Guest blogger Bansie Vasvani visits Zarina: Paper like Skin at the Guggenheim, New York
New York: Zarina Hashmi’s long overdue retrospective, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, at the
Guggenheim, New York, opened to an audience struck by the work’s serenity, quiet
dignity, and artistic impact. Combining her evocation of language and place to chart her
personal, itinerant trajectory, Hashmi’s work explores the notion of home and identity
with enormous depth and perspicuity. An established printmaker, she is often considered the precursor to a generation of artists for whom transience and its impact has permeated
through their work.
In the front room, a portfolio of nine etchings titled Home I made/A life in Nine Lives, (1997) line the walls in geometric resplendence. Made on Arches Cover handmade Nepalese paper this series of simple, two-dimensional grids capture the structure of a basic dwelling. Zarina’s bare bone depiction can be best described by art critic John Berger’s definition of home as the center of the universe in an ontological rather than a geographical sense. Letters written by her sister Rani, that often described the passing of family members in Pakistan, become grist for her etchings and woodcuts. Her reductive images distill the sentiments of home to architectural forms and capture her nostalgia without being maudlin or dramatic. For Zarina, home becomes the place from which the world can be founded and it is the heart of the real. In these etchings, the original Urdu script of the letters is cut in metal for the prints, and the remainder of each image is rendered in woodcut. Zarina’s work underscores the sculptural aspect of her printmaking process acquired from the renowned British printmaker Stanley William Hayter while living in Paris in the 60’s. The painstakingly delicate renditions of Home I Made/A life in Nine Lives are steeped in a worldview inspired by the Minimalist tradition.
Untitled (1970), Cage (1970), and Kiss (1968) are a series of relief print collages made by inking assembled pieces of wood. Each work is constructed on handmade paper distributed by an organization founded by Mahatma Gandhi to promote Indian
handicrafts. The varying tones of the papers obtained from different regional workshops impart a particular character to each print emphasizing the quality of the material as much as the concept behind her creation. Using bits of wood assembled together, she
ingeniously creates a corral, a home, and a shelter suggestive of a protective surrounding.
The fragments and wood pulp produce dense fields that highlight the material properties
and spatial presence of an object in the convention of European Constructivism. Reminiscent of Carl Andre, her work appeals at a very basic, emotional level. Even in Kiss, inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s stone sculpture, the two pieces of wood placed side-by-side capture the primitive, folkloric precedents that Brancusi’s work expresses.
Perhaps one of the most riveting series in the exhibit is her Untitled (Pin
drawings), 1977. Here a sequence of works on pure white paper creates a meditative,
trance like effect on the viewer. Grid formations are devised through columns of
perforations from pinpricks. These three-dimensional mounds that rise above the paper
give the composition texture without disrupting its immensely soothing quality. Very
much in the vein of Agnes Martin’s biomorphic spiritual effect, and the visual impact of
Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings, Zarina’s personal, highly individualized art
stands out for the quality of its conception and the reductive feel of the cosmos on paper.
Zarina’s most well known piece, Home is a Foreign Place (1999), examines the larger issue of identity by implying that a home is what you make of it. From her residence in many countries as a diplomat’s wife, the artist believes that the idea of home and identity comes from an amalgamation of diverse cultures and experiences without
attributing any one single influence. In this woodcut portfolio of 36 basic architectural
lines, the drawings reveal how evocative a simple gesture can be. Triggered by Urdu
words like door, threshold, warm etc. that are etched into the drawings, the geometric
abstractions of crisscrossing lines and circles evoke the actual experience of entering such
spaces. Deeply nostalgic of both the loss of moving away from her homeland, and the
gradual extinction of Urdu, her mother tongue, the artist is able to revive her memories
through the deliberation of her deft craftsmanship.
In Zarina’s art beauty and aesthetics push the viewer towards new modes of
enlightenment. Her gold leaf piece that she initially felt might turn out to be garish,
connotes a sense of purity and sublimity that relays the quality of the metal itself. In
Blinding Light (2010) a 6 foot by 3 foot sheet consisting of layers of fine gold leaf
Japanese paper hangs from a bar. Vertical slits in a grid like pattern allow light to enter
and create shadows against the shimmering reflective surface. Imbued by Sufi
philosophy, the work resonates with the poetry of her imagination. Ultimately, Zarina’s
brilliant machination of paper that she believes is as malleable as skin compels us more
than ever towards a fulfilling experience.
This exhibition traveled to the Guggenheim , New York from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and will be on view until April 21, 2013.
Bansie Vasvani is an independent art critic based in New York City. She has a Masters Degree in Modern and Contemporary Art, and has traveled extensively to art fairs all over the world.