Rithika Merchant ‘Luna Tabulatorum’ @ Stephen Romano Gallery

This September Stephen Romano Gallery will open it’s doors to it’s new Bushwick, Brooklyn location with two concurrent exhibitions. ‘Lexicon Infernali’ is the inaugural group exhibition featuring a host of works by contemporary, vernacular, folk and outsider artists. Inspired by the 19th century French Book “The Infernal Dictionary”, (an illustrated catalogue of apparitions of the underworld), it highlights artists whose works have a highly personalized and shamanic sensibility.

Rithika Merchant ‘Luna Tabulatorum’

Opening Reception:
September 3, 2015| 5 – 9PM
*Artist will attend

Exhibition Dates:
September 3 – October 25 2015

Stephen Romano Gallery

117 Grattan Street, Suite 112 (corner of Porter and Harrison)
Brooklyn, New York 11237

Rithika Merchant Painting 002High Priestess, 2015

“The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.”  TAHEREH MAFI, Shatter Me.

Throughout all times, all histories, all places and cultures the Moon has been one of our only constants. It’s lifted the gaze of everyone before us and will continue to do so until our very last. Lighting the unknown, it marks the passing of time and tames the oceans with it’s own ancient hymn. The yin to the Sun’s yang, it’s deeply connected to feminine cycles, divine mystery and a space where the lines between shadow and reality become blurred and inky. This universal symbol shines its ethereal light in both supporting and feature roles across many of the world’s mythologies making it a perfect muse for Rithika Merchant’s new solo exhibition, Luna Tabulatorum.

Rithika is a Fine Artist, a visual shaman and a global citizen. Born in Bombay, she graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Parsons in New York, studied at the Hellenic International Studies in The Arts in Greece and has since undertaken residencies in Portugal and Romania. It’s no wonder her work weaves the deep underlying threads that unite us, rather than separating our colours and sequestering us. Our cultural myths, while weighted in their context, become universal archetypes when cut from their moorings. And for this exhibition they’ve floated up into our night skies.

For centuries we’ve been painting our hopes, dreams, ideas and nightmares into the geometries of the stars. A celestial graffiti that imbues meaning to our gaping sense of mystery.  Rithika’s work gives gravity to these myths grounding them into the earthly stuff of gouache, paper and primordial colour. It’s these fertile lands where demons swallow the moon,  animals play out our shadow sides and Goddesses create and destroy with equal vehemence. And while these myths umbrella our cosmos it’s perhaps the intimacy with which Rithika treats them that seems to break them out of their intimidating archteype and into the close and personal. Every line and every mark comes to life with the very human hand of the artist. Vines pulse and unfurl, creatures flicker and coil, as their creator re-imagines them within her own unique context. Like a shaman dances the stuff of the Gods we see the epic, the sacred and the legendary tumble out into an earthly visual dialect.

On the eve of Rithika’s exhibition I got to delve deeper with this fascinating artist about all things luna, feminine and divine. . . .

Rithika Merchant Painting 003Time Keeper, 2015

The moon is a symbol of the deep subconscious, the feminine aspect, mystery, insanity and the psyche. It’s the stuff of Hecate, Carl Jung’s shadow self, succubi, dreams, nightmares and so much more. Tell me about how it’s inspired this series.

My previous works dealt with the idea of “magical thinking” and the exploration of superstition, myth and ritual and how in the history of human kind, these three concepts and their manifestations were explanations for natural phenomena. In a sense it was an exploration of the effect of nature on humanity.

The moon came up many times during my research for these works and I was so fascinated by all the ideas associated with it – I began to focus entirely on the significance of the moon.

There are countless odes to the moon in music, literature, art and religion and the moon had been linked to madness, transformation, femininity and the occult.  I see the moon as a meaningful universal object that links humanity by its importance, its physical presence in the sky across the world, and its significance. Being particularity interested in creating links between cultures the moon is a very signifiant connector.

