THE SEMI-FINALIST IS: AVANTIKA BAWA
Pink Scaffold in the Rann
2019-2020, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India
photo by Arpan Films
When I was asked last winter to create a satellite event in Portland, Oregon (USA) for “Que des Femmes/Only Women,” the 6th biennial of non-objective art in Pont de Claix, France, I immediately hoped for the opportunity to showcase the work of Heather Watkins and Avantika Bawa. Neither are exclusively non-objective artists, but both make work that defies easy classification and often resists the ever present prospect of rendering an illusion on a flat surface. Their work embraces it’s own objectness, even when it is alluding to something else in the world. There’s more about Heather Watkins’ work in the preceding post, but this one is all about Avantika Bawa.
In a recent Instagram post featuring one of her 3-D printed modular scaffold sculptures, Avantika Bawa (@avantikabawa) wrote with understated precision: “#Scaffolds as Scaffolds.” Reading that short line was a moment of both comedy and clarity for me. I wanted to laugh out loud and at the same time I felt more deeply engaged with Bawa’s work than ever before. The phrase’s declaration that the scaffold simply is what it is was serious, cheeky, honest and transparent. As a sculpture, the scaffold makes no claims of mimicry or illusion. It simply asserts its ability to be two things at once - both a sculpture and a scaffold - and I was left wondering why I’d ever thought of the two as being distinct from one another. And this is how Bawa works- engaging in a sort of alchemy that, rather than producing gold, imparts a renewed perspective with which to see an ordinary object and its surroundings in an entirely new way.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Avantika Bawa. She talks about her formative years, breaking down material hierarchies and allowing something to simply be itself.
photo by Sam Gerhrke
The Semi-Finalist: Your early years as an artist were filled with both the conventions of art school and the risks of moving to a foreign country. What impact did those experiences have on you as a young artist?
Avantika Bawa: As the child of a naval officer in India, travel, geography, and the ability to constantly relocate nationally and internationally (New Delhi, Mumbai, Vizag and Baroda in India and Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia among others) were always an intrinsic part of my life and have consequently shaped my art practice.
In my early 20’s I moved to the USA for an MFA degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The city’s orderly grid was a stark contrast to the chaos of the major cities in India where I was born and raised. Back home the built environment shapes and grows in response to people, whereas in the US it seems like the people are shaped by the built environment. In America, I was confronted by a layout full of repetition and redundancy: every US city has a Main Street, an MLK Street, and strip malls full of big box stores repeating like base pairs in the urban DNA. I realized that beneath this seemingly modular and redundant lifestyle there was something worth exploring artistically: the sameness that was never quite the same. Soon site, space and place, permutations and combinations of a single idea, became the core query of my practice. Since then, I have explored the diversity of topographies, the presence or absence of color in local environments, and the range of visual, tactile qualities of locally sourced and fabricated materials.
A Yellow Scaffold on the Ranch
2021, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable
Art Beyond, Ashland, OR, USA
photo by Grace Prechtel
S-F: How did your interest in minimalism - or a reductive aesthetic- develop?
AB: In my formative years I was a bit of messy/ gestural artist. My line work was loose and organic, and my color palette earthy and full of chromatic greys. This aesthetic continued when I first arrived in Chicago, but soon I could see shifts in my colors, forms and choice of surfaces for both drawing and painting.
During this time, I was working in a studio with clean white walls. Although it was just drywall, I loved that I could keep repainting it to maintain the starkness. This studio was one of several on the 15th floor of a building belonging to SAIC (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago). The common space of these studios was adorned with huge windows that overlooked lake Michigan and downtown Chicago.
Office paper, ballpoint pens, mis-tinted house paint from Home Depot, etc., were much easier and cheaper to obtain than traditional art supplies. As a young artists, the abundance of low cost, manmade and everyday materials encouraged new ways of making. Realizing that the gestural, organic and messy were no longer interesting to me, I spoke with my advisor who challenged me to nail ten tacks in a row perfectly, and in a straight line. I did, and thought it looked beautiful. After a bit more pondering, I realized I really just needed 5 nails, but spaced further apart so they would engage the pristine white walls in the work. That may have been a turning point.
