Bhanu Palam: Painting With God

Bhanu Palam (b. 1972) is an international amalgam of experiences, words and processes that have been forged into a shining and independent cabochon. With interests ranging from architecture, astronomy, meditation, roads, maps, cosmology and Star Trek, Palam’s works pulsate with imprints and impressions from nature, culture and her spirituality. At the age of 4, her family moved from southeast India to Long Island, New York. Palam describes her first time in the United States as a good one; she painted from primary school and began seriously thinking of a career in art during High School, and wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Preparing a portfolio, Palam told her High School art teacher “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” yet she recalls, “my art teacher said ‘you will not succeed if you continue as an artist’.” Her parents, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to find an economically stable job in the art world, encouraged her to listen to her art instructor. 

“I enjoyed the process of textiles, making clothing, etc. – nothing is a straight line”

“I enjoyed the process of textiles, making clothing, etc. – nothing is a straight line, and so I thought the Fashion Institute would be a perfect place for me, yet it was not meant to be.” Also, Palam notes, “I was in love at that point. I got married. My husband has a textile business, I was thinking maybe I can do some artistic creation with textiles, we moved back to India, I became pregnant, and had our first son. He had a health issues, so I moved back to the US where he could receive the medical care he needed, and I stayed there for 10 years. I couldn’t focus on art. Both my sons are my most important priority. I love them dearly. I gave up everything to raise them, and now they are all grown up.” This period of artistic latency did not stop the perennial desire to make art, and so upon returning to settle in Chennai, India, in 2006 she asked, “Why not pursue my dreams, after all these years? So as soon I came back to India, I started my journey. I had waited so long. Now, my sons are adults and independent.” Wanting to ameliorate suffering stood at the core of Palam’s new journey into art making, “I wasn’t feeling well. I was quite ill. Yet, when I painted, my health improved. It gave me self-confidence and self-esteem; and I just wanted to be isolated with my art through meditation; communicating with my art, a dialogue, discovering myself, my soul, this is an incredibly emotional experience, to be completely by yourself, reflect on your life in the past, how it’s reflecting in your present, and how each action is interrelated.”

Wandering Mind-2
“Wandering Mind” by Bhanu Palam 2018 oil on canvas 29.75 x 23.5in 75.6 x 59.7cms

Artistically, her creations are stunning, captivating swirls of spirit and matter. Using henna tubes, as Palam notes, “it’s very difficult for women in India to get access to luxuries like fresh brushes, this is just not a part of the culture yet, women as painters, and I really love henna, the patterns, and so I improvised and used the tubes, just with oil paint.” The results are unique, wondrous, playful and studious unfolding shrinking and distending spirals. Palam’s pieces work on the levels of time and space; they are about the distances inherent in that which is nearest to us, how far something can be when it is close, as with a spiral, a maze or a fold. Which brings the conversation to spirituality, Palam says reservedly, as she does not often talk of her spirituality, “I want the viewers eyes to keep on moving across the painting. Yes, I meditate five to six times a day; the duration varies, minimum time is twenty minutes. We are Hindu family. Mahāvatār Bābājī, He is my God, and I think he is one painting.” Mahāvatār Bābājī (b. 203 CE, estimated) is a deathless guru, an Indian saint and yogi who has been reportedly met in 1861, 1935 and 1980.

“[W]ho else would act out ‘art as art?’ The utopian and even meditative model of painting that Ad Reinhard and Agnes Martin believed in? In Martin’s case it’s her fierce interiority. The most important hurdle for us to think about is abstraction’s insides, its insistence on itself as a self-generating system […] There is no escaping this aspect, this inwardness, this insideness, that is a really key aspect of the project of abstraction”

– Briony Fer

Social Memory-1
“Social Memory” by Bhanu Palam 2018 oil on canvas 20 x 24in 50.8 x 61cms

Palam’s work is meditative to its core. Like Agnes Martin, hermetically sealed in her studio, as Briony Fer explains in her lecture at the Brooklyn Museum “The Oldness of Abstract Art (Or Can Abstract Art Be New?),” Martin, “shared [with Ad Reinhardt] an interest with Eastern mysticism […] who else would act out ‘art as art?’ […] The utopian and even meditative model of painting that Ad Reinhard and Agnes Martin believed in? In Martin’s case it’s her fierce interiority. The most important hurdle for us to think about is abstraction’s insides, its insistence on itself as a self-generating system […] There is no escaping this aspect, this inwardness, this insideness, that is a really key aspect of the project of abstraction […] Martin, put it herself very clearly, very unashamedly, when she said she made painting ‘with her back to the world’. Literally close up laboriously, slowly like this one [image below], at the canvas laboriously. Who now would want to claim for art, this turning away from the world?” Palem it seems would claim this for art, yet there is a deliberative social engagement as well; her selections for titles of her pieces are incredibly deliberative, and the idea of “Social Memory” (above) is certainly something beyond the inward, meditative, enclosed snail-like curvature of Palam’s own Abstract Expressionism, or to put it perhaps more precisely, Abstract Reflectionism? And in fact, the relationship to seeing beyond ocular sight, or what Palam refers to as “seeing with the Third Eye,” is perhaps a deeper intimacy with the phenomena of the world, that which is hidden yet present?