There’s always been a strong feminine thread to your work. It’s feminism in a more subtle disguise in that you turn mankind into humankind and make the hero’s journey one of a heroine. In this series of work, with pieces like High Priestess, Queen of Life and Death & The Moon Devours her Children, the female aspect is wearing her more aggressive mask. It reminds me of deities like Kali and Lilith where the female role is more of a balanced duality between creation and destruction. I’d love to know more about how you arrived here? I’m also curious as to what you think this more primal aspect of the feminine’s place is in society today? Is it something we need to explore more when most female icons seems somewhat benign next to their ancient counterparts?

My interest in myths began when I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. The book really opened my eyes to the universality of the human experience and how it informed many myths. 

Around this time, I had been going home to India a lot and I had felt my hometown (Bombay) changing. This was the year where there had been a series of awful events and there had been a lot of violence against women. There was this hostility towards women and I felt my self feeling nostalgic for the freedom I had once felt living there. It drove me to create this story, My Monomyth, with a strong female protagonist. While doing my research I noticed a lack of female protagonists in all of these legends and myths that I was reading and that spurred me on to create this semi autobiographical series. 

I created a myth that discusses a woman as a Hero. The series is semi autobiographical, as I look at a few key moments in my life as well as my role as a woman and every woman within society. It also explores the need of myth, with a female protagonist, as so few stories are told from a woman’s perspective and/or place women as the protagonist.  I do consider my self a feminist and I choose to portray strong female characters. I strive to break the stereotype of how women are often portrayed in art – either as muses or for their aesthetic qualities. I would like my work to open up a discussion about how women are viewed within society and the role that they are often forced to play.

I am very interested in women’s issues and their place and portrayal within history, myth and folklore. I love the idea that stories and legends associated with witches and female ghosts and the more destructive aspects of these personas, can be viewed as protofeminist tales. 

To quote Andi Zeisler’s essay The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts – “Ghost stories are often protofeminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the assumptions and traditions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends, or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution. In the feminist horror zine Ax Wound, Collen Wanglund theorizes that the Asian female ghost is an inherently feminist figure whose very presence is a symbol of how deeply men fear female power. Their vengeance isn’t necessarily aimed at the person who wronged them, and as such it’s as unthinking and randomly destructive as systems of patriarchy.”

The wild, powerful and destructive aspect of femininity is suppressed in a patriarchal society. To restore the balance and speak of the female experience as a whole, I choose to portray many of these more suppressed qualities. 

Rithika Merchant Painting 011Queen of Life and Death, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 006The Moon Devours Her Children, 2015

Tabulatorum (latin for tablets) seems such a fitting way of describing your work. The first thing I notice about it is how earthy and grounded its aesthetics and colour palette is. There’s a timeless quality to the pieces that hark back to a long history of rendering the presence of Gods, death, survival, archetypes and epics into a tangible and very human way of exploring these ideas. Your work has a beautiful way of reinvigorating this practice – Of making the stuff of the heavens, the marks in the earth. Currently most contemporary art seems to shy away from honestly rendering the esoteric and instead focuses and revels in the material world. Do you think modern art has lost it’s faith? Have we become too cynical? Are we too scared to look back at the big stuff?

Since my works deals with ideas that are shared and relevant to most people, across cultures and time periods – I am drawn towards iconic imagery and dreamlike colours. I like the idea of making artifacts that hold a certain significance in the object itself. From my perspective and from many of the artists who are my peers, I do not feel that art has lost it’s faith. There are so many amazing artists around me who are creating incredibly meaningful, multi faceted and multi layered work.

Many cultures and many mythologies thread throughout your entire body of work. At the heart of this lies our connection with theories like Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey. At the same time I think your work has a multi faceted, kaleidoscopic feel to it that’s both unique and idiosyncratic. I’m curious as to how much growing up in India has influenced your ability to weave so many threads and connect them so personally? The perspective of a polydeistic society seems to warrant more freedom and interaction?

