Anil Revri's Transmodern Singularities
James W. Mahoney, 2004
Art Critic, Art in America
“Transmodernism’s time has arrived... [It] will integrate the current era’s transfixion with material, surface, science, and reason, with the warm and loving embrace of spirit.”
Jason Fosler, The Transmodern Manifesto
Singularity (3): Physics and math.
A point at which a function takes an infinite value, esp. in space-time when matter is infinitely dense.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary
“Modern (art) has been criticism of the modern world and criticism of itself... But irony and analogy, the image and the bizarre are only moments in the rotation of signs. The dangers of the aesthetic of change are also its virtues: if everything changes, the aesthetic of change also changes. This is what is happening today. Modern (artists) looked for the principle of change; (artists) of the dawning age look for the unalterable principle that is the root of change. We wonder if the Odyssey and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have anything in common. This question, more than denying the avant-garde, is a question that extends beyond it... Now we ask: is there a point where the principle of change blends into that of permanence?”
Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire
“For the last quarter century, pretty much every realm of art and entertainment has been trapped in its own self-referential loop. The cultural landscape has begun to seem like some vast M. C. Escher panorama, a slick, airless and slightly maddening Mobius construction that, no matter how clever, almost never takes us to wholly fresh places, to destinations outside the maze, where things look and smell new. It's time.”
Kurt Anderson, “The Future All Over Again,” The New Yorker, September 20, 1999
Any artist who uses serialized abstract forms is speaking about an ideal of order. From Agnes Martin, who makes plain canvases of equally-sized penciled forms, to Carl Andre, who arranges matter in regularized portions — copper plates, bricks, boulders — what is implied is that order is possible, even perhaps primally natural. Anil Revri has been creating elegant, understated, subtly colored abstract paintings that are serialized in the building blocks of their internal language, like the atoms in a quartz crystal, forming a harmonic, perfectly balanced wholeness.
Even as Anil Revri is from India, the tradition in which he works is quite Washingtonian in its character. From the Washington Color School’s own serialized abstract languages of stripes, dots, circles, veils or pours in the 1960’s, Washington's artists have been carrying forth a meandering, borderless speculation about what truths can be expressed or discovered in visual language. Irony has never played a central role, nor have personal psychologies, and “canned” critiques of aesthetic activity, from poststructuralism to political multiculturalism, have seemed far too limited to be of much use in Washington. The ideal of a universal order is much more seductive. And to an artist as restlessly curious as Anil Revri is, the order of theology itself is not only a worthy subject, but one he has felt qualified — and driven — to express.
How does Anil Revri’s art work? And why is it new? Paintings are places we know we can enter and withdraw from at our leisure. We look into a painting or drawing, spend time working its ideas and its presence into our own minds and hearts, and feel free to judge it, play with and inside it, be confused by it. In Revri’s work, your eye, travels into a piece, encounters, beyond natural visual pleasure, a kind of arresting pressure toward an unseen but thoroughly present openness. The work serves as a gateway into a weirdly natural spaciousness: a singularity experience, of a “point at which a function takes an infinite value.” Again, what we may be looking at is a geometric abstraction, but what we’re receiving is a fiercely voluntary journey into a primal experience of an invisible reality that clearly includes us, not as viewers but as participants. This is a singularity, a set of conditions that is set to open into a limitless passageway to another reality. This reality doesn’t stop; only the duration of our attention does. This is new. Anil Revri is using an easily readable modernist language, of ordered abstraction, not to produce a critique of arts language, but to validate a reality beyond the personal — by taking your awareness into it.
Revri’s art appears, in this exhibition, as a group of geometric abstractions placed in straight lines on several museum walls. Everywhere we see 90-degree angles — in the architecture, in the overall shapes of the pictures, and in the works themselves. We have learned, as viewers, in a semi-conscious way how to look at all paintings since the Renaissance: as windows. When modern art began to appear in the mid-19th century, the art of the Impressionists asked us to look at their records, in paint, of what they were seeing, to take in the individuality of the artist, in how and why the brushstrokes were made. Painting became a surface created by an artist, first, before we were to enjoy it as a window into external space. Artworks were primarily objects made by an artist, modernism said, and represented the act of someone seeing something unique to their personal vision; this was what mattered. Even so, in the abstract art that followed in the 20th century, even if we saw an entirely imagined set of shapes, we could, in the works of great abstractionists, see a cosmos in the dizzy drips of flung paint in a Jackson Pollock, or feel the silence of outer space in the vast, soft, simple forms of a Mark Rothko.
