Image above: © Laura McPhee, View from the Roof of the Dawn House, North Kolkata, 2005 / Courtesy of Laura McPhee and Benrubi Gallery.
Benrubi Gallery presented Laura McPhee’s The Home and the World: a View of Calcutta, on October 29th, 2015. It is the artist’s fifth solo show with the gallery, and her first since the gallery relocated to Chelsea in January of this year. The show will be on view until December 12th, 2015.
Image above: The artist, Laura McPhee during the opening at Benrubi Gallery. © Monika Piatkiewicz
McPhee’s images are less an overview of this city of 15 million than a few frank glimpses into its complex, often conflicted soul. The frame is for the most part contained and classic. The smallness of the photographed spaces imparts a sense of intimacy even as the formality of the compositions renders them slightly aloof. This tension permeates the show: in the war of attrition between nature and the built environment (vines shrouding statues and columns, stones sieving rusty earth, clouds saturated with smoke and exhaust); in the eclectic mix of culture and class (Hindu and Moslem, Asian and European, palace and tenement, antique and modern); but above all in the hoard of color and display and the pervasive sense that so much attention to surface must be concealing something.
Image above: © Laura McPhee, Swami Vivekenanda Calendar at Bawali Rajbari Mansion During Renovation, West Bengal, 2013 / Courtesy of Laura McPhee and Benrubi Gallery.
Elaborate Victorian and Mughal patterns, an end to themselves in other contexts, are here backdrops to the endless patterns-of-no-pattern arising from the recursive iteration of object and ornament—silks, flowers, paintings, tiles, or just trash—which call to mind both handicraft and factory. The effect, like the city itself, resists reduction, but insists on being experienced in its diversity. We associate the sublime with high art, but its origins lie not in temples and palaces but the hands that built them. We sense this in McPhee’s series of “Driveway Portraits” (so-called because they were taken at the gatepost of the house she lived in during her time in Kolkata). Here pass pedicab drivers, street entertainers, domestic servants, worshippers. They submit to a photograph, then move on; the resulting images are less portraits than still lives with human figures. The feeling is of something bigger than history or personality. We might call it the human condition, or civilization, but perhaps the most accurate name for it is simply time.
Image above: © Laura McPhee, Sleeper Prayer Hall Nakhoda Mosque, North Kolkata, 2013 / Courtesy of Laura McPhee and Benrubi Gallery.
Laura McPhee (b. 1958) was born in Manhattan and grew up in central New Jersey. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design. McPhee’s work has been widely exhibited both in the United States and abroad, and she is the recipient of a number of grants and residencies, including a Fulbright Scholars Fellowship in 1998 for work in India and Sri Lanka, and in 2003-05 a residency in Idaho from Alturas Foundation. She was also awarded, in 1995, a New England Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 1993. Her exhibition River of No Return was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2006; a monograph of the same title was published by Yale in 2008. Her latest monograph, The Home and the World. A View of Calcutta (Yale University Press) was published in 2014. Her photographs are included in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She is currently a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and lives in Brookline, MA.