COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it comes to exhibition-making, the Pizzuti Collection works entirely from the contemporary holdings of Ron and Ann Pizzuti, who are as avid in their championing of Columbus as they are in their appetite for diverse acquisitions, largely by living artists, the world over. Looking at the cross section of artists, media, and themes represented within the Pizzuti Collection (as showcased, for example, in the 2016 exhibition, Us Is Them), one could hardly consider this to be a limited pool from which to draw inspiration.
Certainly, at first pass, the Pizzuti’s newest exhibition, Visions from India, is a visual menagerie, offering no end of rich detail and kinetic spectacle. Curator Greer Pagano, who worked closely with the Pizzutis over multiple years to construct this exhibition, is quick to emphasize that Visions from India is in no way intended to stand as a comprehensive survey of Indian art — if, indeed, it were even possible to in any way summarize the collective consciousness of a country with a population exceeding 1.2 billion. As always, the Pizzuti Collection is working through the narrow lens of their eponymous collectors’ preferences — collectors who, it must be noted, have a confident and personal approach to art collecting, one that reflects a genuine interest in art and artists more than the market forces that may affect the extrinsic value of the works.
But the very nature of singular vision creates the opportunity for a blind spot. In the case of Visions from India, it took me some time to identify a thread of emotional dissonance arising in response to the tableaux, grouped in galleries on all three floors of the building. This dissonance was initially easy to dismiss, because I am a materialist, and Visions from India is rife with glorious and incredibly textured materials. Visitors are initially and irresistibly drawn from the entry hall into the largest first-floor gallery, which is dominated by a dynamic landscape assembled entirely of metal tiffin boxes — the traditional lunchbox of India — moving along a sushi bar conveyor belt repurposed into a snaking pathway across the top of an industrial steel table. “Untitled (Sushi conveyor belt)” (2008) by Subodh Gupta is the piece for which this gallery was expressly designed when the Pizzuti Collection built out the facility in 2011, and it has only now come to be displayed there. The effect of the piece is both hypnotic and quickly vertigo-inducing, with the moving tiffin towers managing to suggest a quiet, deeply aesthetic cityscape. It’s fun to watch, even as you start to feel your stomach turn. (Perhaps plan your visit before lunch.)
The celebration of material abundance continues in the adjacent gallery, where a colorful triptych wall of huge “landscapes” created by artist Bharti Kher through the application of arrow-shaped bindi marks on board form the backdrop for a floor piece by Gupta comprised largely of discarded and rusting molds for false eyelashes. These two works, each dealing with cosmetic culture, accretion, and abstraction through a process of sheer accumulation, form a fluid conversation with each other: as above, so below. Another side gallery off the main floor is entirely devoted to a second work by Gupta, this one an oversized and rusting approximation of an immobile industrial ceiling fan, with a spray of detached debris languishing on the floor around it. Pagano acknowledged the challenges of working with pieces made by the artist with entropy in mind, conscious of the warring desires to preserve the piece and to allow it to fulfill its destiny of decay.
Moving upstairs, more wonders are revealed. The Pizzutis have collected a number of works by Sudarshan Shetty — perhaps one of the more widely recognized names in the show — and one of the more striking in the giant, kinetic “For All That We Lose” (2011). Standing nearly 12 feet tall, this freestanding and ornately carved wooden gateway incorporates, like much of Shetty’s work, sections of reclaimed teak salvaged from the wave of fast-moving development that often leaves one of India’s most common historic building materials in discard piles. A swinging sword sweeps through the arched portal, transforming the structure from a gateway to a pendulum clock, its face replaced by the decorative motifs that, like time, are slipping away as India rebuilds structures in the vision of its future.
There are numerous lovely moments like these throughout Visions from India, but to focus on them exclusively would be to fall into the same blind spot that the exhibition itself does. It is quite easy to lose oneself in this celebration and virtuosic rendering of India’s material, and thus easy to initially discount a lingering feeling that something is missing. But upon reflection, the blind spot in the work emerged: Visions from India seems to have wholly eschewed humans as subjects.
I have never been to India, so I hesitate to speak out of turn about issues of representation. And this show, as prefaced by its curator and in the catalog’s introductory essay, is not intended as a comprehensive representation of India. I am a scholar of neither historic nor contemporary Indian art, and so I cannot say definitively whether the collective lack of human figuration in this show is indicative of a trend or tradition, or simply a revealing element of the personal taste of these collectors. What I can say is that, even from a mostly unschooled perspective, India is known to have a lot of people, and the fact that less than five human subjects appear amid a collection of 40+ works certainly feels lacking.
Based on Us Is Them, in which the majority of the pieces did feature human subjects, it cannot be argued that the Pizzuti Collection has something against them. And certainly, some of the works here use materials — bindis, tiffin boxes, eyelash molds, broken china — in ways that might be construed as visual proxies for human subjects. A second show, The Progressive Master: Francis Newton Souza from the Rajadhyaksha Collection, sits in a gallery embedded within the wider exhibition, and much of Souza’s work deals in human figures, albeit abstractly at times. But he is also one of only two non-living artists featured in connection with Visions from India.
Collectively, the resistance displayed by either contemporary Indian artists en masse, or these particular collectors of contemporary Indian art, to consider actual Indian subjects creates a kind of vacuum in the space. In fact, a number of pieces seem to consciously elide their human subjects, as with Shetty’s “Untitled” (2008), which features a common clay water vessel rigged atop a mechanical conveyor performing an automated imitation of the human act of pouring — no human required. Two large-scale oil paintings by Kanishka Raja, which share the room with the massive sushi table installation, take as their subject panoramic airport interiors, with the two halves of the painting slightly offset around a median point. The mismatch within these paintings — the visual equivalent of a record scratch — is not their most jarring element, however. In one, “Double Duty” (2007), at least half the canvas is thick with rows of empty green cots. Like India, airports are never empty, never silent, so to see one entirely free of occupants suggests tragedy, apocalypse. A sculpture by Alwar Balasubramanian, “Self in Progress” (2002), the first work to greet visitors as they enter the museum, features a life-sized body casting of the artist sitting in a chair — his legs from the knees down emerge from one side of a dividing wall, his back and that of the chair from the other, and the rest of the figure is obscured, presenting the illusion of being embedded in the space between.
Visions from India presents ghost towns, purgatorial waiting rooms, mythically impassable gates, skeleton dogs, unopened lunchboxes, literal no-mans lands. This seems, at heart, contradictory to a country known for its sounds, its smells, its churning biomass. The preoccupation seems to be with that of environment, material culture, and waste — and to be sure, these are issues as specific to India as they are universal. The works are irreproachable, and the Pizzuti’s collection is nothing if not cohesive — not to mention, offering a rare show that equally represents male and female artists. So the visions of India offered by the Pizzuti Collection is by no means negative, but it is perhaps a bit oddly quiet, oddly spare, presenting a profound contrast to the more common associations of the place from which it draws inspiration.
Visions from India continues at the Pizzuti Collection (632 North Park Street,
Columbus) through October 28.
A portion of the author’s travel expenses were reimbursed by the Pizzuti Collection and Experience Columbus.