We stretch out in savasana on our yoga mats, spice our food with curry and cardamom, and hold Gandhi’s Salt March as a model of protest. Our clothing and house wares are infused with Indian design, we give awards to Indian movies and music, and here in central New Jersey, Indians R us — neighbors, bosses, top performers in our kids’ classes, and some of you reading this newspaper.
Yet how much do we know about contemporary Indian art?
The Gallery at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ) promises to enlighten us. Through Sunday, December 16, a selection of the Donald and Shelley Rubin collection is on view in “Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art.”
“A goddess charges forward on a lion, a holy man meditates in a blue field, two oxen pull a plow through a golden landscape: India’s modern and contemporary art brings us a wealth of imagery from all walks of life, from the poorest citizen to dynamic deities,” writes curator Rebecca M. Brown.
We see individual characters gazing back at us, men and women inhabiting urban and rural spaces, kneeling bodies meditating and praying.
In 1975 former longshoreman Donald Rubin, 39, and his wife, Shelley, became smitten with a pair of Tibetan paintings in a Madison Avenue gallery window. “We had just $3,000 in our bank account, and each painting was $1,500. I didn’t know anything about art. I’d never bought a painting before. I don’t think I’d been in a museum except on a school trip,” Rubin told a group of students from the College of New Jersey.
The Rubins, who went on to earn their fortune in the healthcare business, didn’t even know much about Tibet or Buddhism back in 1975, but they felt a connection to the 19th-century paintings.
“It took me no more than 10 seconds to make the decision to acquire that painting,” Rubin said. “If I’d thought about it, I’d never have bought it. I don’t want to know things intellectually — I want to feel the emotions.”
Traditional Tibetan and Nepalese paintings aren’t signed. That’s okay with Rubin, because when he looks at art, he doesn’t need to know the artist’s name or the price of the work; it’s more important to know how he feels about it. He likens the experience to falling in love — you don’t ask for the person’s resume or letters of recommendation. It’s more about “their energy, their looks, their aura.”
In another response to his instincts, Rubin plunked down $22 million in 1998 to buy the bankrupt Barney’s New York building on 17th Street and to house his rapidly growing collection of Himalayan and Asian art. Believing artwork should be seen, he founded the Rubin Museum of Art in 2004.
Today the Rubin’s is one of the largest Asian art collections, dating to the 11th century and spanning the mountainous Himalayan region to Mongolia, China, and Tibet.
In an interview with TCNJ students, Rubin says he prefers to buy art that reflects “real life” rather than abstract art. The selection at the TCNJ gallery is contemporary representational art.
“The paintings are a window into the extraordinarily rich culture of this part of the world,” says Emily Croll, director of the TCNJ Art Gallery. “It’s an overview of Indian painting of the last 50 years. Not only are they beautiful, but they deal with different aspects of modern and contemporary culture and religious practice.”
There is so much going on in these paintings — the more you look, the more you see.
The entire universe seems to live in Seema Kohl’s 2007 untitled mixed media work. The piece is placed at the center of this exhibit where you can stand back and change your vista of a faceless blue woman, whose body seems to end in a mermaid fin, holding an egg in one hand and a red flower with long green roots in the other. Yogis rise around her. Get closer, and there appear to be more mermaids, bearded yogis, and sea creatures swirling in a sea. Closer still and in that golden orb within the mermaid’s fin is another world, where animals parade two-by-two under a tree, and a mermaid swims with puffer fish, octopi, and an alligator.
The orb represents Vishnu and the birth of the universe. Within the fin is a flute player (Krishna). A makara, we learn, is a creature part fish, part elephant, part alligator. The multi-headed figure at bottom right is Brahma, the creator god that Vishnu produces from his navel.
The exhibit at TCNJ is part of a larger “Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest” traveling exhibit that opened at Oglethorpe University, Rubin’s alma mater, last year. In an interview in that catalog, Rubin acknowledges that beauty is a primary factor in determining whether to collect a work of art. In the catalog produced by TCNJ students, he says beauty is something you are attracted to, but there can also be negative beauty. “Being human involves the duality between emotions,” he says.
“Goddess” is organized into three sections: Inhabited Spaces, Spiritual Bodies, and Characters. “India’s art has long focused on the human form, whether deities from Hindu traditions, important Islamic saints, enlightened Buddhist figures, or secular historical heroes and heroines,” writes Brown. “After independence in 1947, India’s artists turned to the people around them and found a way to access the tragedies and joys of the emerging, modernized, cosmopolitan country.”
“They are expressing their cultural identity as an independent nation and their existence as a modern global identity,” says Croll. “When Nehru hired Corbusier to design the new capital, it was a conscious attempt to show India on the cutting edge of modernism.”
“These artists are modern artists in that they address universal issues and seek core truths about humanity, the cosmos or their inner selves,” adds Brown. “And they are also contemporary artists, in that they address the world immediately around them . . . They offer us insight into the human condition, exploring the struggles and triumphs of the wide variety of people that share a place in our global conversation.”
We associate India with bright colors and patterns of textiles. In “Under the Shade” we see the patterns and texture of the earth under which oxen tread, pulling a cart — the leaves of the trees are batik birds in this idealized view of village life following India’s independence.
In “Love, Deception and Intrigue,” we see a scene that Matisse or Cezanne may have painted of bathers along the sea. A woman at center, painted red, appears to be the storyteller, while nude figures painted yellow, blue, and red are actively engaged. Others, draped in colorful patterned saris, are part of the beach scene, and figures in the distance bathe in the sea. The artist “explores narratives of love in all its trials and joys, and we see here the tension play out among the various characters, vulnerable in their nudity, immerse in choppy waters or longing for a connection that has past,” says Brown.
“Reminiscing” shows a middle aged, middle class woman struggling with her memories and her role in the world. Formerly strong, important, and beautiful, her jaw has gone soft and her neck shows a weighing down she is not yet ready for, with her claw-like red nails holding a long cigarette. A blood-red cat rests on her lap, and in the background are memories — a young girl, a man washing at a sink, purple Can-Can legs like balusters along a flight of stairs.
Arpita Singh challenges us to look at surveillance in “Security Check,” where against a patterned background of crouched soldiers pointing pistols a woman holds up her arms, as if going through an airport body scanner. We see not only the details of her naked body, but her inner workings, including a fetus curled up in leaves in her womb. The woman’s floral patterned socks are the only garment hiding her flesh.
“India’s modern and contemporary art affirms that the modern is global,” says Brown. “Modern art was not invented in Europe and North America; it has emerged from an engaged, ongoing global dialogue. India’s art. continues to play a central role in the formation of modern and contemporary art.”
“Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection,” TCNJ Art Gallery, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. On view Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 3 p.m. through December 16. www.tcnj.edu/artgallery or 609-771-2633.