At SJMA, Rina Banerjee's Retrospective Embraces a Fluid Complexity

Rina Banerjee, 'Take me, take me, take me...to the Palace of Love,’ 2003. (JKA Photography)

When I stepped inside New York-based artist Rina Banerjee’s flamingo-pink, floating Taj Mahal, it felt like the artist had wrapped me in a valentine the size of a small house. The sculpture Take me, take me, take me...to the Palace of love is suspended from the ceiling at the San Jose Museum of Art, held aloft by wires a few feet above the ground. It’s not an exact replica of Shah Jahan’s memorial to his wife Mumtaz, but you can’t mistake the turrets and distinctive window shapes for any other structure on Earth.

Make Me a Summary of the World—Banerjee’s career retrospective, first shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and on a U.S. tour that runs through 2021—fills three galleries on the SJMA’s top floor with so many sculptures and paintings they spill out into the hallways. Nothing about her work suggests containment. Even the acrylic paintings that simulate watercolors bleed into and past the edges of their frames. Meanings, too, and when and where you can find or interpret them, are just as fluid.

Rina Banerjee, 'The world as burnt fruit...,’ 2009.
Rina Banerjee, 'The world as burnt fruit...,’ 2009. (JKA Photography)

In PAFA curator Jodi Throckmorton’s essay in the exhibition catalog, she writes, “Despite its obvious beauty and sensuality, Banerjee’s work oozes with this Orientalist unease: her gold-threaded fabrics, jeweled surfaces and Anglo-Indian antiques are steeped in the atrocities of colonialism.” (The retrospective is co-curated by the SJMA’s Lauren Schell Dickens.) After reading this, I felt guilty I’d taken such pleasure in not only Palace of love, but in each subsequent visit I made to the show.

I wasn’t ignoring the sharp, pointed horns that jut out of a dozen sculptures, or the splendid row of gharial crocodile teeth in The world as burnt fruit. I looked closely at the acrylic ink on paper piece Queen of Cuddles, a demon-faced mergirl lashing out with her long, froggy tongue. But I didn’t recoil from her zoological phantasms or their sense of menace.

Instead, I was dazzled by Banerjee’s approach to organizing glass vials, cowrie shells and feathers into strangely organic arrangements of disparate parts. She’s a re-animator, making new and unfamiliar beasts rise up from death. The intricacy of her nests within nests, within even more nests, indicate that she learned from industrious birds how to recreate their homes.

Rina Banerjee, 'Infectious Migrations,’ 1999.
Rina Banerjee, 'Infectious Migrations,’ 1999. (JKA Photography)

Where an academic might be more inclined to identify such themes as globalism or the fungibility of cultural and gender identities, I marveled at her skills and suspended any analytic response. That is, until I spoke with Banerjee on the phone. I asked her about that tension—between the surface level beauty and the underlying narratives that contradict or undermine it.

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“All of the subject matter that you mention [i.e. globalism, identity] can essentially be communicated as colors and shapes,” she says. “It’s an abstract language, then, to them [the viewers]. But it carries that meaning, and I think that that becomes a contagion. It will inform them.”

For the artist, my uncontaminated response to Palace of love was forgivably naive. “For me, it has dark things to say. It really references what became the popularity of a legend as it became a recognizable building, edifice, throughout the world, in a very pop culture way,” she says. People are attracted to the romance of the Taj Mahal, and also to the romance of the colonial period. What we forget about, Banerjee explains, are the laborers who gave their lives in order to create these architectural wonders for posterity.

Rina Banerjee, 'Make me a summary of the world!,’ 2014.
Rina Banerjee, 'Make me a summary of the world!,’ 2014. (JKA Photography)

Banerjee manages to create her sculptures from hundreds and often thousands of distinctive elements by not having an architectural plan. “You really have to make something that is a little bit of an idea in mind and a little bit of the unknown. The more ingredients you plan on using, in the end, allow you that kind of complexity,” she says.

The artist also questions simplistic attitudes toward the meaning of chaos. “Sometimes what you see that is unfamiliar gets defined as chaotic because you are uncomfortable with it, because you don’t see the kind of pattern that you are normally seeing, and so those things are very important in the work to consider.” She’s not interested in defeating chaos with order.

Banerjee’s earlier paintings were, she says, “much heavier and very pigmented.” She used mica, steel and iron powder to create “a minerality” on the surface. Only one painting from this series, made in 1994, is on view at SJMA. Then her practice shifted; she wanted to make things portable, faster and safer for her health. This newer series of “watercolors” is filled with air and light—it’s hard to connect their delicate teals and burnt magentas with the painting from 1994.

Rina Banerjee, 'A world lost,’ 2013.
Rina Banerjee, 'A world lost,’ 2013. (JKA Photography)

Around 2003, she started to dilute acrylic paint, coupling it with watercolor paper to create floaty, washy effects. “It's almost like it expands, and you can feel the movement of the water,” she says of this approach.

One of these works on paper, If lotion and potion could heal..., features two finned humanoids with striped green skin. They float in briny leaves, weeds and flowers, attached to each other by their extended tongues. This is what love looks like when you’re swimming together in the deepest fathoms of infatuation.

Rina Banerjee, 'If lotion and potion could heal...' 2006.
Rina Banerjee, 'If lotion and potion could heal...' 2006. (Courtesy of the artist)

Banerjee believes that water itself is a good metaphor for mobility, saying, “We do not like boundaries at all.” At the SJMA, a docent admonished me for stepping too close to the expanse of sand that spreads across the floor beneath A World Lost... I couldn’t help myself. I felt like a crow inexorably drawn toward Banerjee’s shiny dioramas, hypnotized by the shimmering colors and the sheer number of minute, unidentifiable objects.

That physical response says it all: The artist and curators might insist upon the meaning of every sculpture and painting in Make Me a Summary of the World, but they can’t anticipate or account for the pleasure of discovering a miniature black rhinoceros nestled in a crown of driftwood; in seeing myself mirrored in the expression of a livid, dissipating goddess; or, in coming to the conclusion that all those fanned out, flushed pink feathers displayed Banerjee’s desire for flight.

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'Make Me a Summary of the World' is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through Oct. 6. Details here.

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