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Artist Chitra Ganesh uses comics to convey weighty issues

| Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

The exhibit "The Word of God(ESS): Chitra Ganesh," on display at the Andy Warhol Museum, is a tour de force of color, symbolism and comic art mastery. But even though many of the pieces look like massive pages from a comic book, the work itself does not take the form of a complete comic book. Rather, nearly all of the pieces are self-contained narratives inspired by comic books that the artist, Chitra Ganesh, read while growing up in Brooklyn.

The young Ganesh read everything from "Archie" to "X-Men," but what inspired her most during her youth, and especially later, was a series of comics called "Amar Chitra Kathas." Begun in the 1960s to teach Indian children about Hindu myths and the history of India, the series is still in production today with a print run of more than 90 million copies.

Since 2002, Ganesh has created numerous works based on images she found in the "Amar Chitra Kathas" comics. Although the comics, several of which are on display in this exhibit as well, present religious and cultural narratives based on Hindu mythology and South Asian history, Ganesh likens these narratives to Grimm's fairy tales, Greek myths and other popular folklore, which prescribe models of citizenship, behavior and sexuality.

As visitors will see in this exhibit, Ganesh uses the comic book format as a point of entry for her audience, combining images from the original comics with pen-and-ink drawings and her own text.

Ganesh's narratives are intentionally disjointed; her goal is "to interrupt traditional storytelling forms, offering alternate articulations of conflict, desire and power."

For example, in the piece "Shimmering Pulse," Ganesh presents comic imagery on a much larger scale with more complex configurations involving a multitude of figures engaged in unrelated activities, resulting in an alternate consideration of narrative space and time. This work makes formal references to the graphic-novel genre, as well as religious/landscape painting. Like Chinese landscape scrolls and Hieronymus Bosch's masterpiece "Garden of Earthly Delights," it allows the viewer to take his or her delight in its composition and scale. One could spend an hour just standing in front of it, trying to take in all that is occurring throughout the picture where little figures cavort in a mind-boggling landscape filled with lakes and colorful mountain ranges.

The same can be said of "Melencolia II Sorrow's Refrain" which was inspired by Albrecht Durer's 1514 engraving of the same name. "I'm interested in the process of translating an abstract concept such as melancholy into a material feminine form," Ganesh writes in an e-mail regarding this picture.

In this piece, as with all of the works, the dialogue between the characters is comprehensible, but not at all connected. "The writing in these large-scale digital collages is my own, suggesting a surreal stream-of-consciousness text and opening multiple narrative possibilities."

While reading the text can prove an enjoyable experience unto itself, with "How We Do At the End of the World..." Ganesh proves that this same kind of stream-of-consciousness approach can be successfully conveyed via imagery alone.

Another large-scale piece, it is filled with religious/mythological figures and iconography Ganesh developed via working with mythic narratives of Hindu, Buddhist and Greek origin. But here Ganesh goes a step further, combining relatable images in regard to those themes with science-fictional signifiers, such as a massive UFO in the sky above them along with a multitude of Saturn-like planets hovering over it all.

"I'm interested in how science fiction has become our pre-eminent contemporary mythology, probing eternal questions of how we form ideas of identity, civilization, past and future," Ganesh says.

The exhibit features eight smaller non-comic related prints Ganesh created via a multitude of advanced printmaking techniques. They are from a series of 11 works from "Delicate Line (Corpse she was holding): Her head in the Flames?," a print portfolio commissioned by the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions.

"This body of work was my first opportunity to produce a substantive long-term project integrating the line drawing and construction of visual iconography at the core of my practice with multiple printmaking processes," Ganesh says.

With these works, Ganesh combines hand-carved linoleum cuts and psychedelic colors on monoprinted backgrounds that evoke fragments abstracted from traditional Indian textiles. A variety of traditional and contemporary printmaking processes, including lithography, silkscreen and archival digital printing, were combined to create these works.

As unique as they are for their combination of techniques, perhaps most arresting among all of them is the piece Ganesh calls "Octopus," which features the lower half of a female figure with multiple legs. Ganesh says that piece emerged through a series of formal experiments.

"The main figure was repeated in varying degrees of transparency, emphasizing a sense of tension, bodily fragmentation and depth of surface," Ganesh says.

The figure, printed on rice paper with glitter-infused ink, was layered onto a digitally printed gradation via a process called "chine colle," a process in which thin pieces of colored paper, cut or torn to a desired shape, are placed into position on the printing plate, then adhered to the substrate.

In this way, the combined layers, with printed imagery, create the transparent effect, which, in turn, gives this piece its arresting quality. But whether it's this piece, or any of the others, it's a guarantee that at least one of the works in Chitra Ganesh's most unusual and equally compelling exhibit likely will grab your attention.

Additional Information:

'The Word of God(ESS): Chitra Ganesh'

When: Through Sept. 4. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; until 10 p.m. Fridays

Admission: $15; $9 for senior citizens; $8 for children and students

Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side

412-237-8300 or

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