Born in India and now living and working in Cincinnati, Radha Lakshmi is the first artist-in-residence at gallery One One and Brazee Street Studios. Founder and Director Sandy Gross and Leah Busch, creative director and gallery coordinator, had long discussed instituting an artist-in-residence program. It would include a solo exhibition to showcase the results of the residency plus $500 for materials, studio space, unlimited firings, and instruction and technical assistance.
When they saw Radha’s work on line, they thought glass fusing (melting powdered and glass shapes onto a glass substrate) would be a logical extension of her work. They must have also known that the artist delights in experimenting and working in a wide variety of mediums. So Radha was invited to launch the project.
Radha titled her show “Bindu – The First Circle.” Bindu is Sanskrit for point or dot. As Radha explains, “I had to look beyond the challenges (of glass) and go straight to the essence of successfully weaving the medias (sic) (glass and printmaking) together.” She continues, “Hence the title ‘Bindu’ or ‘the first circle,’ the first drop, the point, the core that spreads, unfolds, expands from the center, and radiates outwards into the universe.”
The first gallery of the exhibition space was devoted to Radha’s beginning experiments with glass fusing. But I was drawn into the second room to view an installation of her iPhone photos of hibiscus blossoms: 1001 and More Names for a Hibiscus Flower. In Hindu mythology, the hibiscus is auspicious, representing feminine energy and empowerment. The red hibiscus, in particular, is associated with the goddess Kali, the dark and violent aspect of the Parvati who is the maternal form of Shakti, the Divine Mother and divine feminine power, in Hindu mythology.1
On the side walls, the artist hung the 8” x 8” photos, which are printed on metal, in an arrangement forming an inverted triangle (10, 8, 6, 4). This orientation of the triangle represents the feminine or Shakti.
In a single session, the artist made approximately 120 photographs of a blossom placed on a white paper napkin, which added a regular texture to the background. She used a Hipstamatic, a digital photo app for iPhones and Windows phones. It makes square images and simulates a variety of lenses, films, and flashes for a retro look, like that produced by cheap plastic cameras. Radha says she wasn’t certain how the individual photos would turn out; there is the same uncertainty with glass.
I was entranced by the photos of this sensual and also quite sexual bloom. In the center are anthers (a lozenge shape on a thin stem) containing pollen, the male reproductive cell. They surround the stigma, which receives the pollen with an oval form at the bottom called the ovary. (Just for reference, the shape recalls ancient glass unguent bottles from the Middle East.)
Looking at the tantalizing images through an art historical lens, I saw intimations of Georgia O’Keeffe, especially in the black-and-white photos where form trumps color. The pictures also reminded me of O’Keeffe’s long-time companion Alfred Stieglitz’s black-and-white cloud photos that are so nearly abstract. The flower’s luscious color and out-of-focus quality naturally evoked Impressionism, especially in those where the bloom’s form can be discerned. But when she moves in closer, Color Field painting comes to mind.
Radha says her work is about creating sacred spaces.2 This room feels like a chapel, and her photos could be pieces of stained glass so much do they glow. For centuries, most notably in the Gothic period with its spectacular stained glass windows, glass has been seen as spiritual, illuminating a divine message.
Reluctantly I returned to the main event: the artist’s first experiments with glass. The material may become a wonderful vehicle for her concepts, but she’s not there yet.
Radha’s very first piece is a pattern3 of powdered glass stenciled on a clear glass square. It’s a very tentative beginning, and taught Radha her first lesson: what you see before firing and what happens when heat fuses the glasses together are different. That unpredictability is one of the “magical” or “alchemical” traits of glass. Radha wasn’t satisfied with the result, although I rather liked its directness and simplicity.
Next in Sri Yantra, Radha applied her predilection for layering images to glass through multiple firings, pushing it to the limit with six.4 It’s a very interesting concept since, unlike her work on paper or fabric, there is an actual depth to the layers, and an aesthetic area worth exploring by Radha.
In this wall piece, the artist arrayed several fused-glass pieces on the wall, creating the effect of a constellation. A large amorphous shape is just left of the center of the installation, but Radha says that the individual shapes are being drawn to a circular piece placed at the far right. If so, they are ambling along.
This shape (the composition is reminiscent of Kenneth Noland’s targets) depicts the Sri Yantra symbol, which is made up of nine interlocking triangles radiating from a central point – the bindu. Four upright triangles symbolize masculine force, the god Shiva, and the five inverted triangles represent the feminine, the goddess Shakti. Together the design manifests the bond between male and female and the unity of the cosmos.
I’d say Radha’s most ambitious and least successful piece is The Golden Spiral of Manifestation. Both the composition and component parts are awkward.
Spiraling around a central shape, which bears an unfortunate likeness to a fried egg down to its yolk-y color, are shard-like shapes. They’ve been slumped (heated just to the point where the glass drapes over the form or mold placed beneath it), making the shapes more dimensional. On these satellite elements, Radha appears to have sifted a lavender powder in curving parallel lines that reminded me of the ridges of a shell. Over this she laid what looks like torn bits of plum-colored tissue, taking advantage of glass’s inherent translucency. My impression was of fossils or petroglyphs.
I’d say inviting Radha for this inaugural residency was inspired. Glass has symbolized the spiritual across cultures for centuries, making it the perfect vehicle to express Radha’s desire to create sacred spaces. But she has to get over the initial phase of wonder before she can create fully resolved works in glass. I look forward to seeing that development.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Bindu – The First Circle: Radha Lakshmi,” through Oct. 9, gallery One One, Brazee Street Studios, 426 Brazee St., Cincinnati, OH 45209. (513) 321-0206, www.brazeestreetstudios.com. Mon., Wed., Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tues., 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thurs., 12 p.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
1 Sorting out all of the deities in the Hindu faith would take volumes. For example, Parvati, the maternal form of Shakti, is known by more than a hundred names. Another manifestation is Kali. Here the fair Parvati is depicted as black and represents her violent side. Kali is the goddess of time and change. The artist’s own names are also from the pantheon of Hindu deities. “Radha” represents Shakti. “Lakshmi” is the goddess of wealth, love, prosperity, and beauty.
2 Along with gallerist Marta Hewett, Radha offers Creating Sacred Spaces through Mandala Workshops. Appearing in both Hinduism and Buddhism., the mandala is a geometric pattern that represents the cosmos and is used to focus the practitioner’s attention as an aid to meditation. It creates a sacred space.
3 Radha uses many traditional kolam designs, which she learned from her Hindu mother and grandmother growing up in Chennai in southern India. For 2,000 years women have risen before dawn, “their quiet time with the universe; free from their hectic schedule that they face during the day, women clean and draw (traditional) geometrical rice powdered patterns on the ground, at the entrances of their homes,” explains Radha. They welcome all into the home, everything thing from a humble ant drawn to the nourishment and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Never intended to be permanent, they are walked through, rained on, or blown away during the day. The next morning, the women will rise early again to create new ones.
4 Like most, if not all, artists untrained in glass and other technique-intensive mediums, Radha didn’t know what she couldn’t do with the material. They all ask “What if?” And the trained technician usually responds, “It’s impossible,” and then figures out how to do it.