Cyclical Dialogues of Materials
and Making

“What Lies Beneath”: Works by Gunjan Kumar


Gunjan Kumar is an artist who explores materials in space and time, using ingredients, such as turmeric and salt, that have degraded even since the opening of “What Lies Beneath,” her show on view at the Chicago Art Department in Pilsen.

Walking into the gallery, the work immediately arrests the viewer with a sense of spirituality that is both sensuous and reverential. A white bed of salt with a pillow of brilliant golden-orange turmeric—a collaboration between Kumar and the landscape artist Kevin Benham—coaxes you into the space. This untitled piece is dreamy and pristine at first glance; however, coming closer reveals the effects of human interaction and the surrounding environment. The salt and turmeric have finger marks, shoeprints, a soft edge abruptly sharpened to a line and the spices have fallen between the cracks in the wood floor. These human-made marks are, I think, a testament to the fragility of faith, but also to the humility of the faithful.


Gunjan Kumar, Untitled, 2017, tumeric and salt. Photo by Kevin Benham.


Kitty-corner to the floor piece, another undisturbed composition made of turmeric and rice is arranged on a cylindrical pedestal. It is lit from above, which gives an impressive glow as the light reflects off of the materials. This piece literally begins heightening the raw materials off the floor and onto the wall into positions of authority and reverence. Walking to the wall, we are now face-to-face with pieces that become more direct and challenging, evolving from an ephemeral mist of salt and turmeric into carefully constructed cones and shrouds of turban fabric. A cone missing from one piece is present on the shroud next to it; small bits of koalin are rolled into tiny coils and layered in various iterations throughout, such as Echo 1 and Echo 2 which have multiple layers of koalin on duralar, a wonderful, semi-transparent polyester sheet that allows for great effects of shadow and light.


Gunjan Kumar, Sifr, 2017, tumeric and earth minerals on mulberry paper on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.


The evolution of process and ingredient is really important here. Salt has long been a precious commodity which, in many cultures, symbolizes purification, while turmeric has ancient ties to womanhood, healing, and magic in Indian culture and eastern religions (notably its use in the dyeing of sacred textiles), themes that I feel come through in the work.

Kumar also refers to cave paintings that have inspired her work and the sites she has visited since 2013. Speaking about the materials used to paint these cave walls, she says, “the process involves ground earth to be mixed with water and organic matter in slow rhythmic movements to form contemplative surfaces.” It is easy to imagine her initially playing with the components in their most basic forms, such as the floor piece, then gradually incorporating other materials to see what happens. The connection of questioning material really starts to transform into questions of existence.

Most of Kumar’s work speaks to the idea of appearance and disappearance, challenging the idea of permanence and the separation of the physical and spiritual. She describes the idea of non-duality, which “[by] definition...means ‘not-two.’ It does not mean that all is one or that there are no opposites, but rather that these opposites are an integral part of each other.” Her work seems to migrate between landscape and intimate domestic space, each piece referring to both outer and inner—work that reflects on itself and invites viewers to not only observe this reflection but to become introspective themselves.

This metaphysical dialogue with the viewer—and even the simplicity of the materials—brings one back into the body, back to the floor, the dirt, and basic existence, and the longer you stand in front of any piece, the more you contemplate this cyclical dialogue.

The only section that fell flat was the combination of photographs and small canvases on the far east wall. The photographs somehow took away from the sensory experience that I had with the rest of the show. What Lies Beneath 2 was one of my favorite works—a piece of dyed string protruding from a nest of hemp shrouded in turban fabric—but it seemed disrupted by the surrounding photographs. Where each of the constructed pieces felt both calculated and improvisational, they still felt organic, but the photographs flattened this experience and lent a different kind of documentation that I felt did not fit with the rest of the show.

Even though Kumar most likely carefully chose the Hahnemühle paper to help elevate the prints, which I hoped would reveal something, I was still distracted by the artificiality of the prints themselves in relation to the rawness of the surrounding work.

Overall, the gallery space makes these works feel incredibly spiritual. But, like most things sacred, it tempts the viewer to reach out and touch them, to scream out during the prayer. There is also something playful about them, a very simple exploration of elements that seems to develop throughout each piece. That basic human curiosity seems to be a theme from beginning to end. This blending of traditional and contemporary components is something that seems to strongly play into the concept of non-duality, seductively bridging the ancient and the modern both visually and materially.


“What Lies Beneath” was at the Chicago Art Department East, located at 1932 South Halsted #100, through April 14, 2017.


Elizabeth Hatton is a multidisciplinary artist and SAIC alumna living in Chicago. Curious and open to new adventures, she is constantly looking for ways to encourage public engagement with art through music, conversation, writing, and visual media.


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