Ashwini Bhat & Forrest Gander – Art and Cake

In Your Arms I’m Radiant: Ashwini Bhat & Forrest Gander, Photo Courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery and the Artists

In Your Arms I’m Radiant: Ashwini Bhat & Forrest Gander

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, los Angeles
THrough February 25, 2023

Nature knows that people are a tide that swells and in time will ebb, and all their works dissolve… As for us: We must uncenter our minds from ourselves… And become confident as the rock and the ocean that we are made from.

Robinson Jeffers

Written by Gary Brewer
The earth upon which we stand is a roiling sea whose currents move in slow motion. The rise and fall of the earth’s crust arches through deep-time, rising and falling in subduction zones whose very existence is a recent arrival in our human understanding. Our sense of self and how we fit into the world and the cosmos shifts with each new insight into the natural world and the life systems that are constantly unfolding. We live in an imaginary bubble of self: our skin and consciousness protecting us and enveloping us in an evolutionary safety net.

Our search for stable homogeneity is a mirage. Like Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, the ruins of our anthropocentric hubris surrounds us, yet we build dreams upon these ruins, determined to hold onto an anchor of permanence in the slipstream of our shape-shifting world.

The San Andreas Fault instructs us in the ways of the world; the violence that visits our state each decade is a reminder of our precarity in the scheme of things. The artist Ashwini Bhat and the poet Forrest Gander use the tectonic forces of the fault line as a metaphoric leaping-off point for this body of work. Their collaborative work of poetry, ceramic sculpture and installation for this exhibition are the result of their journey to the Carrizo Plain, an area in San Luis Obispo County where the depression of the strike-slip fault line is vividly present. It is part of an ongoing collaboration titled Assembling California.

The sculptural works of Bhat are primordial: they marry volcanic earth forces with the sensuality of the body. There is an intimate dance between the fragility of the body and the tectonic forces of the earth. Deep time and the span of a human life enfold each other. Eros unfurls in labial folds and gravity expresses itself in the stacked folded slabs of wet clay that the artist forms on her body, achieving shapes that are intimate and emotionally linked to her flesh and psyche. In many of the works, each form is carefully arranged and stacked in totemic vertical sculptures, to create presences that speak in an iconic language of flesh and earth, male and female, yoni and lingam. Her works exude an erotic force: the life force of becoming, annihilation and rebirth.

In a piece such as Nagini: Half Woman Half Serpent, the folding, undulating shapes coalesce into a flowering serpent-like form rising up, the color of the glazes ranging from earth-bronzes to lichen greens and pale aqua-blues. Small rope-like tendrils snake in and out, shimmering in a metallic glaze and adorned with bells used in traditional Bharatanatyam Indian dance, a dance the artist performed for many years. This sculpture, like others in the main room of the gallery, is placed on a low table-like base painted in a medium cobalt blue, the color suggesting the coolness of the sea to counterbalance the fiery volcanic forms above.  The bases add an architectural element, inspired in part by the stone temple sculptures of South India.

Bhumi, The Living Earth, is the largest sculpture in the show: it has bold architectonic power combined with a mysterious anthropomorphic presence. It is comprised of a three-tiered stack of distinct shapes. The bottom is glazed in cool blues and pale greens; the folded slabs convey a sense of oceanic movement. Above that is an abstract form suggesting the torso of a Buddha in a style seen in Nepalese art; the clay-colored surface is textured with horizontal strokes made with a tool or with the artist’s hand. On the top are five columns suggesting fingers; they are rising up from fiery red and orange folds of clay. The five fingers are a reference to a form of folk sculpture: a female totem that protects villages throughout rural India.

Bhat said of this piece, “I have been working with the image of scorched earth, expressing the destructive power of fire. When I first moved to California, I lived through two of the major fires and it had an impact on me, and on my work. In this piece, elements of water, earth and fire are represented, but I wanted the top to express how fire is an important part of an ecosystem: that many plants and trees need fire as part of their life cycle and regeneration. The red glazes at the top are both flames and the flowers that emerge after the fires.” 

Forrest Gander’s poetry is expansive. His writing interlaces deeply felt emotions of loss, our interconnectedness to each other and how we are interwoven with the fabric of nature. He uses the forces and systems of the natural world as metaphors that convey feelings about the tenderness, fragility and vulnerability of the human experience. He said, “The San Andreas Fault is a perfect metaphor for this moment in our culture; in both the tensions that have created such deep divides within our country and the peril of the ecological crisis that we have created. In my poems I want to address the issues of the world we live in. I feel that poetry has the power to deepen and shape language to affect our understanding of our relationship with nature.”

