4.5 / Review

Flickering Myths

By Ellen Tani December 2, 2012

Thumbnail: Chitra Ganesh. Transmission, 2012; mixed media on wood; 84 x 120 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.

The New York–based artist Chitra Ganesh has her first West Coast solo show at Gallery Wendi Norris. The exhibition comprises a site-specific wall drawing, ornate works on paper, and a twenty-five-piece series of digital comic-book prints recently commissioned by the Gothenburg Kunsthalle in Sweden. A rising star in the contemporary art world, Ganesh drew acclaim for her contribution to the groundbreaking 2006 show One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, at the Asia Society, and has since exhibited internationally and won a host of prestigious fellowships, most recently from the Guggenheim Foundation. Working in various media, she is known for her large wall installations that combine drawing, painting, and sculptural elements, often with the addition of poetic writing.

Flickering Myths presents a dynamic collection of work that is most compelling in its multiplicity; the works on display are at once tormented and beautiful, wildly colorful yet meticulously controlled in execution. They are nostalgic in their adaptation of religious figure painting and in their use of the multi-frame comic-book format, evoking mythologies both ancient and modern. Ganesh’s use of color and texture is so alluring that it can be difficult to move past. Nonetheless, she invokes longstanding issues in art and history: the centuries-old debate between disegno and colore; the tension between altered states and reality; the influence of technology on humanity; and the myths and stories through which we convey histories, concepts of justice, moral values, and gender roles.

The large wall drawing, Transmission (2012), and three ornamented drawings, 3 ways to look death in the face (2012), reveal the artist’s fine-tuned craftsmanship: elegantly cartooned figures float on backgrounds awash with color and adorned with everyday materials such as mirrors, Easter grass, leather, beads, cut-up photographs, and feathers. Punctuated by surface transgressions in the form of zippers, sewing, and objects impaled on the paper, the figures hover on an optic/haptic threshold that shifts viewers’ perspectives from the purely visual to the embodied.

Ganesh’s figures are part-human and either part-machine or part-god, birthed of two queered histories of humanity: the mortal-god hybrid and the cybernetic organism (commonly known as a cyborg), an entity composed of biological and mechanical elements. In 3 ways to look death in the face 3 (2012), a female figure’s voluptuously drawn outlines—her flesh pink where feathers have been stitched in—contrasts sharply with the mechanical inner workings of her torn-open chest and the filmic apparatus that takes the place of her head.

Chitra Ganesh. 3 ways to look death in the face 3, 2012; mixed media on paper, 60 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Chitra Ganesh. She, the question, a pulse too slippery, 2012; archival lightjet print; 17.5 x 28 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.

A cutout of a photographic eye is oriented vertically at her pelvis, which appears under a wash of blue paint that represents water. This third eye is one of various references in Ganesh’s work that link the mystical to the here and now. Traditionally placed at the forehead, the third eye signals the bearer’s inner vision, which in Hinduism serves as a gateway to higher consciousness. Placed at the hand or pelvis, however, it suggests transcendence in new realms of exchange or sensual pleasure. Could Ganesh’s cyborg iconography and the queered third eye articulate the artist’s subtle feminist critique of both ancient mythology and science fiction, which present gender-coded behaviors to children at the most impressionable of ages?

The comic-book series She, the Question (2012) suggests this and more, edging toward a meditation on truth, beauty, humanity, and cultural transformation. It’s unclear whether Ganesh seeks to reconcile these concepts; this ambiguity is undergirded by texts in the comic’s frames. In comics, a text is typically meant to clarify through narration, but here the text reads more as automatic writing, its terms seemingly taken from a dream sequence. In She, the question, a pulse too slippery (2012), the caption “She, the question…” announces three clustered frames, which include the image of a building on fire whose flames lick upwards, bleeding past the frame to form the arm of a woman’s hand (the printing term bleed takes on a visceral quality, in the blood shed between comic frames here and elsewhere in the series). The hand writes, “Her head in the flames at the bottom of our dreams…SHE the winged rider, or the tightropes she walks…a thousand nooses unraveled.” In the largest frame, viewers can peek over the back of a woman who stands in a wooden doorway, thinking, “her pulse too slippery to put your finger on,” and gazing into an enchanted forest. Amidst the trees, a vertical eye-shaped opening seems to offer a feminized portal to a reality beyond the material one she inhabits.

Ganesh’s appreciation of science fiction and her recent exploration of the Amar Chitra Katha, an Indian comic-book series from the late ’60s, inspired her own comic series. The Amar Chitra Katha was a major channel through which Indian folklore and mythology was transmitted to children at a time when social changes—emphasizing the nuclear family over the two-family structure—endangered the tradition of cultural storytelling by family elders. The force of the comic as cultural technology remains evident in the captivating yet mysterious prints in Ganesh’s series. As a hand-drawn but machine-reproduced form of communication that regulates our gaze through a designed interface, the comic book is a perfect sort of cybernetic technology. But She, the Question differs greatly from the Amar Chitra Katha in several major ways. Ganesh’s images refute the self-censored nonviolence of the original comic, disfiguring characters into floating body parts and displaying nudity with insistent allusion to female parts both reproductive and erogenous. Moreover, while there are no identifiable protagonists, most of Ganesh’s characters are female, suggesting that femininity itself may play the lead role. She, the Question has no action-packed narrative nor even any narrative clues, its emotional gravity evading the poles of joy, fear, or anger. But ecstasy and trepidation, trance and hallucination are there; other expressions are furtive or at times seemingly dispassionate. The exaggerated, bold hues suggest the typical coloristic language of comics, and yet Ganesh’s series is strangely muted. It does not satisfy our expectations by delivering immediate narrative meaning but rather asks us to ponder, to wander with the voice that poetically explores each frame, in search not of an answer to the series’s title but of the various states and complexities that emanate from She.


Ellen Tani is the 2012 ACAC Writing Fellow.


Flickering Myths is on view at Gallery Wendi Norris, in San Francisco, through December 22, 2012.

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