Particle physics art

Wali from T’burg cultivates his own aesthetic garden | Art

Intimate and idiosyncratic approaches characterize much of contemporary abstract painting and drawing. Freed from the heroic imperatives of historical abstraction, recent artists have felt free to cultivate aesthetic gardens as they please. Neither revolutionary nor populist, they persist, often as artists’ artists working in isolation from the larger currents of contemporary art and popular culture.

Working on modest-scale sheets of paper in ink, graphite, and other materials, Trumansburg’s Achala Wali graft is a welcome addition to the art of the region. A small exhibition of his work, “Surface Densities”, is currently in its final week at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.

Wali is one of six artists chosen this year as part of the museum’s new CNY artist initiative. Open to submissions from artists residing within a 75-mile radius of Syracuse, the exhibition program promises to expand the museum’s longstanding commitment to regional art.

Indian by birth and cultural heritage, Wali is a 70s BFA graduate of Syracuse University. She has lived and worked in New York and Cleveland. After retiring from her years-long work at the Cleveland Museum of Art, she returned to Central New York in 2019.

Completed since his move and curated with museum curator Steffi Chappell, his Everson exhibition samples several series. On evidence here, the artist is a master of greyness, drawing palpable weight and nuance from his subtly color-inflected fields of gray.

One of the keys to the art of this genre is to embrace all the metaphorical and cultural associations one encounters without becoming too attached to any one.

Many contemporary abstractionists have cultivated an interest in the natural sciences. Wali comes from a scientific and intellectual family. (His father was a respected physics professor at SU.) As far as I know, none of his pieces use mathematical composition or illustrate any particular scientific phenomena. Its patient, methodical approach and abstract allusions to natural and man-made worlds, however, suggest what could be considered science fiction.

Likewise, although none of Wali’s works overtly refer to cartography, his densely rendered images have a kinship with a group of contemporary artists inspired by cartography. His slowly improvised work combines the schematic and the pictorial in a way reminiscent of the topographical emphasis and creation of imaginary worlds of these artists.

Wali’s paintings confuse intimate bodily experience with floating residues of cultural memory. It’s true of all his work here but it’s literally pointed out in the plays of two sets.

Adapting distinctive modeling of human hair found in Archaic Greek statues, “Arachaea”, “Study” and “Tumble Over” are covered in densely tangled, tendril-like curls. Subtle, atmospheric washes and fills of tones and colors enliven the artist’s tight linework. A shivering, silver background pervades the first, and perhaps most striking piece.

Distinctly reminiscent of the elongated ears in traditional depictions of the Buddha, another series transforms these paperclip or embryo-like shapes into a repeating pattern. In “The Taj Fate,” one of the few large-format pieces here, they join a gridded arrangement of graphite dots and clouds of pink and blue-violet ink. Adding to the stylized, palimpsest feel are scattered swaths of pasted text – Marathi, from the library of his late linguist mother Kashi Wali, a noted expert on the South Asian language.

A newly reworked collaboration with late Cleveland artist John Jackson, “Eclipse” is the show’s most memorable piece. Steeped in tea before being worked in layers, a warm glow underlies the otherwise mostly black and gray piece. An irregular, pulsating grid of cut-out ovals gives the piece the feel of a screen while hairy arabesques suggest less controlled movement.

Although unavoidable, given the size of the gallery allocated, I was keen to see more of this intricate and intriguing work.


“Achala Wali: surface densities”

Until August 7

Everson Museum of Art at 401 Harrison Street, Syracuse, NY

Open 11am-5pm Wed, 11am-8pm Thursday, 11am-5pm Fri, 10am-5pm Sat, 10am-5pm Sun.