Screen Shot 2018-12-20 at 12.54.12
Agnes Martin, Painting With Her Back to World Courtesy: Briony Fer / Brooklyn Museum

In many ways, the tensions between being indifferent of  the (outer/ocular/social) world and in that social world are played out throughout the history of Abstract Expressionist art. However, Palam represents a new generation of Abstract Expressionist/Reflectionist art making, one that is, by its very nature, by the very social order of things, in globalized capitalism, altermodern.

As Nicolas Bourriaud describes in his 2009 Altermodern Manifesto for the Tate Gallery’s Triennial,  “A new modernity is emerging, reconfigured to an age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodern culture. Increased communication, travel and migration are affecting the way we live. Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture.

Travel, cultural exchanges and examination of history are not merely fashionable themes, but markers of a profound evolution in our vision of the world and our way of inhabiting it.

More generally, our globalised perception calls for new types of representation: our daily lives are played out against a more enormous backdrop than ever before, and depend now on trans-national entities, short or long-distance journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe.

Many signs suggest that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end: multiculturalism and the discourse of identity is being overtaken by a planetary movement of creolisation; cultural relativism and deconstruction, substituted for modernist universalism, give us no weapons against the twofold threat of uniformity and mass culture and traditionalist, far-right, withdrawal.

The times seem propitious for the recomposition of a modernity in the present, reconfigured according to the specific context within which we live – crucially in the age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodernity.

If twentieth-century modernism was above all a western cultural phenomenon, altermodernity arises out of planetary negotiations, discussions between agents from different cultures. Stripped of a centre, it can only be polyglot. Altermodernity is characterised by translation, unlike the modernism of the twentieth century which spoke the abstract language of the colonial west, and postmodernism, which encloses artistic phenomena in origins and identities.

We are entering the era of universal subtitling, of generalised dubbing. Today’s art explores the bonds that text and image weave between themselves. Artists traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs, creating new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.

The artist becomes ‘homo viator’, the prototype of the contemporary traveller whose passage through signs and formats refers to a contemporary experience of mobility, travel and transpassing. This evolution can be seen in the way works are made: a new type of form is appearing, the journey-form, made of lines drawn both in space and time, materialising trajectories rather than destinations. The form of the work expresses a course, a wandering, rather than a fixed space-time.”

Sacred Geometry site-2
“Sacred Geometry” by Bhanu Palam 2018 oil, acrylic and glitter on canvas 35 x 26in 89 x 66cms

“Altermodern art is thus read as a hypertext; artists translate and transcode information from one format to another, and wander in geography as well as in history.” – Nicolas Bourriaud 

With Palam’s “Sacred Geometry” above, there is an unmistakable affinity with the kinds of grid-making that Martin pursued after the death of Reinhardt. The pairing down of objects into straight lines perhaps helped Martin negotiate the realities of isolation and despair. However, with Palam a new organism emerges, with these open carapaces variously marked at their ‘tops’ ‘middles’ and ‘bottoms’ with a glorious gold. The image is more fluid than Martin’s grids, and Palam is generating life, not just the form needed for it, but rather a living organism. This painting breathes, as does “Wandering Mind” (top) which resembles a preternatural coral reef. One can feel the creatures who inhabit these corals, or shells, or solar systems, or galaxies, living there, safely beyond in their own world, on the other side of Palam’s tubes and paints, on the other side of her.

And so, with Palam too, we have a wondering and a wandering subject: The artist who is hermetically sealed in the studio, meditatively creating at a specific place and time, and the artist that frequently travels to international art fairs. The artist in studio and on Instagram. The artist practicing Kriya Yoga in India and admiring the deep spirituality of  Yayoi Kusuma’s and Mark Rothko’s paintings. The woman determined to build a new future by looking deeply into her past, and with reincarnation, her many pasts, to unveil that which is hidden by its closeness.

The future, or should that be the past, looks brightly singular, unparalleled and simultaneously connected in the tapestry of many webs weaved for Bhanu Palam.

. . .


*Featured Image: Bhanu Palam, Courtesy Celeste Prize

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