However, what we’re seeing now is another fully comprehensive set of cultural changes, as 21st century artists use the languages released in contemporary art — modern and postmodern — to speak about values, ideals, and realities that move past an endless inquiry into what art is, in order to seek something wider, wilder, and more interesting, something “transmodern” — to seek what Octavio Paz calls “the unalterable principle that is the root of change.” Why transmodern? Simply put, because it’s already here. We’re already looking through late 20th century’s doubts about the roles and the languages of art into conditions of rich artistic and cultural uncertainty. So it’s appropriate that the last “modernism” should be about traveling beyond the idea altogether. In Latin, trans means “across” and “transmodernism” will be about going across modernism to whatever art is becoming, from what it always has been. Specifically, the windows that paintings have been are becoming doors, portals, into something beyond even the personal imagination and Anil Revri’s art is an experience of it.
What would be “transmodern,” then, about Revri’s Veiled Doorways 3, an oil on canvas with silver metallic markers, from 1996? A copper and black geometric abstraction, its borders are latticeworks of straight vertical and curved horizontal lines, and its central space is a weaving of diagonal lines in a pattern resembling a backgammon board. Groups of lines converge at the edges to form pointed wedges, and at the composition’s vertical center, the lines create wide spaces between themselves: a veil over a doorway, both visually and philosophically. The veil both withholds an infinity and protects us from it — but it also makes clear that an infinity is present, which fulfills its major intent. In “transmodern” terms, the painting’s existential purity is plain: it contains no secret jokes or trick questions. The work is a set of lines and forms that you can engage visually or interpret philosophically at your own will. As a mode of psychic transport, the work is full of possibility. Theologically, Revri’s suggestion is that deity is a matter of experience if it exists at all — so he invites us to move into what infinity feels like.
In Through the Out Door 4 from 2001 is a gridded network of lines and dots in silver ink and pencil, applied over a dark piece of handmade paper with pumpkin colored cloud-like formations. Prominent lighter streaks, achieved by removing the epidermis of the pigmented paper, like wisps of flame, appear to radiate from the epicenter. The perspective lines are clear and set as vertical rectangles that progressively recede into a set of dots, from which projects another group of vertical linear rectangles, ending in a single grid of dots beyond the edges of the last lines. Graphically we see a group of doorframes that end in an emptiness punctuated by equidistant lines and dots resonant to the order of each work’s overall perspective. His intent is the most subtle, most significant element in the piece. It is that the work is to be a vehicle, a tool for awareness to use, like a meditation technique, to travel in the invisibilities of psychic space, into being. This is a very radical idea.
In his series Cultural Crossings, Revri has made a portentous, vital leap into the most philosophically vital questions regarding order, theological ones. In a series of eighteen drawings, the artist has embraced the inner orders of six major religions, through both their symbolism and the actual texts of their holiest books. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism are the subjects of Revri’s inquiry, and the result is a multi-faceted, macrocosmic vision of a single inner order, approached from six different directions.
It is exquisitely dangerous work. Each tradition is examined with equal respect, possessing visually, equal grace, majesty, and mystery. The sacredness of spaces, symbols, and alphabets is maintained throughout the entire group of drawings, limned by Revri’s use of gold and silver pigments. Holding each tradition sacred, however, causes all six to seem, to feel, as if they are elements in a larger whole — necessary parts complete in themselves, to be sure, but the full vision to which their beauty and singularity contributes is larger than any separate segment. To state, in art, that the Deity is greater than any approach to It can be, while honoring each approach, is an act of supreme diplomacy.
This suite of drawings is modest in scale. They are drawn in shades of gray and silver, with gold providing the only real color. The languages in which each sacred text is rendered are very probably unfamiliar to at least five out of six viewers. But the overall effect of this work suggests a vast and invisible presence, created mosaically from six equal vectors, an inner order so complete that its face is, gently, everywhere at once.
Anil Revri’s most recent works from 2003 have been further investigations into the interior territories he has confirmed his presence within — like an explorer making yet another visit to an extraordinary cave system that he has only begun to map. The entire body of work has been created on pigmented handmade paper that he makes himself. The three-dimensional configurations, motifs, and application of color are based on the color and textural nuances of each sheet. The optical vibrancy achieved in these works is suggestive of a grand orchestra in which all the instruments have been finely tuned to attain a specific pitch. He suggests, himself, that “the work shares an affinity with Ragamala Paintings from India as they ‘are classificatory poems dealing in large part with the nuances of love, giving literary (and visual) form to the modes of music (ragas) and to the months of the year, respectively.’” (Mason, Darielle. Intimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection, p. xvi, Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Revri explains that “although the work is abstract in its rendering, it has been inspired by eastern philosophy, specifically Tantric. Each piece has been methodically constructed in layers by maintaining Dhyana (focus), performing Karma (action), and reciting mantra as Japa (repetition of sound syllable), thus becoming meditations in themselves. The aim is to create works that are variations of the same raga by virtue of their tonal quality/pitch. Research has shown that each musical note, like color, either evokes or enhances a particular mood. Therefore, a body of work created in the same visual key maintains a certain aesthetic and psychological rhythm. The resulting Yantras or diagrams are designed to encourage introspection and serve as an aid in helping the viewer make the transition between the conscious and unconscious mind, the worldly and the spiritual.”