The combination of having grown up in India, studied in the U.S.A. and then travelling extensively and finally settling in Europe is the reason for my interest in the link between cultures. I’ve been lucky enough to able to explore different cultures and observe them. Both Europe and India have such a mixture of different traditions, it has helped me see parallel histories everywhere. The history of myth and traditions shows links between cultures that often isn’t highlighted in classical history. 

This kaleidoscopic approach also infiltrates the very process of making your work. With multiple layers puzzled together I’d love to know how much pre-planning is involved? Your research is so heavy and dense and the pieces seem to fit together like sacred geometries, how much space is left for spontaneity? Where in your process does the more shamanic aspects of creating occur?

I do spend a lot of my time reading and researching ideas I have, or subjects that I am interested in.  Once I have a clear idea or image in my head I usually just start to draw directly onto my paper – I rarely sketch beforehand – then I add ink and paint. Sometimes I may do a colour wash or tint on the paper before I begin.  If I am working on a folded piece, then I will fold the paper or make any cuts before I start drawing. I have a notebook in which I make lots of written notes but I almost never make sketches or studies of things.  I sketch more with words than images. 

The spontaneity comes from the fact that I’ve always seen stories and ideas visually. I will often read something and have a very vivid image in my mind. Sometimes it’s just a flash and manifesting these ideas comes naturally. I have my own lexicon of symbols and creatures that I use in my work and so I use these as tools to help me as I visualize these ideas. 

There’s a very cyclical undertone to much of your work. Like Frida Kahlo and Del Kathryn Barton the human body is deeply connected to her nature and environment. Vines and veins abound and the lines are blurred between who is consuming and who is being consumed, who is dying and who is birthing. Can you tell me more about this?

The vines represent the link between us all, as well as being symbolic of transference. The vines are both something which grounds us but also reach out and expand. The circle expresses the idea that there is interrelation and more than one way to express and idea. It also holds the sum of many different parts. The grey areas and the duality expressed is a manifestation of human nature. It helps me and hopefully the viewer to relate to the ideas more and feel connected to it in a visceral way.   

Rithika Merchant Painting 004Syzygy, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 005Lilit Births The Djinn, 2015

So many of your pieces have rich historical mythologies behind them. How important is it to you for your audience to know them? Can they experience a piece without the frame of a story?

Not particularly important. In fact I would prefer the viewer to just experience the piece without any backstory at first. A lot of the time people see my work and immediately want to know the story behind it. I encourage them to first look at the work itself and then title of the piece for hints and try to find significance in the symbolism within the work. Each piece tells many stories and sometimes the best ones are not necessarily the one I have thought about while creating the work.

As the stories are often based in myth and history there is often more to learn, and so I encourage the viewer to research the subject further if what they are seeing resonates with them. 

Rithika, I know you love Joseph Campbell. In his theory of a Heroes Journey there are 17 steps from Initiation to Revelation to Atonement and Return. I’d love to know – in your entire body of work where does this exhibition sit on your own heroines journey?

This series probably represents the stage of “Crossing the Threshold”. This series was in many ways a breakthrough for me. It flowed out of me in a way that I can’t quite put into words. I feel as though I have crossed into the unknown and I discovered and learned so many new things along the way. 

If you could provide a soundtrack to this exhibition what would I be listening to as I walk through your work?

While making this series of work I listed to two albums a lot. I had Bjork’s new album Vulnicura on repeat, as well as Mala by Devendra Barnhart. Both albums have this dreamy feel to them and I found them both very inspiring to create to and so I think they would accompany a viewing nicely.  

To follow this exhibition you can find our more at Stephen Romano Gallery.

To see more of Rithika’s journey stay up-to-date on Facebook.

Rithika Merchant Painting 007Howl, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 001The Council of Choice, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 008Lunatic, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 009Orbiter, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 010Genesis, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 012Divine Receptacle, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 013Lycanthropy, 2015

Rithika Merchant Painting 016Selenography, 2014

Rithika Merchant Painting 014Danse Macabre, 2014

Rithika Merchant Painting 015Sacred Moon (Fertile Crescent), 2015


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