A Lunar Cosmogony
By Javier Calvo
A painting stands out in the midst of an awesome collective exhibition entitled Hieroglyphica, at Stephen Romano’s gallery in Bushwick. A mid-sized watercolour shows an open Moon orb. Through its vulvar lips appears a dream-like scene, at the same time idyllic and scary: a group of feminine figures with bird heads mysteriously connect all the houses that conform a village integrated in the lunar landscape. The Moon as a dense symbol, feminine and powerful, immune to the rational reading, a demolisher of daily reality: I’m talking about Orbiter, one of the most recent works of artist Rithika Merchant (born in Mumbai and resident in Barcelona), who in the last couple of years has become a name to take into account in New York’s art scene.
With its furious activism in favour of the relationship between the arts, alchemy, myths, and the cosmic and occult worlds, it isn’t strange that the Romano gallery has chosen Marchant as its most emblematic artist. The gallery’s founder and owner, Stephen Romano, talks about Merchant with manic admiration. Apart from having been featured in many previous collective shows, it was here where Merchant had her first solo New York exhibition, Luna Tabulatorum, devoted to lunar myths (before that she had presented Encyclopaedia of the Strange in Nurnberg and Origin of the Species and Mythography in Mumbai).
Luna Tabulatorum is Rithika Merchant’s most impressive and mature series. The base of her art is what she calls “myth mosaics”, narratives that fuse myths, deities and rituals of European, Asian and American peoples. Mosaics, but also tableaus and friezes that, due to their emphasis on ritual, we can imagine being placed on the walls of pagan temples or occult lodges.
The cosmological component is obvious in paintings such as Genesis, the characters of which incarnate the planes of creation and celestial bodies in an unsettling birth scene. Selenography and Orbiter adapt and subvert the tradition of celestial charts and earthly orbs, while Queen of Life and Death, Syzygy and The Moon Devours Her Children are exercises of construction of a pantheon in progress, pantheistic and terrible, which demolishes the narratives of institutional religions. The sources of her iconography are at the same time animism, Jung, Blake, New Age paganism and her own dreams and visions.
Not only the borders between cultures are tumbled down. Merchant’s art also joyfully affirms other demolitions: the barrier between humanity and nature, as can be seen on her paintings about lycanthropy (Lycanthropy and Howl) and in general in the hybrid co-habitation of her characters, often sporting horns or feathers or vegetal elements; but also, the barrier between the celestial and human spheres (Lunatic, Divine Receptacle) and between individuals, who often appear physically united by umbilical cords, tendrils and blood vessels. The human figure is always feminine, following a pre-phallic or post-phallic conception of cosmos and, as such, centred in the celebration of the mystery of celestial impregnation and birth.
Apart from the Romano Gallery, Merchant’s work will be seen these days at Manhattan’s 80WSE Gallery thanks to the Langua of the Birds exhibition, accompanied by artists of the occult such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, Kenneth Anger, Kiki Smith or Genesis P-Orridge. For a revision of her work up to now, visit her web page.