Gander received a degree in geology and he often uses the terms and knowledge from this field and from natural history. In his poetry the suppleness of language can metamorphose the lexicon of the earth sciences into rich metaphoric possibilities. Within the lens of deep time, his poems express a philosophical depth and a compassionate embrace of the fragility of our shared humanity.

The piece Bhumija, Born of the Earth, is a large installation of 24 glazed ceramic segments arranged on a wall. Each element unfurls: flesh, muscle, curve and bodily forms move across the space, glazed in earth tones with eruptions of reds, pale greens- whispers of blue and pieces of quartz that were cracked in a forest fire. The surfaces look like what one sees on a hike in the Eastern Sierras with lichens strewn across the face of basalt and volcanic rock surfaces. Gander’s poetry is interspersed in broken up lines of text that traverse the wall, dividing the ceramic segments into two halves, emulating the divide of the San Andreas fault. The folds and bulges reflect the body in movement and mirror the folds, ripples and ruptures of the earth along the fault line. Bhat said that the piece was in part inspired by the word ferning, which Gander had used in the poem in this collaboration.

Bhat spoke about the inspiration for this piece. “When I read this word ferning, it conjured an image of the earth unfolding, opening, spreading out and moving. Each of these segments is an expression of this, of the unfurling of the earth. I am also reaching back into the cultural iconography and mythology of India, finding ways to create new metaphors about our current world, referencing these ancient stories. At the end of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, Sita, (who’s born from the Earth), calls out to her mother, the Earth Goddess Bhumi, to take her back. Bhumi opens up the earth like a womb and Sita dives in.” In this piece, the movement of emotions, thoughts and feelings glide in a slipstream of metamorphic fire, earth energy and the myths of ancient Earth Goddesses.

Here is a short section of the poem:

After the first week of

           rain, cracks around the long

                       wound began ferning.

Ferning is also a medical term that refers to the detection of a characteristic “fern like” pattern of vaginal secretions: it is a test used to determine when a woman may be more fertile in her monthly cycle. In the use of this word, Gander conjures the image of a yoni in the “wound” that the fault line’s depression creates, and points to the fecundity of the earth and its geologic forces.

I asked Gander about the erotic aspect of his poems. He said, “I think that the geology of the earth is erotic. In another poem I wanted to suggest the scent of the earth and the scent of Ashwini’s body to convey the eroticism of both.” In this passage there is a beautiful fusion of sensuality of earth and flesh.

And then you brought it, your finger,

to my lips, you said here, and you watched me

as the taste, part you part earth,

brought a change to my face

Gander said of his work, “Poetry can use language to deepen our connection to nature. Rather than going out to hike in the desert or the Sierras and then returning to our world as a separate reality, we are nature. I believe that with poetry we can shape language to affect our consciousness and make us more aware of that. In that sense I think of myself as an eco-poet.” 

In his poetry there is a warmth and humanity in the tenderness with which he touches upon our human nature. But he also senses and conveys the sublime terror of nature’s violence, and that these moments we share, exist in a precarious and capricious world.

Between the soft fall of earliest

            day and the lifting darkness,

                          the road swerves towards innumerable futures.

Our road swerves toward innumerable futures; these futures can harbor safe passage or perilous portent. One feels in Gander’s poetry the utter beauty and humility that Virginia Woolf expressed in this quote:”The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”His poetry is beauty and sorrow in equal measure and to sit with this is to open the heart of compassion.

In Bhat’s sculpture, clay is a primordial material. With it, gods formed the human race in many religious myths. It is a metamorphic substance capable of taking on infinite shapes. With her work it becomes a vehicle of empathic transformation. Through her process of laying the clay on her body, she becomes part of the earth: she feels the earth and the forces of nature that flow through her.

The marriage of Forrest Gander’s and Ashwini Bhat’s work is a profoundly satisfying experience. Each shares a passion and love for nature and culture, and they fuse these passions into their work and life together. Each of their unique forms responds to the environment that they seek inspiration from and expresses an oscillating current of heart and mind, reflecting self and non-self, to explore more deeply our place in the living universe.

There is a walkthrough with the artist Ashwini Bhat and art historian and writer Jenni Sorkin on February 4, 2 pm.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery
5247 W. Adams Blvd.
Los Angeles, 90016