“How on earth did someone even think to do this, never mind do it?,” was New York Times Editor Holland Cotter’s reaction to the Met Breuer’s latest exhibition Phenomenal Nature, by late Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee – which we admit to almost missing, but were compelled to report on before its closing.
Born in Mumbai in 1949, Mukherjee drew her inspiration early on from her artist parents: Mother Leela, a sculptor, father Behari a painter and prominent figure of India’s modernist movement. Mukherjee grew up surrounded by the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas and later the rugged landscape of Santiniketan, West Bengal.
Working with earthy fibers like cotton, jute, hemp, bamboo, carpet brushes and natural rope known as Shani, which she describes as “something like hemp, not sure it if is flax, but not jute…maybe something in between,” she was an artist like no other. And this is in reference to the time – the 1970’s – and place – West Bengal, India – when the sculpture scene was a predominantly male dominated space. Her contemporaries were largely using marble to carve their figurines, Mukherjee was fully invested in cultivating her woven forms.
Roughly half a dozen free-standing sculptures, suspended from wires, and some situated on the floor, show off Mukherjee’s impeccable ingenuity. Using a knotted macramé technique, each form represents her laborious handiwork, resulting in mysterious, sexual and at times grotesque forms.
Theatrical, inventive and iconic, her pieces are rooted in nature and culture, although she believes it’s a “metamorphosed expression of varied sensory perceptions.” She further clarifies that her “anthropomorphic deities have no relationship to gods and goddesses in the traditional iconographic sense, but are parallel invocations in the realm of art.”
From the moss green Van Raja (king of the forest) to Yakshi (female forest deity) and Pakshi (bird), most of her pieces were titled with Sanskrit names of nature spirits and feminine deities. With every curve nuanced, expressions exaggerated and human-size scale, it speaks volumes about her knowledge of Indian sculpture, folk art, modern design, and the crafts and textiles that underlie her artistic expression.
Without any preparatory drawings or sketches, she went with what she calls “the feeling of awe you get when you walk into the small sanctum of a temple and look up to behold an iconic presence.” The 1980s marked the culmination of her work with fibers and her foray into experimenting with ceramic and bronze (her sculptor-mother’s favored material).
Unlike knotting rope which was more pliable, handling malleable clay required immediate reactivity; and yet she managed to retain her signature fluidity, evident in pieces like the Night Bloom. Mukherjee’s bronze forms take you through a series called Palmscape, where she collected natural tree droppings like leaves, stems, stripped-off bark, and cast them in bronze, reminiscent of her time at Santiniketan, where learning happened outdoors in a style known as “tree schooling.”
Mukherjee’s untimely demise at age 65 came as she was racing to the finish line of one of her series’, a look back at her career at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi in 2015. It marked the end of an artist who spent a large part of her forty-year career working in isolation, creating masterpieces that came purely from her love of the craft. A revelatory retrospective, this installation at the Met Breuer is visually arresting to say the very least.