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Rina Banerjee at PAFA: Exhilarating American art from an immigrant with a Fox Chase connection

Rina Banerjee's work is fragile with an air of menace.

Rina Banerjee's "Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of love" (2003) at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Rina Banerjee's "Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of love" (2003) at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.Read moreBarbara Katus / PAFA

"America made me great."

So says artist Rina Banerjee, reflecting on her immigrant upbringing in New York and Philadelphia's Fox Chase neighborhood, in an interview for the catalog of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' new exhibition, "Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World." It is a statement not of egotism, but of slightly grudging gratitude that despite the prejudice and wrong-headedness she encountered, America gave her the opportunity to become herself.

This mid-career retrospective, the largest show ever devoted to the Indian-born American artist, threatens, at least on paper, to be almost too timely. Her issues — globalism, identity, world trade, change in the natural world, the spread of culture, disease, ideas, and money — are the stuff of each day's headlines.

Fortunately art, when it is good, is not about issues. Instead, it offers visions, ways of looking at the world that reconfigure our thoughts and unleash a flood of feelings.

Banerjee's work is not programmatic. The sculpture installations she hand-crafts from a wide array of materials, including stuff she buys on Ebay, are full of mystery. They are hairy and horned, beady and enigmatic. They are fragile works with an air of menace. If you are not careful, they might just eat you up.

Even her titles are overstuffed and intentionally awkward and ambiguous, as though they had been filtered through Google Translate. Here is the name of one of the show's strongest works: The world as burnt fruit — When empires feuded for populations, buried in colonial and ancient currency a Gharial appeared from an inky melon — hot with blossom sprang forth to swallow the world not yet whole as burnt fruit. (2009)

A gharial is a very dangerous, highly endangered Indian fish-eating crocodile — fewer than 250 wild ones survive. In Banerjee's work, a gharial's skull with electric-light eyes grasps the globe with the sharp tips of its teeth. It has a feathered collar, and it is emerging from a green ball with a pink interior.

This could be a fruit or a huge seed pod. It could also be a dome — a shape that appears in other Banerjee works — but here overturned, as though the authority it represents is overturned, exposing horror and hidden depths.

The opening of the ball is surrounded by cowry shells, which have been widely used as currency and which are a recurring motif in Banerjee's work. There are also many small glass vials and lightbulbs, which also recur in her work.

I can't tell you what it all means. But I can tell you the experience of encountering it is at once creepy and exhilarating. It is overripe and tropical, and it stays with you.

Philly to New York and back

Banerjee was born in 1963 in the city she still prefers to call Calcutta. When she was 3, her parents moved to London, then shortly thereafter to New York, then Philadelphia and New York again. After engineering school and art school, she was based in New York but has recently touched down in Philadelphia again.

In her sculptures and especially her drawings, people and their possessions often float in the air, sometimes linked to one another with fine threads or capillaries, but rarely standing on the ground. She has described this weightless, unrooted, unfinished state as a paradise where justice prevails because the answers are unknown.

PAFA's exhibition, which was curated by its contemporary art curator, Jodi Throckmorton, with Lauren Schell Dickens from the San Jose Museum of Art, strives to situate Banerjee's work firmly in the traditions of American art. It does so in quite a literal way, by placing the exhibition within PAFA's landmark 1876 Frank Furness building — itself an evocation of the exotic — and adjacent to iconic American art.

For example, Take me, take me, take me … to the Palace of love (2003), her pink, plastic-wrapped version of the Taj Mahal, sits only a few feet from Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic and Winslow Homer's The Fox Hunt, two of the greatest American artworks anywhere.

The promise of self rule… (2008), which consists of a thronelike chair hanging through a skylight, with netting and a cow's horn that looks like a heron's head at the bottom, is in the midst of federal period portraits. And Her captivity… (2011), a birdcage enmeshed in grapevines, dolls' heads, gourds, and feathers, stands next to Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians, and seems to offer an alternative take on colonialism. (These titles are her approved short versions of the full titles.)

PAFA has acquired three works in the exhibition — two huge, frightening flowers, one of which has a recorded jazz score, and Viola, from New Orleans-ah (2017). The latter, a severe hulking figure that incorporates a Yoruba mask, Indian rakes, a French Ferris wheel toy, a Murano glass horn, and much more. It is tethered by many strings to a parachute that rises into PAFA's great stair hall with its starry sky.

It animates this lofty space so dramatically that it is not unlikely it could return as a permanent fixture there once the show completes a forthcoming tour.

Unusually for Banerjee, this work was inspired by a real person, Viola Ida Lewis, an African American woman from New Orleans who married a Bengali man and started a business importing fabrics from South Asia.

Throckmorton sees this work as a version of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the famed Greek marble from the second century BCE. It is easy to see what she means, although a work made of so many disparate parts cannot have the sweep and grandeur of a work shaped from a single piece of stone.

Of course, the disparate character of the work is a large part of its point. For Banerjee, freedom lies in incompleteness and imperfection.

American things tend to be made of many pieces. And unlike the Winged Victory we see at the Louvre, they are not all white.