The paintings of Kaveri Raina (born New Delhi, 1990) affect me much like Hindustani vocal music. To my Euro-American, monolingual mind, it’s quite incomprehensible. Yet still it communicates a strong sense of the profound and devotional. Devoted to what? I have no idea. It’s somewhere between the sanctity of personal feelings and a cosmic order too vast for human comprehension. All of her images seem to include human body parts that occasionally coalesce into an entire human figure. But these are not bodies as they may be seen, they are bodies as felt from within, much like in the modernist paintings from mid-twentieth century India, now at the Block Museum. What sets Raina’s work apart is that it’s so much more visually commanding. She has prioritized beauty, even if her introspection is more troubled. As she has stated, she thinks of her paintings as dinner parties to which viewers have been invited, and she often succeeds as an elegant and gracious hostess.
Her technique is unusual. She applies thick paint to both sides of loose woven burlap. As the paint on the back seeps through to the front, it suggests that upper edge of the subconscious of which we are barely aware. As it interacts with the bold, solid colors applied to the front of the burlap—well, isn’t that a metaphor for that continuous struggle between what we forcefully intend and what we can’t help but feel?
The works on paper are less satisfying, but probably no less important to her life as an artist. She is on a quest for self-understanding for which traditional mythologies may or may not be helpful. The title of her series of drawings, “Hover,” suggests that she’s still up in the air. Their images suggest that she’s caught up in a whirlwind.
In one painting, “Somber Partings, Swaying to the Moon,” we see the back of a powerful masculine figure. Could that be Hanuman, the loyal hero of the Ramayana whom the artist referenced in her last Chicago exhibition? In another painting, “Wish it was otherwise, lack of,” a mottled, full-bodied woman appears to be grappling with twisting bands of solid color. Could that be the artist herself, as she struggles to fully emerge into a world so full of sadness, joy, opportunities and terror?
The artist says that “I don’t like the idea of telling you my particular, specific story.” But she is telling it, and that’s how she’s made her paintings feel so important. (Chris Miller)
“Kaveri Raina: Partings, Swaying to the Moon” on view at Patron, 673 North Milwaukee, through March 28.