And then the aesthetic grew. Or should I say reduced!? Or should I say I nailed it? I guess that would be tacky.
Above: an early, gestural painting from 1993.
Below: Box Blue, 2003, cardboard, tape and latex paint, 6’x4’x3’
photos by the artist
S-F: Your past work has engaged explicitly with a location’s prior use, but your recent scaffolds suggest a different way of thinking about a space. How do you see them as being distinct from your past work and where are they headed?
AB: From the late 90’s to fairly recently, I have been largely focused on site-specific installations. Bearing in mind a location’s prior use, I create wall drawings and/or paintings, and repurpose and rearrange functional objects to create temporary installations on-site. Often accompanied by field recordings, these installations create immersive experiences that invite viewers to experience the crossroads between the utilitarian, historical, and aesthetic qualities of the space they occupy.
2016, paint, scaffolding, looped audio, 68'x43'x23'
photo courtesy of Disjecta
The Scaffold Series is an extension of the same sensibility but purposefully uses only scaffolds. I have made several iterations that take the scaffold beyond its functional purpose to an aesthetic engagement with space, thus allowing me to explore the endless possibilities of a single structure. I can do this by pushing permutations and combinations of color, form, scale and location while responding to the topography and geography of site. I intend to expand upon this series by exploring new terrain and different ways of configuring these installations.
A Pink Scaffold in the Rann
2019-20, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India
photo by the artist
S-F: When I was at your studio I asked you about how your work differs from decoration and you replied, “It is stoically itself.” I love that response and I've been thinking about it ever since! Can you expand on that?
AB: I mean exactly that! The works are always or ultimately about the time and space in which they exist. All previous narratives, sentiments or prompts that may have initiated or informed the work become secondary or inconsequential. The work is then about itself. Stoically and unapologetically.
Above: a small scaffold on a stool in Bawa's studio.
S-F: The intersection of the sublime, design and technology. Talk about it.
AB: Well, the intersection of these three as such is kind of a general idea, but if I were to talk about them in the content of my work, I’d say they all inform my practice, and I prefer not to create hierarchies. Drawing vs painting, art vs design, the sublime vs the ordinary, the functional vs. the non, are all opposite sides of the same conversation, but when they intersect, or even collide, good stuff starts to happen in the studio.
432 Park Avenue
2019, #2, Graphite on paper, 40”x27”
photo by Mario Gallucci
Where reference and object collide.
Above and below: recent experiments in glass completed at the Yucca Valley Material Lab.
S-F: What’s next for you?
AB: This past August I installed work at the University of Kentucky (Lexington) Museum for Template Days, a two-person show (May Tviet and myself), curated by Stuart Horodner. I was very, very pleased with this pairing and curation since May’s work and mine express similar ideas, using the same language, but in a very different dialect.In mid-September I will be part of E/MERGE, an inaugural group show at the National Indo-American Museum in Chicagoland, curated by Shaurya Kumar. My piece for it involves a lot of pink, echoing my 2019-20 installation, A Pink Scaffold in the Rann.
Later in October I will be installing work remotely for The Show Windows, Mumbai, India, curated by SqW:Lab and TARQ, and finally in November I will showcase more scaffolds for a group show at the Bellevue Art Museum titled Architecture and Urban Design. I have few other shows for 2022, but I will wait to talk about those!
As for teaching, my University (Washington State University in Vancouver) just resumed in-person classes. It’s good to be back as more than a pixel and I hope it stays this way.
Below: a few more shots from Bawa's studio.
A small scaffold at Sørvágsvatn Lake during a recent trip to the Faroe Islands.
"I have made several iterations that take the scaffold beyond its functional purpose to an aesthetic engagement with space, thus allowing me to explore the endless possibilities of a single structure. I can do this by pushing permutations and combinations of color, form, scale and location while responding to the topography and geography of site." - Avantika Bawa
More Avantika Bawa:
Photos by David Schell unless otherwise stated.
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