WELLESLEY — Kanishka Raja, a painter who died last year at 49 from cancer, forcefully and exuberantly made art that dissolved boundaries. The work now feels urgent, and like a salve.
“I and I,” his deep and dazzling exhibition at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, has translation at its heart. Not the pat translation of middle school Spanish class. The poetic process that creates a fraternal twin of the original and uncorks new meaning in it. Raja’s paintings and mixed-media works translate, then translate again. They are like a gang of poets playing a sophisticated game of telephone. Every iteration is new and sumptuous, and the line from one to the next is a living thread.
Raja grew up in Calcutta, the son of successful textile designers, and came to the US, and to Massachusetts specifically, to study at Hampshire College. In time, he landed in Boston, where in 2004 he was awarded the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Digitas/Artist Prize (now the James and Audrey Foster Prize). That year, he moved to New York, and his career continued to pick up steam.
When he was in Boston, his work was smart and promising. This exhibition, curated by Davis director Lisa Fischman
and painter Laylah Ali, demonstrates what a powerhouse painter Raja became.
Raja’s work crisscrossed over the dividing line between art and craft. Why is painting valued more than weaving, or fine art valued more than ornamental work?
“You spend your life trying to not do what your parents do, but it becomes unavoidable,” Raja told the Globe in 2005. “My father looks at multiple sources across cultures and times, at lots of art, design, and ornamentation and culls from that. In some ways, I do the same thing.”
Here, an hourglass filigree from the decorative screens inside the Babri Masjid, an Indian mosque destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992, is a recurring motif, undulating almost invisibly over sweet Swiss landscapes Raja found on the Internet and translated to paint.
“I and I” is packed with such contrasts, but they are quickly followed up with mirroring and doubling of images, as if to say, “you thought we were different? See how very alike we are.” Nothing, it should be said, is a perfect reflection; changes occur in translation, and the idea grows.
The art-and-craft dichotomy is just one of Raja’s themes. He toggles swiftly between digital and analog, Muslim and Hindu, East and West. The British Raj ended just more than 20 years before his birth. He grew up steeped in the dynamics of race and class in post-colonial India, watching Western movies and Bollywood, listening to rock ’n’ roll. His art is about synthesizing such differences.
The three groups on view are part of the artist’s “PostWest” project, the very title of which assails fusty systems that certain leaders, wary of losing their handhold, are still desperately trying to shore up.
These paintings don’t look especially political. They don’t flog you with earnest ideals. Rather, they wheel kaleidoscopically with decorative patterns; pieces of idyllic landscapes wink from them. Regardless of content, they are gorgeous, ebullient with color, texture, and movement.
Raja began each group with an Alpine landscape. It’s easy to bask in the picture-postcard idealism of his snowy peaks, lolling cattle, and dusky forests. They stand for a romanticized Europe, the acme of the Western world — a far-off dream that beckoned to Bollywood. Indian filmmakers made movies in Switzerland when political unrest prevented them from filming in Kashmir.
Raja painted on a grid, and made his first translation on a second canvas, copying the original painting intuitively, pushing into abstraction. “I and I (Missed Twice) SW1-XY” is a diptych in high-keyed blues and greens. The realist Matterhorn in the first canvas is mirrored right off in a glassy lake at its foot. In the second, it breaks open into zigzags, matrices, and goofy fringe.
Raja shot each painting twice with a .44 Magnum, blowing holes in the giddy romantic ideal of his childhood. The translations that follow read like a reclamation of the more tangible details of his life, which turn out to be more luscious than any Swiss postcard.
He sent copies of tiles from the diptych to an embroiderer and a weaver in India, who translated the details into their own mediums, ignorant of the larger whole. He then stitched these together, creating eye-goggling patterns. “I and I (Translate) SW1” unfolds like butterfly wings. Traces of landscape are still there, now opening out into something dense with variety and rhyme.
The game of telephone concludes with “I and I (Others Hide) SW1.” Raja scanned the thready verso of every tile from “I and I (Translate) SW1” and printed the results on cotton. The patterns are the same, but colors flip and shift. Digital glitches appear as black bars that read like redactions, and nod to the bullet holes in the original diptych. There will always be ruptures — gaps in translation.
These works roam from hyped realism to abstraction to ornamentation, from the fluid stickiness of paint to traditional textiles to the pixelated irregularities of digital scans. Raja’s original source image fractures and waffles, but it never disappears. The utopian ideal may have been unrealistic, even damaging, but a sweet trace of romance remains. It’s a seed, and what grows from it, with Raja’s careful cultivation, is more generous, more democratic, and more whole. It’s remarkable work.
KANISHKA RAJA: I AND I
At Davis Museum at Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through Dec. 15. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum/Cate McQuaid can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.