Anil Revri's discipline and aesthetic sensibility are things to take note of. His first solo show in Washington is an obvious tribute to art's real meditative core.Seema Sirohi

Washington — A fragmented reality is the curse of modernity where in the name of art, anything goes. Clever elevation of the banal into the sublime has become an easy habit and commercial impact is seen as greater than artistic merit. There is a collective superficiality in which we all participate — those who produce, those who market, and those who consume.

It is as if we wanted to stay on the surface, travel in comfortable zones and not dive deep into the unknown. The spiritual is almost feared. Everything is performance art of a kind, and painting is a mere sub genre of the schlock that engulfs the “market.”

The artist has become a cog in the wheel of business, all the art fairs notwithstanding. He professes autonomy and celebrates his freedom to interpret modern life in all its chaos by becoming chaos himself. But the gallery owners, auction houses and investors as collectors, by adopting this hydra-headed movement wholesale, have the ultimate supremacy over the artist. The artist, for the most part, doesn't seem to care.

To stand up against the tide takes both courage and merit. Anil Revri, an Indian American artist based in Washington, is being credited with doing just that with extreme discipline and great talent. He is in the vanguard of the movement to restore sanity in an art world increasingly without a real core.

Revri's abstract art is at once structural and meditative and grounded in Indian spirituality. It is a confident vision defined largely by the grid leading the mind's eye to the centre. But the overarching geometry of his work is multi-dimensional. It opens into the unknown and you enter to get lost. Willingly.

Illusion of space

As he says, his paintings are “simultaneously visual aids to meditation and meditations in themselves.” He draws upon the Indian experience of knowing both the “horrors” and nourishment of religion in private and public spheres. Using calligraphy and geometry to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space, he creates “private altars” and visual sculptures, inviting the viewer to contemplate the positive, not the fanatic in us.

As Kandinsky said, good art must generate the “spark of inner life,” a movement within — something that has gradually faded in both western and eastern traditions. “The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” The guidance holds good today. The artist must be a medium for the aesthetic, that experience which elevates and concentrates the mind. That, which makes thinking and feeling into one sensibility. Art must not be a mere spectacle, a visual tantrum or a literal load.

The churning in the contemporary art has produced clutter, confusion, and some pedestrian work. Donald Kuspit, one of the most influential art critics today and an eminent professor of art history and philosophy, called it “The End of Art” in an eponymous and seminal book. In a more recent book, Dialectical Conversions, he explained: “The lifeworld and artworld are dialectically linked, they rise or fall together… But when art begins to look meaningless, life has long since become meaningless.”

One may argue with Kuspit's critique of much of postmodern art and his emphasis on high culture and aesthetics, but the power of commerce and the artist's preoccupation with it can't be denied.

Some like Revri stand out because they are evolving their own aesthetic and imposing a discipline on the chaos of inter-discipline where painting, sculpture, video, audio, film, photography, installation merge and unmerge. Where there is little distillation, only literal representation. For the most part.

Revri's new exhibition of paintings in the American capital — Faith and Liberation Through Abstraction — shows a way out of the confusion. It opened to record audiences at the prestigious Katzen Arts Center at the American University in January in recognition and tribute to his quiet, painstaking work over long years. Its three-month run (it ends April 15), has given critics and audiences much to contemplate. The show is Revri's first solo in the city since his retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2004.

The majority of the 37 drawings, paintings and sculpture that comprise the show have been borrowed from private collections and galleries. The compositions are bound together by the use of the word Ram in Devanagari script and with scriptures from six major religions incorporated into the design as calligraphy. Revri attempts through art to show that approaches to the eternal sunshine may be different but the end game is the same. Against the background of racial profiling, hate crimes and clashing civilizations, the reminder is a much-needed antidote.

American art critics are excited by Revri's vision. Kuspit declared it “an important moment in history” and said his work answered the need for “that truly universal abstraction.” Abstract art must look to the East if it is to have a future, even though it sprang from the West, all the more because the West is losing its “cultural credibility, along with its socio-economic power,” according to Kuspit.

This is no faint praise for an artist who came to the United States 30 years ago and has slowly, exhibition by exhibition, come to the fore to claim a wide perch. Today he is recognised as an important part of the Transmodern art movement in that he honours both tradition and modernity.

J.W. Mahoney, another art critic, says each of Revri's pieces is a “puja”, a meditation. He calls it “new” and “exquisitely dangerous work”.

Revri's most recent work titled “Ram Darwaza” is a series of 11 paintings executed with the finesse of the finest miniature artist. Complex geometrical rhythms and windows within windows entice you into different places. Each tiny square is filled with “Ram” and there are tens of thousands of such miniscule spaces in each frame. The innumerable visual planes seem to move in and out of each other, depending on the viewer's position. Sometimes one can glimpse reflections of oneself, delivering a visual pun.

“Pages from a Manuscript” are 14 small explorations on hand-made paper, so textured as to leap out of the frame like musical notes. They are akin to the “Ragamala paintings” of 16th-17th century India, which depicted different ragas with a particular colour, form and verse, thus achieving a synthesis of art, music and poetry. Revri found inspiration and affinity in the idea.  

It is a new model — abstract painting as a kind of music, something that Kandinsky first spoke of when he associated different colours with different musical tones. He famously said: “The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble…” Revri's colours are muted and few, a kind of minimalism of the palette that enhances the visual core, not distract from it.

In “Veiled Doorways” straight lines constantly move laterally and inward, shadowboxing with darkness and light. They are a spaghetti bowl of highways where travel is without toll but with reward.

Perhaps, the most fascinating is a series called “Cultural Crossings” done before the tragic events of 9/11 with an attempt to understand the basic unity among different religions. His focus is on six — Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — and the distillation is powerful. The paintings encapsulate the essence of each tradition within 9x11 inches with its unique symbols and scripts while maintaining artistic unity. Revri is able to convey the essential Hindu-ness or Christian-ness in each depiction. Again order is complete and visible.

They are not religious paintings but spiritual in that they separate themselves from the practised faith and work at a level beyond. Revri's inspiration is India and eastern tradition in general, and Tantra in particular. He says he works with the Gayatri mantra playing in the background, helping him to maintain “dhyana” (focus). He delves into “karma” (action/painting) while reciting his “japa” (mantra). The modesty is in contrast to the excitement he has generated among art critics.

Turning inward

It is ironical that Revri turned inward partly because of the circumstance of moving to the United States. He used to work mainly in oil but the damp, cold weather of Washington forced a change of technique. Introspection became both a method and a tool. The three states of awareness collided inside, producing a new synthesis. “My body of work is largely an interplay of the unconscious, conscious and superconscious. I am just trying to create a space, and geometry gives you endless possibilities,” he says.

The geometry in Revri's work is eloquent as are the spaces in between. And abstraction has come full circle. It is comprehensible and it has meaning.