The show was curated by CVA director Cecily Cullen, who also did the exhibition design. As usual, it looks great.
Mattai is interested in exploring her heritage and using it to raise broader cultural, social and political issues. That heritage is complex: In the nineteenth century, her ancestors left India for Guyana to work as indentured servants on a sugar plantation. This genealogical detail inspired the show’s title, since Mattai’s forebears were literally bound to sugar in order to make their living. Her family emigrated to Canada when she was a small child, and she grew up there, coming to the U.S. to attend college and then moving to Denver ten years ago.
The show gets off to a strong start with the installation “Purity test,” in which a “shower” of tied, twisted and crocheted yarn mounted on an armature suspended from the ceiling creates the suggestion of falling water flowing into an actual bathtub, one of those old-fashioned ones with claw feet. The bathing reference relates to the racist idea that non-white people are dirty and must be cleaned and thus purified. But the work’s title refers to another racist conceit, that of racial purity: Colonized peoples were regarded as impure, and thus inferior, because they were not descended from Europeans. Many of the other works in the show use similarly recognizable objects in combinations that reinforce Mattai’s conceptual efforts to deconstruct prejudice.
Similar issues are raised by the triptych “Salvation islands.” Instead of canvas, Mattai has stretched a patterned vintage fabric to serve as the ground of the painting. The pattern is an all-over arrangement of large green leaves, an evocation of the American idea of a tropical paradise. To undercut that dreamy impression, she adds down-to-earth content about the reality of colonial life by painting an old island prison that peeks out from among the beautiful leaves. The Caribbean island prison, Mattai points out, was similar to the slave castles in Africa where captured people were held before being sent overseas in bondage.
The show reaches a climax in the back gallery, which is completely dedicated to an enormous installation, “Sugar water,” made up of antique bedroom furniture, chairs and video projections. Several pieces of the furniture, including a dresser that seems to float above our heads, are suspended by thin wires from the ceiling; some are connected to the walls with rainbow-colored yarn. Others, like a big gold chair, have been knocked over. It looks like the room is exploding. Videos of landscapes are projected onto some of the elements, such as the vanity’s three-part mirror, whose glass has been replaced with white panels. “Sugar water” captures the immigrant experience: In a physical sense, it refers to having to move furniture from place to place, but metaphorically, it has to do with the disconnections, displacements and disorientations inherent in someone leaving their home country for a potentially hostile one — hence the destruction suggested by the “flying” furniture.
Kirkland Museum is highlighting the work of mid-century modernist Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder, a pioneer of contemporary sculpture in the state. The Ent Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs is hosting an extensive solo celebrating the accomplishments of Linda Fleming, who is associated with the Libre artist community. And this week, the Arvada Center will open a major retrospective of a half-century’s worth of paintings from the oeuvre of Virginia Maitland downstairs, and upstairs, a quartet comprising the work of Patricia Aaron, Jennifer Ivanovic, Sue Oehme and Jodi Stuart, plus an installation by Laura Merage. But the ambitious Sugar Bound, Mattai’s largest and most significant show, more than holds its own.
Sugar Bound :: Suchitra Mattai, through October 20, MSUD Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, msudenver.edu/cva.