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Pittsburgh's Wood Street Galleries shines spotlight on two artists, each with a unique experience of their world

| Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, 9:13 p.m.
Nandini Valli Muthiah
Nandini Valli Muthiah's 'Seated 1,' from the 'Definitive Reincarnate' series
Hetain Patel
Hetain Patel's 'The Jump'
Nandini Valli Muthiah
Nandini Valli Muthiah's 'Serenity in his sleep 2,' from 'The Visitor' series
Hetain Patel
Hetain Patel's 'To Dance Like Your Dad'

As part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's “India in Focus” series, Wood Street Galleries is displaying the work of two very different Indian artists, Hetain Patel and Nandini Valli Muthiah.

Patel, who lives in London, creates primarily video-based work that is self-referential and universally familial. Conversely, Valli Muthiah, who lives in Chennai, India, seeks to represent a pop-culture version of God through her unique style of staged photography.

For this particular exhibit, Patel was commissioned to create “The Jump,” which is made up of two films, each six minutes long, shown simultaneously on a back-to-back projection screen.

In it, Patel is dressed in a homemade movie-replica Spider-Man costume he created. “The Jump” presents two viewpoints of the artist leaping, suited up, in slow-motion that is so slow it sometimes feels like a moving photograph.

“It's made to feel like it's a scene from a movie,” Patel says. “It's all about looking.”

Patel says it's a difficult piece to talk about without giving too much away. The film is very short and each part has reveals, a twist of sorts.

“This setting is my grandmother's living room,” he says. “This is the same house that all of my family have lived in over the years when each of them immigrated to the U.K. I lived in it for the first five years of my life. And (in the video), I'm jumping off of the same sofa I did when I was a kid, pretending to be Spider-Man.”

“The Jump” connects the widely recognized fantasy of Hollywood action and superhero films, with a domestic setting.

Employing the characteristic humor in all Patel's work, this new film installation creates an immersive cinematic experience that is, in turns, playful and sinister. Shot with the production value of a Hollywood action-movie scene, it features an original orchestral soundtrack.

Autobiographically for Patel, the work is about taking a leap into the unknown.

This ranges from the migration of his parents generation from India to the U.K., to the desire of his British-born generation to fly the coup of the Indian household and assimilate into their wider surroundings.

In another short film, “To Dance Like Your Dad” (2009), Patel imitates his father, who, since he emigrated from India to the U.K. in 1967, has never returned to India.

Here, he restages existing footage of his father in his coach-building factory, in which limousines are turned into hearses, in Bolton, England. Focusing on his father's physicality, Patel performs his words, his accent, mannerisms and movements, while the cameraman, too, performs all the original camera movements. Both films are shot in a single take and play in synchronicity with one other.

Patel's interest here is in the subtleties between inheritance and imitation.

Occasionally, Patel moves out of sync with his father, sometimes missing a movement. At times, certain physical traits confirm a genetic link between father and son. At other times, the source of a perfectly matched posture or expression is difficult to pinpoint.

On the third floor, Valli Muthiah presents nearly two dozen photographs that explore the physical beauty of God as represented in popular visual culture in South India, be it in calendars or films.

In one series, shot in 2003 and '06, titled “Definitive Reincarnate,” Valli Muthiah says, “The series is also about the beauty of God and how we imagine him to be. Since we have no idea what God would look like, we create him in our own image.”

Thus, Valli Muthiah portrays a tired-looking Krishna sitting on the edge of a bed in a luxury hotel room being cascaded with flower petals.

In a later series, “The Visitor” shot in 2010, the god reappears, but as two krishnas in parallel worlds. “They are in the same place, but it's two different people,” he says.

Here, the character is seen arriving in an old Chevy Impala and sleeping in the surface of a pool of water.

In both series, Valli Muthiah says, “He's an avatar of Krishna, but you can also call him Vishnu. It doesn't matter.”

Valli Muthiah says that the character is painted blue in both series for a specific reason.

“He's supposed to be dark, but Indians don't like to refer to their gods being dark. So, he is dark blue.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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