Private View: Saturday 5 June, 12-6 pm
Intricate, mythical scenes populated with winged women and mystical symbols appear lush and vibrant alongside subtle, geometric forms painted in earthy, faded hues on textured linen. The latest duo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, Berlin entitled In Orbit brings together the works of Indian artist Rithika Merchant, whose practice explores ancient stories and symbolism that transcend cultural and geographical boundaries, with British artist Rachel Garrard’s more abstract forms that seek to capture different realms of consciousness.
Rithika Merchant’s latest series of works focus around the figure of feathered (or winged) women and the imagined aerial perspectives of the landscapes that they might see during their flight. Aerial women are recurring characters in mythological stories across the globe, albeit in different guises, and typically, they represent a powerful and liberated kind of femininity. In the painting Peri leaving “Paradise”, Merchant specifically draws on winged spirits known as Peris who originated in Persian mythology. According to the stories, the spirits were denied entry to paradise for their mischievous nature and were sometimes locked in iron cages by evil beings. However, the artist inverts this narrative by depicting the spirit’s joyous dance as she retreats from a scene which appears paradisal at a first glance, but the small eruptions of fires beneath delicate, blooming flowers suggest a more sinister reality. In this way, the painting implies a freedom exists beyond the confines of conventional perspectives.
In many of the artist’s compositions, the paper has been carefully folded and then flattened to create embossed lines that function as ‘the bones of the painting’ and guide the viewer’s gaze. These lines are perhaps most visible in the work entitled Deliverance which ‘explores the many myths of swan maidens which narrate the attempted domestication of women.’ Here, the winged woman once again appears as a kind of spirit rising up from a corpse-like figure lying on the ground. Out of the corpse, long stems of flowers grow but instead of symbolising beauty, grotesque hands reach from their blooms as if trying to capture the spirit. By contrast, the sky, filled with intricate, celestial shapes, suggests an entrance into a higher realm, a space of freedom and lightness.
A series of three Panorama collage works envision abstract aerial views of mountainous terrain, the curved lines of a river and the distant sky, or perhaps another heavenly world in which circular shapes appear in orbit amidst geometrical lines. Merchant describes her collage-making process as ‘much more intuitive’ in the sense that she uses scraps from around her studio which she cuts into shapes, glues onto the paper, and paints over. However, there’s also a compelling sense of precision and harmony in both the lines and the colour palette. While Merchant favours a desaturated aesthetic, similar to botanical illustrations, that lends her work an aged or otherworldly feel, the careful balance of vivid and more subdued hues contributes to the narrative, and our emotional engagement with each work.
Rachel Garrard is similarly interested in experimenting with colour and materiality to evoke a deeper, more embodied visual experience. For Garrard, the artistic process is one of transformation which begins with the creation of her own pigments from natural, found materials that she collects on her travels across the globe, including ash from a temazcal ceremony in Mexico, powdered quartz crystal, plants, seeds, shells and coloured earth from her treks throughout the Andes mountain range, Europe and Central America. She then layers thin washes of pigment onto the surface of linen, building them up gradually to create the appearance of depth and shadow within precisely delineated geometrical forms. ‘Although the pigments have an earthly quality, my inspiration comes from the ephemeral and unseen,’ she explains. ‘I see abstract art as a way to speak in a language that transcends the material form.’
Through extensive research into contemporary science, the fundamental elements of nature, the mathematics behind aesthetics and the energy potential in the material object, the artist has developed a distinct symbolic language that aims to connect subjective experience with the cosmic and universal. ‘I understand myself and the world around me through these symbolic images, as such they can be seen as maps of the inner territories of the psyche,’ she says. The subtle tones and abstract forms evoke an emotional response from the viewer, inviting them to enter into a kind of meditative state which enables access to different realms of consciousness. Interestingly, many of the works feature faded multi-coloured, pointed shapes which seem to suggest a sense of progression or journey, and have the effect of guiding the eye in a certain direction. In the painting entitled Open, for example, these forms appear pointing upwards alongside a luminous wash of white, suggesting an ethereal space or perhaps, enlightenment. This work, as with all of Garrard’s paintings, invites a deep, concentrated kind of contemplation.
While Garrard and Merchant’s visual languages are distinctly striking, they share a powerful interest in the metaphysical, and as such, their works provide compelling explorations into art’s ability to transport the viewer beyond not just the image itself, but also conventional ways of seeing and engaging with the world.