Neha Choksi’s recent solo at Project 88 brings a dash of dark humor to Colaba in the form of photographs, a video piece, and a few enigmatic installations. The exhibition is titled “If Nothing Else, A Smile,” after a sign the artist spotted a homeless man holding in her native Los Angeles. I did smile, but more out of discomfort than delight.
Large un-peopled photographs of L.A.’s Inglewood Park Cemetery make up the majority of the show. This space is a very familiar one to the artist. Not as the resting place of a relative, but rather as a nice spot to buy flowers. Yet the photographs hardly approach the elegant bucolic landscape one might imagine. Rather, Choksi has rather violently scratched grim and crooked smiley-faces onto the surface of the image—most often aligning the grinning heads with the stubs of tree-branches. In a few cases, the image might be considered something close to cute—or at least minimally disturbing. An example of this would be “Fledglings,” a photograph that features five smiley-faces that mirror the shape of cut-off tree limbs perched sparrow-like on the remaining branches of the pine. This is by far the most mild-mannered picture. Others, with blatantly ironic titles such as “Picturing a Happy End for the Joy of It,” or “Remembering Mummy” are outright icky. “Picturing a Happy End,” implies that the tree of frozen faces is going up in flames, and the frame of “Remembering Mummy” is filled by a giant primitive stick figure scratched along the contours of a woman’s gravestone. Although less subtle by a long shot and baring essentially no stylistic similarity, the photos called to mind the juvenile uncanny of Murakami or Nara.
Things calm down as Choksi adds another dimension— her installations offer a much-needed reprieve. Two striking works are made of mattresses balanced atop vases of wilting flowers. More precisely, the label for “Poise II” reads: “Green cotton mattress, multiple clear vases, assorted flowers in multiple configurations, time.” I wondered why I’d never seen “time” as a material on an object label before. Surely it has occurred to other artists. It was somewhere between cheeky and profound—more than a little precious, but still somehow lovely. To me, the pair of mattress/flower/time pieces were a rather lyric reminder of the simple fact that each night we sleep we wilt, as it were, a day closer to death.
While I made my own sense of the photographs and the mattress pieces, there were a couple of works that left me simply puzzled. “When You Clear the Field and All the Rest,” for instance, is a large gnarled stump slightly elevated off the gallery floor placed on a couple of low roots with a vase on top and flower heads down below. A striking visual indeed, but—the perennial question—what does it mean? (And, are the flower heads periodically replaced?) I know, I know, what a silly question. As Arthur Stieglitz responded when someone asked him the same thing about abstract art in the 1920’s “Do you ask what the wind means? You might as well ask what life means!” Fair enough. But I am afraid that these words of wisdom have served as the alibi for many an empty artist statement.
“When You Clear the Field” is not empty—just enigmatic. Neha stated that she preferred viewers to come away with their own interpretations of her work, a task she has facilitated by the lack of obvious interpretations. Ok, we can play together…you make the object and I’ll make the meaning. I couldn’t help remembering that Neha studied ancient Greek as an undergraduate at Columbia, and therefore must have an overdeveloped delight for decoding obscure. Perhaps she hopes her work will offer some similar pleasure to the viewer, along with enough black humor to coax a smile.
-- Sophia Powers
(Images, from top to bottom: Fledgling; Remembering Mummy; II; When You Clear the Field All the Rest. All images courtesy of Project 88 and the artist.)
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