David Kordansky Gallery is pleased to present Unsuspected, an exhibition of new drawings by Huma Bhabha. Featuring images of beings that take shape through Bhabha’s free and intuitive use of ink, pastel, acrylic, and gouache, these works are as familiar as they are strange, and have as much to say about other genres, including landscape and pure abstraction—as they do about portraiture.
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Observers who have followed Bhabha’s recent string of large-scale, public, and often monumental projects—including her installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her contribution to the 57th Carnegie International, both in 2018—will have noticed not only their ambitious formalism, sui generis figuration, and emotional impact, but their surprising intimacy and their sense of having been informed by formative experiences with numerous sources, art historical and otherwise. Bhabha’s works on paper, which she has produced steadily over the course of her entire career, are possessed by the same qualities. This new group of drawings finds her getting to the heart of her concerns: finding intersections between the human and animal worlds by experimenting with line, collage, and various mediums.
“The lines in my art are absolutely about combining my emotions with a highly sophisticated approach to materiality,” Bhabha has remarked in a recent interview, and at first glance, it is the lines that do the heavy lifting in these drawings. Heavy outlining allows their subjects to achieve independent sculptural force on the paper while lending them an expressive heat that also connects them to their maker’s hand and mind. It lends them a clarity—and an uncanniness—reminiscent, for instance, of certain paintings by Francis Picabia from the late 1920s and 1930s.
But the lines also work to offset another of the drawings’ prominent formal features: broad, stain-like areas of ink or paint that define not only their backgrounds, but sections of the heads, necks, and faces that are the pictures’ primary subjects. These puddles and splotches can feel productively accidental, and indeed, the free movement of medium across the paper can serve as a compositional starting point, to which Bhabha then forces herself to respond. A shape created by forces outside of her complete control therefore suggests subsequent shapes and gestures, a dynamic that is perhaps in part responsible for the vitality of the creatures that eventually emerge.
The incorporation of such marks also lends the work an atmospheric sensibility that has appeared in European art at least since the Romantic period. Among the lesser-known, though highly prescient, examples of this tendency are the ink drawings by French writer Victor Hugo, in which looming landscapes and swirling skies drift into being as a result of the artist’s patently experimental approach. Like Hugo, Bhabha uses washes to create surprising depth; as she puts down layers with varying degrees of transparency, the faces in the drawings seem to appear and disappear and mysterious expanses open up among them. This vertiginous spatial play is accentuated by her notable use of collage—particularly clipped images of animals, some of which also carry with them fragments of the landscapes the animals inhabit. The use of found materials, furthermore, is a hallmark of Bhabha’s project, and demonstrates one of several through lines that connect the drawings and sculptures, which in many cases also feature collage- and assemblage-based elements.
The collaged animals serve as reminders that the drawings depict beings that are hybridized in more ways than one. Indeed, each portrait is really a refracted synthesis of several heads; or a single, Cubist-inspired head seen at different moments in time; or a quasi-narrative tableaux in which one character (the “drawn” one, say) dreams another (the collaged animal). Early ink drawings by Jackson Pollock provide an illuminating point of reference: full of active, abstract gestures that coalesce into something that resembles figuration, they conjure sensations not only of movement but also of multiplicity, as head-like forms appear to have been laid atop and woven through one another. In Bhabha’s work, the effect of this proliferation is one of psychological as well as visual complexity, suggesting that any given subject is never in fact just one entity. Each of us—like each of the creatures in these drawings—is made up of multiple selves, and even multiple types of selves, human and animal alike.
Multiplicity is a guiding force throughout this group of drawings, and is a result of both their content and their material makeup. Recent paintings by Julie Mehretu, while decidedly abstract, offer another lens through which to understand how a single artist’s marks can take on a feeling of numerousness, appearing to alight on a surface as if from many directions and perspectives at once. Bhabha further augments this quality by allowing the surface itself to enter her process bearing pre-existing information.
In addition to juxtaposing lines and the stains or puddles mentioned above, she begins some of the works by using sheets of paper that led former lives as proofs from an edition of etchings. This means that the genesis of certain drawings is not a clean slate, so to speak, but a substrate filled with extant marks, both intentional and otherwise, that include pencil notations and thumbtack holes. Such elements add more than patina; like the collaged photographs, they become intimate parts of the universe of each subject, as do the artist’s fingerprints and other impressions and traces that could easily be treated as mistakes in another context.
Taken as a whole, Bhabha’s swarms of marks present a metaphorical totality in keeping with the paradoxical realities of sentient things, however alien or monstrous they might appear on the surface. They account for the conscious and unconscious facets of creation, and tacitly acknowledge that without the confluence of known and unknown factors, nothing new can emerge.
Grappling with such themes on a primal level has animated an idiosyncratic lineage of documents that includes paintings and sculptures by artists like Paul Gauguin and Francis Bacon, but also movies like The Thing (1982) or The Terminator (1984) which have frequently been discussed in relation to Bhabha’s work. Without overstating the case, one might say that Bhabha makes sense of the extremes of this lineage in ways that clarify its historical development and, even more importantly, its contemporary relevance. Hers is a vision that embraces the uneasy intersections between humans and what humans often describe as “nature,” even though the two are clearly inseparable. Similarly, acts of creation and destruction, and moments of flourishing and decay, coexist in the drawings and sculptures on many levels, both seen and unseen. Indeed, that the intensities that govern our lives tend to remain unseen seems to be for Bhabha a kind of generative challenge, one that drives her to confront each work as a singular, intimate, and ultimately independent proposition.
Huma Bhabha (b. 1962, Karachi, Pakistan) is currently the subject of a solo survey exhibition, Against Time, at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England (through March 2021). Other solo exhibitions include shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2019); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Roof Garden Commission (2018); The Contemporary Austin, Texas (2018); David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2017); MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York (2013); Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy (2012); and Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2011). Recent group exhibitions include NIRIN, 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020); Yorkshire Sculpture International, England (2019); Carnegie International, 57th Edition, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2018); Give Up the Ghost, Baltic Triennial 13, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (2018); Fourth Plinth Shortlist Exhibition, National Gallery, London (2017); Stranger, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland (2016); All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); America Is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); and Atopolis, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels (2015). Bhabha lives and works in Poughkeepsie, New York.
To learn more about Huma Bhabha, please view these articles from The Washington Post, ArtReview, Mousse, T Magazine, and Blau, or purchase catalogues from her exhibitions here.
Huma Bhabha works and installation images photographed by Jeff McLane, unless otherwise noted
Huma Bhabha quotation from “Work in Progress, Huma Bhabha” by Negar Azimi, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2019
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