Energies in Space (2004)

A power symbol, like those deeply embedded in ancient civilizations, especially where classical India developed and had its impact, possesses several, often apparently contradictory, aspects which together add to its all-embracing validity and expressiveness. At the one extreme, a symbol can be taken as an abstract frame to signify subtle and philosophical concepts. At the other, its particular form is associable with, and evocative of, things basic, organic and familiar from direct experience. The line linking both its limits never goes straight but meanders, instead, to bear on a wide spectrum of phenomena, viewpoints and connections to diverse areas of life and thought, thus allowing for the intuition that the forces determining this world permeate under a unifying though fluid pulsation, each specific one manifesting itself as a metamorphosis of the others.

Such a capacity of symbolism has become the compulsive subject and the steady matter of Lalitha Shankar's work. It must have happened in a natural manner, considering her growing up in Tamil Nadu, the land of unbroken tradition. Her art, however, wisely avoids the obvious playfulness of indigenous quotations characteristic to the Cholamandal school. Rather, the artist draws her inspiration from the inner meaning, structure and mechanism of traditional symbolism which can and should be identified as underlying our own reality. For someone like her, who has been educated and practiced sculpture in the country as well as in the West, the archaic inseparability of symbolism's abstract and palpably suggestive properties provides a firm, also pliant ground from which to venture into a contemporary aesthetic.

These qualities, in fact, remain the most vital and persistent, if not immediately clear, traits of her work. Actually, Lalitha seems to constantly vacillate between an almost stated significance and its broadened, less denied correspondences indicative of a multilayered pervasiveness. An initial, overall glance at her sculptures which often verge on installation, may give an impact of a delicately rudimentary engagement with the sheer formal beauty of simple, geometric as well as rough, amorphous volumes, flat surfaces, colours and textures. Their physicality, yet, eventually strikes as tangible, while their interactions conjure a simultaneous coexistence of staticity and latent or forceful dynamism. The emphatic visuality of the works, however, soon yields a text - at the same time distinct and undetermined or enriched by its alliances and variations.

Lalitha's credo is tightly contained in the sculpture consisting of five rectangular granite pieces aligned in a row into the face of which the artist has chiseled a blue triangle of eternity, a yellow square of earth, a red circle of blood and generation, a white, horizontal strip of sustenance and a black one of death and rebirth.

The symbols come through lucid and immobile in their primary colors and geometric contours, only to acquire a premonition of some concrete transforming powers dormant in the stone cut by the human hand, their outline beginning to vibrate softly under the tool's trail, as the water filling the concavities of the figures lies calmly but as if about to stir. The feel of potential energy, of elemental powers imbuing the physical and the singular, can be recognized, too, in another highly abstract work - the flat arrangement of symbolic color frames crossed-held at the center by a vertical copper wire which threads cast-iron motifs standing for the chakras in the human body. Whether enclosed in geometry or entering amorphous substances, the sculptures always balance among the sign, the body and the primeval matrix to touch on the forces of life's motion underneath, each in some measure containing or indicating connectedness with the rest.

Half-way between the connotation and the carnally pregnant the viewer will find the group of tall, white obelisks marked with the energetic spirals of infinity. Largish circles of bronze patinated in different hues suspend above them creating a sense of light movement amid women's silhouettes, the 'bindus' turning into 'bindis'. Whilst the anthropomorphic content has been implied indirectly in this case, elsewhere the sculptor yearns for the tactility of physical flesh and the original universal matter. Hence the image of the yoni whose granular bronze surface partakes of female skin and of prehistoric rock, the transparent and still like a bodily secretion. Sporadically, Lalitha comes closer to suggesting the impression of a woman's plastic, sensuous figure. She may do it by splitting it into two rugged masses and a stroke of an arch which is a resting spine. She may also see it from a distance as a compact yet open triad of dynamic, spinning forms as though ready to soar. The thinking about entities as comprising one another gains focus in the vessel images, again referring to the ancient idea of the body as a receptacle of the material and the sublime.

Its notional equivalent is represented by the triangular piece holding water, overlaid by earth squares. The colorful bronze, on the one hand, recalls ceramic, its warm, mildly uneven surface, on the other, suggesting live skin. A set of large containers has been molded so as to sparingly hint at torsos without forgoing the color symbolism. A yet another smaller, cylindrical vase-like sculpture wraps three layers of what could be clothes but also skin, meat and bones. The preference for bronze - both treated in consonance with its fundamental nature and so as to resemble other materials, durable as well as fragile - at another plane, perhaps, reflects the desire to capture lasting values in the actual and the transient.

If one has concentrated so far on the nature of the sculptures as such, how they function aesthetically as well as conceptually, their effectiveness depends to a great extent on their position in and interaction with the space that surrounds them, holds them, opens them up, even completes them and, above all, sets them in motion, at least in terms of energy potential. Lalitha's drawings, too, appear to participate in the general complementariness of ideas and form. Whereas her sculptures evidently rely on line, maybe almost as much as on plasticity, her two-dimensional works prove to have arisen from her primary practice.

Here she uses metal wires, threads, bamboo sticks, translucent hand-made paper and thicker scraps of color fabric. Placed on the flat, they make virtual lines, nevertheless their overlapping textures, etc. indicate the possibility of volumes mutually responding in space. At this point again, an essential, even though partial, analogy could be noticed in Lalitha's art which has the fluidity of dimensions and methods of constructing those prevalent in contemporary idioms, to the behavior of classical Indian sculpture - immersed in high relief with its background matter and based on the kind of outline which brings out volume.

Written by Marta Jakimowitz-Karle