus on images of care, celebration, community, and labor. Mothers, children, and couples appear frequently, as do doctors and nurses. Kallat uses lenticular lenses to make different figures seem to surface or disappear as one moves in front of each panel, this effect animating both the collages and the archives used to make them. The result is elegiac, a melancholic reminder of the social losses we have endured through the pandemic. Kallat covers the backs of these images with hand-drawn, quasi-scientific diagrams. The contrast between each work’s verso and recto encapsulates our current existential condition, pitched between an acute awareness of the vulnerability and joy of the individual human body and the manner in which this gets abstracted at the collective level into an unrelenting stream of statistics—enumerating case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths—presented to us as infographics.

This same diagrammatic language, softened with painterly smears, smudges, and bleeds, reappeared in the more intimate “Integer Studies (Drawings from Life),” 2021, a daily drawing exercise Kallat began at the outset of last year. Each work in the series also has three numbers on it: an estimate of the world population and the daily birth and death count at the moment the image was made. The set on view here was made during the month of July, just after a Delta variant surge had ravaged India. The numbers and diagrams together attempt to provide a daily account of life in a time of intense suffering. While their abstraction serves as a sort of refuge in the face of unfathomable horrors—the scared sick struggling to breathe outside hospitals short of beds, medicines, and oxygen; cremation grounds ablaze with countless pyres and choked with plumes of black smoke; shallow riverside graves uncovered by shifting water levels—Kallat’s daily compositional play offsets the tyrannical certainty of the statistics themselves. Closing out the exhibition was a suite of four larger paintings titled Asymptote, 2021, after a concept in analytical geometry that describes a line that approaches, but never intersects with, a curve. Each work features a variety of illustrations—biological, geological, botanical, astronomical, mathematical, mystical—painted atop hand-drawn grids. The ground is stained sepia so as to resemble yellowing graph paper, recalling a past when knowledge was not limited by disciplinary boundaries and when scientific method extended beyond empirical realism to include imagination and visionary thought.

The show’s title, “Tmesis,” presented a linguistic model for Kallat’s collage-like accumulation of disparate images, forms, and bodies of knowledge. It describes a disjunctive term that disrupts the semantic and narrative continuity of a phrase, introducing the possibility for alternate meanings. It is also useful for beginning to understand the historical effects of the pandemic, which has profoundly disturbed the status quo, while opening up different ways to reconsider how we live and die. It is, as activist and writer Arundhati Roy suggested, a “portal” to another, more equitable future—an otherworldly metaphor that is apt for Kallat’s time-traveling, space-condensing art.