At one time, both Kanishka Raja and Steven Spielberg had a fascination with Merhan Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian exile who spent almost 20 years trapped in the Charles de Gaulle Airport. But while Spielberg’s movie The Terminal is loosely based on his life, Nasseri never directly appears in Raja’s paintings. Human figures rarely do. If filming in an airport shopping concourse allowed Spielberg to integrate product placements into Hollywood’s standard narrative of redemption, Raja’s paintings manifest a sense of flexible dislocation that results from living within or between different worlds.
Born and raised in Kolkata before moving to the United States to attend college, Raja combines in his work a jagged perspectivalism with the intricate flatness of Indian miniature painting and textile design. As in previous pieces, airports as liminal spaces are a prominent theme in this two-part solo exhibition. But terminals and runways now share canvases with a repeated geometric pattern derived from a window grille at a mosque in India that Hindu fundamentalists demolished in 1992, leading to deadly communal riots. It’s a motif implicating the viewer—and artist—in Where Were You in 92? (2007), a wall installation incorporating reflective silver foil along with scraps of photographs and colored paper on the floor beneath it.
Raja’s new paintings also feature small PlayStations—and their scrolling story format— instead of his earlier cut-and-mix turntables. In Double Duty (2007), a gorgeous yet haunting work, rows of Army cots in a rich blue terminal might serve Hurricane Katrina survivors as readily as delayed passengers. The first painting from the series “In the Future No One Will Have a Past” (2007) features a looming shadow that could be either an airport’s control tower or a prison’s guard tower. This kind of visual/verbal punning occurs throughout Raja’s work. While his playful doublings and repetitions may feel uncanny and occasionally sinister, they provide a much-needed element of flux in a global present fractured by irrational resolve.