East City Art Reviews—Pattern and Texture: Shanthi Chandrasekar and Joseph Cortina at McLean Project for the Arts

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on January 25, 2021

There are two exhibits currently on view at the McLean Project for the Arts, and although they are in separate spaces, their pairing makes sense, even if at first this is not obvious. Each features the work of an artist concerned with pattern and texture, but each approaches these quite differently.  While the two exhibits are to be understood as solos shows, seen together, they offer an opportunity to think of them in tandem and to consider both the comparisons and the contrasts between them.

Beginningles Endless is the title of Shanthi Chandrasekar’s exhibit in the Atrium Gallery. It consists primarily of paintings, but also includes an exquisite installation of handmade paper roundels that hang delicately from the ceiling in a well-lit corner space.

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Cosmic Design Installation, mixed media on handmade paper, 68 elements.  Photo C. Rousseau for East City Art.

Conjuring snowflakes or stars, they are all fancifully and differently worked using hand drawn motifs, various print techniques, cutouts, string, and slight variations of color, although overall the impression is of cream white with umber brown with black details.  They are all enhanced with a layer of resin that results in a shine that reflects the light directed on them as they gently respond to viewers’ movements or even their breath.  Unfortunately, the lighting in the rest of this gallery is on the low side. Brighter general lighting might have helped to see the intense detail and complexity of the rest of the exhibit’s works.

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Cosmic Design Installation, detail. Mixed media on handmade paper.  Photo C. Rousseau for East City Art.

In addition to this installation, a large number of Chandrasekar’s paintings were selected from various of the artist’s continuing series addressing different concepts over the past decade.  Some of them are very dense, reflecting the artist’s training in more than one of the many Indian painting styles, each of which carries a spiritual significance.  Born in the Tamil Nadu region of India, she was trained in the traditional art forms of Kolam and Tanjore style painting.  The Kolam patterns make specific reference to women who use it as a means of self-expression, especially with regard to the earth’s fertility.  Women in these regions make these drawings using rice flour or rock powder to create these patterns in front of their homes every dawn and dusk.  They are, of course, thus impermanent, reinforcing the ancient concepts of the cycles of life, death, and new life.   Yet, Chandrasekar’s background is also in science, having studied physics and psychology before committing to her art.  These interests are not in conflict.  Rather, as she has written, “her muse lives where the scientific overlaps with the spiritual.”[1]

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Spacetime-Multiverse, acrylic on canvas, 2018.  Photo courtesy of MPA.

Focusing on a few of these paintings can give an idea of the strength of their design and how they seem to evoke both movement and stasis within a conceptually shallow space.  A good example of this is Spacetime-Multiverse from 2018.  Against an orange and red pattern of interlocking triangles Chandrasekar traces another in white dots that seems to hover above it.  Coming even closer to the picture plane are translucent circles of different sizes that seem to swirl over the surface.

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Multiverse-Entanglement, acrylic on canvas, 12” x 12”, 2016.  Photo courtesy of MPA.

Similarly, in Multiverse-Entanglement (2016) a first layer of colors radiating from yellowish orange out to dark blue forms the background for carefully rendered black circles clustering towards the center.  These are overlayed with intersecting dotted lines that float in and out of the suggested planes of space.  Similar dense layering is seen in her more recent paintings like Borders and Boundaries (2020) in which the layers are so interwoven that it becomes almost impossible to separate them visually, and the overlay of Kolam patterns is like a tightly woven curtain over the ribbons of color beneath.

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Borders and Boundaries, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of MPA.

Some of Chandrasekar’s paintings focus on a single color and repeated pattern, such as Maya Orange which made me think of Yayoi Kusama.  Others, from the Chakra series, feature closely repeated concentric circles overlaid with color that seems to explode from the center.  Among these Chakra-Blue had the most variety of colors.  The black area in the center could also be seen as pulling the color back into it, like a black hole absorbing the light of a dying star or, at the same time, a cosmic eye looking outward.

Shanthi Chandrasekar, Chakra – Blue, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 30”, 2016-18.  Photo courtesy of the MPA.

The larger Emerson Gallery is host to Joseph Cortina’s exhibit Vertical Interval.  The artist’s statement defines the vertical interval as an effectively conceptual space existing between the scanlines of an analog TV signal.  He conceives of his work as existing in this liminal space, “as images, motion and meaning embedded between the lines, textures and colors.” [2] Although this is a slippery concept, the idea that he sees his work as an expression of something in flux, embodying the idea of movement and stasis, of “holding motion” and converting it “into physicality” suggests the intentional connection to Chandrasekar’s work next door.

The exhibit includes a number of large paintings dating mostly from the last three years, as well as two video sculptures.  Cortina works with digital design and is founding partner of Cortina Productions, a creative media design and production company.  He also has thirty-plus years of cinematic direction experience of various kinds, including animation.  These skills are evident in the digital sculptures which involve dense animation with constantly changing black and white drawn images in kaleidoscopic motion that is completely mesmerizing.  The exhibit opens with a large example from 2020 titled I’ll Call You in the Future.

Joseph Cortina, I’ll Call You in the Future, sitar, wood, acrylic, animation, transparent monitors, 79” x 19” x 14”. Photo courtesy of MPA.

The most prominent feature of Cortina’s paintings is their gestural feel and their enormously textured surfaces.  The color is relatively restricted, but the way that it is used is almost sculptural.  Using acrylic, most likely with a gel medium, Cortina builds up the gestural forms into a thick impasto with evident ridges that give a sense of three-dimensionality.  A detail of a large painting titled Backstory should demonstrate this effect which intends to draw the viewer closer to the work as it is not so evident from across the gallery space.  This is because many of these paintings are quite dark with only slight variations in tone.

Joseph Cortina, Backstory, detail, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 48”, 2019. Photo courtesy of MPA.

Good examples of this are Ashes, Ashes and What About It?  The former, from 2017, reminded me of Anselm Kiefer with its agitated black surface, while the forms in the latter, from 2020, are almost invisible from a distance.  Coming closer and looking slowly shades of blue and purple begin to become visible under and mixed into the dominant black.  In both, a sense of movement arrested or at least slowed down becomes evident with closer observation.

Joseph Cortina, Ashes, Ashes, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 48”, 2017.  Photo courtesy of MPA.

A number of the works feature a curved form that in a few almost become figurative.  In his online artist’s talk Cortina said there is “nothing so luscious as a great curve” [3].  Among my favorites in this group was The Past Sure is Tense.  A bright blue form that is almost figural—something like a dancer spinning—seems carved out of the surface.  Gestural lines bring the background across it, suggesting perhaps an attempt to stop its movement.  Once again, despite its size, the canvas requires in person and slow viewing to really appreciate what Cortina is doing here.  While it is wonderful that we have access to art virtually, especially in this time of pandemic, the reality is that we have to see it, to see it.

Joseph Cortina, The Past Sure Is Tense, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 36”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of MPA.

Beginningless Endless: Shanthi Chandrasekar and Vertical Interval: Joseph Cortina, McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave, McLean, VA 22101.  Open by reservation.  For more information, see https://mpaart.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/ or call 703-790-1953.


[1] www.shanthic.com. This phrase was cited in her short biography in the catalog to Personal Patterns, a show I curated in 2015 in the King Street Gallery in the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Art Center of Montgomery College, Silver Spring, MD.

[2] Joseph Cortina, Statement to the exhibition Vertical Interval.

[3] https://vimeo.com/489515437