Revri continues that his experience in making each piece represents a single journey to reconnect with the cosmic void. He finds himself playing a game of hide and seek with a divine female presence, hears the sound of her ghungroos (anklets), smells her scent, hears the rustle of her garments, and senses her just-vanished form within the illusionary planes. In the making of each piece, he approaches her, never knowing how long or arduous the journey will be — but he is drawn restlessly and continuously to seek her in the spaces he must establish, in the pictorial vastness which is her home.
Geometric Abstraction 7 (2003) is a square composition deeply reminiscent of Tibetan sand paintings, which are ritual activities that develop a time, place, and condition for the housing of a transpersonal force. As in the Tibetan tradition, an entrance into the work’s inner court is fixed at the four points of the compass. The Tibetans characterize each direction as possessing a different spiritual quality. In Revri’s the forces are equal, which reinforces the power of its center. The centrally radiant system of quadruplicities, many-armed crosses, lighter or darker squares with predominant golds, blacks, or silvers, is haloed by diagonals which are radiuses drawn from the work’s single point. The outermost edges are empowered by a large square form in each of the four corners, joined to each other by thick straight lines from which rectangular side chambers beside the roads form both the outer edge and the inner edge, which descends into a perspectival depth toward the centrality. The feeling that the work carries is a sense of an abstract royalty, in full resplendence.
In Geometric Abstraction 3 (2003) Revri has worked with a much smaller basic rectangular pattern, and the portaling effect possesses more space: one is looking into the heights or depths of a great hall, or hearing the full sound of an immense orchestra. At the rectangularly-articulated center, two vertical lines are crossed by a varying rhythm of shorter horizontal lines that are drawn over, then under the verticals. It is as if this were a kind of energized barrier, a final set of powers beyond which projects the Absolute. A personal note: I have had a recurring dream throughout my life that begins as I’m standing at the rear of a great cathedral. Then I’m suddenly lifted a few feet into the air and propelled forward rapidly, past all the pews toward the altar by an attracting force at the entrance to the sanctuary, where I’m stopped and pulled into communion with this invisible attractor. I taste an unusually sweet taste and then wake up. This piece offers a visual experience of strikingly comparable effects, in how impulsively a viewer is drawn to its end points and absorbed past them.
Geometric Abstraction 4 (2003) is formally similar to the first — another hall of radiation that could be a cosmological diagram — with an extraordinary additional element, a diamond created from lines and dots surrounding the rectangular aperture that seems to emerge into three-dimensionality, a presence that actually comes out to meet you as your awareness deepens into the space. Interactivity, in contemporary art, is almost always technologically-assisted, so the surprise, visually, is profound, as if you had awakened something alive in a place you never expected to find anything living. And this living entity is also a field of light that invites you, again, into the empyrean.
Since the later ‘90’s, contemporary culture has been in a kind of threshold condition. We have been on the edges of a great, deep shift in culture — we can feel it. We have recognized that we are in a process of sifting out what we can use, aesthetically, from a bewilderingly vast array of sources. The retrievals of visual imagery from history in ‘80’s and ‘90’s postmodernism has ballooned into a willingness to open into many, many world cultures. The result has been that international contemporary culture possesses far more languages of creativity, modes of beauty, and sheer information than it has ever had in the whole of human civilization. And evolving questions of the morality and ultimate purpose of artmaking have become more important in an increasingly more dangerous, less stable world, politically, economically, and ecologically.
In “Triumph of the Image” (The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1999), Luc Sante states “The art of the future is anybody’s guess. What can possibly succeed the profusion of everything all at once? What can possibly seem new after high and low, crudity and refinement, overload and minimalism have all riotously coexisted? Will strict academic standards reappear as the search begins for some tortuous path to exclusivity? ...What is most likely is that some hitherto invisible pattern will emerge, some thread of connection between technology and tradition and junk, and a dozen widely scattered artists will stumble upon it separately, and it will seem discordant at first, then inspired, then inevitable.”
The questions of what we leave behind and what we take with us, on every level culturally, are far more critical now than they were in the last century, since the volume of material is so great. We will want the best of what we can carry usefully and conveniently, and we are developing a “transmodern” taste for a wide variety of cultural possibilities. For now, at least, it will be cool to be a Finnish opera aficionado and a devotee of Tai’Chi, or to be a lesbian singer-songwriter who’s also a professional carpenter, or to work to save a species of fish while serving as a Catholic priest. And for an Indian-born, professionally trained artist, living in the capital city of the most powerful and socially restless empire on the planet, to be making aesthetic machines that take their viewers/passengers, gently, on a visit to Divinity is also nothing less than an expression of the wave of the future.