Blasted Allegories

Art in America
December 1, 2007

Blasted allegories: Huma Bhabha burrows deep into history for the sources of her haunting figure fragments, represented in sculptures, photographs, photogravures and woodcuts

By Nancy Princenthal

pg.146 - 149

For Huma Bhabha's work to have been scattered among four farflung New York galleries this fall seemed right: it is nomadic in its imagery, hybrid in its mediums and gives evidence of hard passage among cultures distant in space and time. And to see her photographs at ATM in Chelsea first was to be introduced to the sculptures through images that give no clues about scale and few about place. Two apparently giant feet stride a barren planet in these 40-by-60-inch unique prints (all works 2007). The atmosphere is vague with dust or haze and tinged an ennobling shade of gold. In one shot, a tiny white sun sets beyond a distant horizon, framed by a heroic pair of shins.

As it happens, the setting is the outskirts of Karachi, where Bhabha, a longtime New Yorker now resident in Poughkeepsie, was born in 1962. The Arabian Sea is sometimes visible in the distance. But nothing indicates these particulars: the landscape is unyielding in every sense, and the marks of human presence--a long horizontal ridge that seems geological in one shot, a manmade structure in another--are few. While a tiny figure appears in one picture, the absence of landmarks makes it hard to gauge how far away it is from the feet--or, hence, how big they are. But hints can be found in the materials of which they're made, including chicken wire, Styrofoam and, applied unevenly over all, a reddish clay that figures heavily in their susceptibility to allegory. The relevant phrase is from the Bible, where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a splendid idol made entirely of strong and precious metals, except, alas, for its feet of clay. We gather, then, that the vulnerability of the ostentatiously powerful is at issue. Or the vulnerability of all things in our entropic universe, flesh in particular. Or, at the very least, a long view of history and a sympathy for its complications.

Another version of these feet was on view as a freestanding sculpture at the small Freeman Alley outpost of Salon 94. The charmingly out-of-the-way little space and its resonantly named Lower East Side cul-de-sac provided a serendipitous setting for a show of three sculptures, none monumental. The feet here look much like those in the photographs; these are roughly twice life-size and seem badly weathered, as if excavated from an archeological site of no fixed identity and then abandoned to the elements in the condition in which they were found. Inky passages on their Styrofoam skeleton make them seem slightly charred, a detail with associations both sacred--there is, vaguely, the suggestion of a ritual offering--and derelict. Also at Freeman Alley was They Don't Speak, a harrowing masklike sculpture whose gouged eyes contribute a Sophoclean note; its nose is marked by the broken handle of a knife embossed with a tiny figure with hands pressed together in prayer. As in much of Bhabha's work, the impoverished materials combine to form what seems the frailest patchwork of repair, a quixotic effort to fix a form whose original contours are impossible to determine.

Most imposing among the works at this space was The Immortal Story, which roughly takes the form of a sarcophagus: a young woman in effigy lies face-up on a doorlike wooden surface, her clay hands resting gracefully on her bare chicken-wire ribcage. Two staring eyes (again just holes, though less ravaged) are joined high in her forehead by a transcendental third. A small elephant head lies at her feet, its one elephantine ear (the other is human-shaped) draped tenderly over a shin.

Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-god, is evoked again by Bhabha (raised a Muslim) in the single majestic sculpture shown at the uptown quarters of Salon 94. Here a pair of figures--or four, since each is two-faced--occupy the far sides of a large, low platform. One hollow-eyed personage faces outward, an elephant trunk that suggests a beard, or a gas mask, descending from its chin. With sphinxlike aplomb, this formidable presence occupies a throne that is part wheelchair, part bentwood cafe seat. On its verso, a little inked block of a head and shapely legs, brushily outlined on wood, sketch a doppelganger. At the far side of the platform is another equally commanding totem, one of its faces a mask of clay. A pair of holes at breast level become eyes when seen from the other side. Terminally isolated, these figures stare past each other, each literally joined at the hip to alter egos they can't see. The desolate terrain in which they're stuck is charred black in places and littered everywhere with dusty debris and broken bits of metal and wood.... And in the track of a hundred thousand years, out of the heart of dust Hope sprang again, like greenness, this piece is titled, quoting the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to unabashedly--and under the circumstances, altogether unexpectedly-heartening effect.

In Reconstructions (2007), a suite of 16 potent photogravures and two woodcuts published by Peter Blum, at whose SoHo gallery they are now on view, Bhabha revisits the landscape of the photos shown at ATM. Rising from the rough, scrubby beach are shaky, monumental outlines (drawn in ink on the photographs from which the photogravures derive) of enormous feet or full figures. (The woodcuts each feature a single foot, situated in space by a horizon that links one image to the other.) In several photogravures, the foundation of a building in progress, fringed with a palisade of iron rebar, becomes the pedestal for a looming apparition. Careful scrutiny reveals a little worker's shack in the background of one print, an indistinct saucerlike manhole cover in the foreground of another. Way off in the distance of a third, a tiny boat plies a barely discernible sea. In a few images, two superimposed profiles depict a figure alternately seated on his knees and prostrated in prayer.

An anomalous photogravure shows a spectral figure settled into the rusty tubular frame of chair placed in front of imposing coffered doors. That they belong to the artist's family's home is not indicated, and not essential. Like the symbolism in the sculptures, the personal and cultural references in the prints--to prayer; to colossal antique statuary from both sides of the Mediterranean; to the hoped-for future of seaside development, which in these images seems already threatened with ruin--are meant, Bhabha said in a recent conversation, to be widely allusive and decidedly nonsectarian.

Her reach toward a shared historical vocabulary of deep melancholy and embattled hope renders Bhabha, with perfect irony, quite alone among her peers. She proposes no clever conceptual gambit, and none of the mediums or modes in which she works is new. In fact, she has been criticized for nostalgia--for taking up residence in the realm of mid-20th-century postwar anxiety, with its nuclear terrors and existentialist malaise. Certainly Giacometti's plazas come to mind, their similarly isolated, grimly erect figures likewise defined by contours forever falling out of focus. But just as surely, a landscape of devastation presided over by the ghosts of spiritual and cultural authority is as relevant an image for our time as any. And Bhabha's postapocalyptic vision is as much Cormac McCarthy as Sartre--that is, she keeps one eye warily open for the possibility of redemption.