Luckily, or to many art-mavens’ chagrin, our 21st century art world—in line with the global techno-culture and socio-political processes—seems to have abandoned crusades of “right” or “wrong” related to artistic form (though sometimes that does not apply to content). We are experiencing a dizzying array of aesthetic expressions, where often fast-pace visual trends replace ideologies of form. Unlike some passing trends, visual narratives based on mythological iconography have been central in all art forms since archaic ages, except for the early-mid half of the 20th century when narrative impetus was largely downplayed in most of what was called the “Avant Garde” art of the time.
Since the 80s of the previous century, and increasingly throughout our eclectic current art scene, myth based storytelling in painting and sculpture seems to have come back with a splash. With this in mind, I was looking at the work of three contemporary artists who use mythological references through different art forms to comment on contemporary life and art: Manju Shandler, Rithika Merchant, and Jacqueline Shatz.
Manju Shandler builds in her paintings, sculptures, and collages on universal stories—from myth to science—creating layered narratives which reference what she describes as “dense and complicated times.” There is drama and gusto in her work and a fearless approach to mix and match materiality that is most likely deeply rooted in her background as a theatre designer. Heroes, princesses, warriors, sages, witches, and animals populate her worlds as allegorical protagonists in spaces that often evoke our information age—co-existing in a simultaneous space verging on cacophony yet still forming a sort of cohesive system albeit unfathomable. For instance, Tsunami 1 started after the 2011 Tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. “I was overwhelmed both by the incredible destruction of nature and the insidiousness of humanity, especially in our thirst for fuel,” Shandler says, while acknowledging her own complicity of fossil fuel consumption with the use of petroleum products such as polyester film and acrylic paint to create the painting. Her view seems to be from above—past, present and future compress into a mythical sphere where individuals serve as archetypal protagonists.
Like Manju Shandler, Rithika Merchant is also a storyteller who draws on a wide range of references—17th century botanical drawings, Kalamkari prints, Mughal painting, Kalighat folk art, religious iconography, tapestries and weaving, elements from Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture and elements of cartography. From the vantage point of growing up in Mumbai, studying in NYC, travelling extensively, and now dividing her time between Mumbai and Barcelona—she sees parallel histories of myth everywhere. Like Manju Shandler, Merchant’s work is also influenced by current historical events, such as mass displacement of groups of people all over the world. In recent times she has increasingly grappled in her work with climate change—all embedded throughout her own lexicon of visual symbols.
Her process is based on thorough research, but her paintings are immediate—once she has a clear idea or image in mind, she draws directly on paper, then adding ink, gouache or watercolor without preparatory sketches. In her most recent series, Birth of a New World (presented at TARQ Mumbai in 2021), Merchant focuses on land, water and sky, asking what comes after the Holocene and Anthropocene when the earth started changing in a more rapid way? Heartlines, for instance, references Volcanos which besides manifesting obvious destructive characteristics, also have the potential to nurture life as Volcanic ash often contains minerals that are beneficial to plants, and when the ash is very fine, it can break down quickly and get mixed into the soil. When cool, lava can also form islands and add to landmass. Highly stylized vegetation, eyes, and a birdlike creature that seems both ominous and protective, are made of delicate patterns throughout a translucent space where destruction and regeneration form a mysterious order.
Contrary to Manju Shandler’s maximalist drive and Rithika Merchant’s precise and patterned aesthetique, Jacqueline Shatz’s visual language is both minimalistic and gestural. Her sculptures resemble a Haiku moment charged with a Baroque turmoil. Unlike Shandler and Merchant, Shatz never thinks consciously of content as she works. She focuses on shape and gesture starting off a figure drawing based on other artists’ paintings, mostly recognizable like Degas, Homer, and recently focusing on more contemporary works. Shatz paints her fired ceramic sculptures with Flashe and acrylic, sometimes adding fragments of found materials such as wood and shells, depicting abstracted animals, figures, and the relationship between them.
There is a strong sense of movement, color, and tactility in her sculptures—it is not surprising that she started out as a painter. The transition from two to three dimensions seems to be at the core of her work. Small Eve, for instance depicts a side reclining figure entangled in a snake’s embrace, struggle, or perhaps both. The figure’s gender is unidentified but the pose echoes familiar reclining female nudes from many paintings, while the green snake reads as a phallic symbol. The figure’s head and torso seem to be depicted from the back while the pelvis and legs seem to face us, an impossible pose for most humans. This duality enhances the tension not only between snake and figure, but also within the figure itself, which brings forth another layer of drama and psychological urgency, beautifully supported by the triangle of snake’s head and the figure’s torso.
The work of Manju Shandler, Rithika Merchant, and Jacqueline Shatz differs quite widely in form and process, but they all rigorously use narrative queues we understand universally. No need to read lengthy museum texts to get a sense of a heroine’s journey in a drowning world, animal-human entanglement, a snake in the lost garden of Eden–these clues are all accessible and immediate. Once we take the invitation to take a closer look, we can dig further into the deeper layers of the story.
All photos courtesy of the artists.