This is the start of the title for one of Rina Banerjee’s recent sculptures, currently on view in an arresting traveling exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum (take a deep breath):
“Viola, from New Orleans-ah, an African Woman, was the 19th century’s rescue worker, a global business goods raker, combed, tilled the land of Commerce, giving America a certain extra extra excess culture, to cultivate it, making home for aliens not registered, made business of the finer, finer, had occupations, darning thread not leisure with reason and with luster, in ‘peek-a-boo’ racial disguises …”
The sculpture’s title continues on for another 115 words, 177 in all. Together they make up a kind of nonsense prose-poem — nonsense here meaning absurdist and without the usual sense of things, rather than balderdash.
The artist is dismantling common English language, knocking it over, busting it into a thousand pieces and reassembling meaning into something evocative and new. That its music and rhythm sound vaguely Cajun — Viola, from New Orleans-ah — suggests a deliberate, careful ear rather than a Dada-style pile-up of random words.
There’s no “Untitled” work by Banerjee anywhere in the show, which brings together six sculptures, a dozen wall reliefs, 19 mostly small paintings on paper or panel and two videos, virtually all with extravagant monikers. (It was jointly organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the San Jose Museum of Art.) Seen alone, such titles might seem pretentious, a showy and affected pitch simply to be different and get noticed.
Notice, they certainly do want; what artist doesn’t? But, seen with her sculptures, the titles fit like a glove. Banerjee’s art is showy too. The lists of the materials used to compose her flamboyant works are nearly as long as the titles.
The above-named sculpture, for example, is an assemblage made from Murano glass horns, Indian rakes, seed beads, steel, a Yoruba African mask, oyster shells, cowrie shells, Charlotte dolls, polyester horsehair trim, Korean silks, Indian silks, vintage Kashmir shawls, a French wire Ferris wheel, Congolese elbow bangles, colonial mirror sconces, Japanese seed glass beads, sequins and threads.
Banerjee cobbled this vast array of materials together into a strange, otherworldly, almost baroque standing figure. A helpful wall label cites “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” the famous 2nd century BC Greek statue, as one inspiration for her sculpture. The other is the life of Viola Ida Lewis, an African American woman married to a Bengali immigrant in a coastal Louisiana bayou at the start of the 20th century.
The sculpture, standing atop a bed of oyster shells strewn across the floor, sports the suggestion of wings spreading out behind it. The figure, at once angelic and ferocious, tips forward, like the ancient Hellenistic Nike leaning into the wind and straining to maintain steadiness.
One big difference: Banerjee’s trails a big, scalloped, open-frame object behind it, connected to the figure by long, taut threads. This is no boat, as the Samothrace sculpture headed. This object looks like a tattered parachute. It hints at both rescue and liberation, as if the avenging angel has dropped in by chance from some faraway place unknown.
Born in Kolkata, India, raised in London, educated in the United States (first in chemistry, then in art) and now working in New York, the artist, 56, plainly mines her own experience in coming to terms with the kaleidoscopic nature of evolving identity. Banarjee’s sculpture could be called diasporic assemblage art.
Spectacular collisions in cryptic, sometimes bizarre, always striking new forms come from objects and images scattered from their original homes. Her best work forges harmony from disharmonious elements of colonial and postcolonial worlds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, two allusions to nature, both elaborately hand-crafted, are pervasive. One is feathery images of birds, an established symbol for freedom and spiritual buoyancy. Exotic flowers, sign of abundance and beauty, comprise the other.
To get a handle on the inherently diverse nature of her output, the exhibition is not a chronology of her development and instead offers four loosely thematic groupings. First is gender and sexuality; then climate change and the natural world; immigration and identity; and, finally, colonialism and globalization.
But the division into themes narrows appreciation for Banerjee’s achievement. The problem is that most of the works could find refuge beneath more than one of these sheltering umbrellas. The categories blur into one another.
“Viola, from New Orleans-ah …” is inspired by remarkable, uncategorizable immigrant identity that here fuses feminine and masculine conventions transmitted through globally chosen materials, many with clear colonial associations.
The art, in other words, is bigger than its curatorial confinement.
One wall relief, “When signs of origin fade …,” implies an institutional awareness of the hitch. Myriad elements branch out from a big, cast-resin replica of a turtle shell — for numerous cultures, the natural world’s mythological equivalent to Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. The complex work, loaded with sequins-decorated gourds and science-lab test-tubes, is installed not in the exhibition’s galleries but in the Fowler’s permanent collection rooms for Asian, Latin American, African and other art. Nestled with the collection’s sundry sculptures and paintings, the creeping turtle reverberates across time and space.
The other hurdle, this one more pleasant, is the sheer richness of Banerjee’s individual works of art. Taking in the show is rather like sitting down at a sumptuous ritual feast, where a lavish array of different dishes provides myriad satisfactions (and, yes, a few disappointments). But overindulgence and its consequences lurk. It can all be a bit exhausting.
“Make Me a Summary of the World,” the survey is aptly titled. The reach of such an ambition cannot help but exceed its grasp, which is just as it should be.
When: Wednesdays-Sundays, through May 31
Info: (310) 825-4361, fowler.ucla.edu