by Kurt Shaw
'Harish Saluja: Mandalas and Deities'
What: New works by painter and filmmaker Harish Saluja
When: Through Saturday. Gallery hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays
Where: Mendelson Gallery, 5874 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
After a long detour in the world of cinema, painter and filmmaker Harish Saluja has decided to share his latest paintings in the show "Mandalas and Deities," which is currently on display at Mendelson Gallery.
As visitors will see when looking at the 20-plus paintings by Saluja, his work falls directly under the abstract expressionism discipline, but incorporates themes adapted from Buddhism and Hunduism.
Apart from painting, Saluja's creativity has explored literature, music and film. He directed, produced and acted in several movies and plays, including the film "The Journey" (www.newrayfilms.com). He also co-hosts one of the longest-running Indian music radio programs in the country, Music From India, on WDUQ Pittsburgh.
Since 2005, Saluja has been running Silk Screen, a nonprofit Asian arts and culture organization. But over the last year and a half, he has managed to find time to paint more than 30 paintings.
Now in his 60s, Saluja has been painting and exhibiting since the age of 18. He started with traditional realism, landscapes, figurative and portraits.
"I did this for seven years and changed to abstraction at the age of 24," he says. "Abstract expressionism has always appealed to me and I did interpretations of poetry, music and philosophy in that style."
Paintings from his early "Raga" (based on Indian music) and "Jazz Series" were very popular. Then, at the age of 50, Saluja says he decided to change direction.
"Although my paintings got excellent reviews and sold well, I wanted a new direction," Saluja says. "I struggled for five or more years before finding a comfortable and exciting place in my art, which is where I am now ... abstraction but with some structure, some figurative work."
In his "Mandala and Deity Series" paintings, his latest set of works on canvas, he has started incorporating figurative and semi-abstract images with abstraction. The result is a sumptuous, almost-erotic celebration of joy.
Mandala is Sanskrit for circle, polygon, community and connection. It is a symbol of man or woman in the world, a support for the meditating person. It is often illustrated as a palace with four gates, facing the four corners of the Earth. Before the meditating person arrives at the gates, he/she must pass the four outer circles.
Mandalas and images of deities have been painted for centuries. But almost always these have been quite well-structured, precise and representational. "I have attempted to give these formats a new look of abstract expressionism," Saluja says. Most of his work can be defined as "freedom within boundaries," Saluja says, that is taking liberties within a structure. There is a homogeneous quality to each work, a wholesomeness. However, when examined carefully one sees an abandon, a freedom, a recklessness within each.
For example, although mandalas are primarily Buddhist iconography, with the piece "Mandala 12 (Rama)" the artist has taken the liberty of combining the image of the Hindu god Rama, considered to be the incarnation of Vishnu. Rama is one of the primary deities in Hinduism. In this painting the reclining figure of Rama is mostly covered by the mandala, with the image being superimposed.
Conversely with "Mandala (golden Buddha)," Saluja has decided to make the central figure of Buddha much more obvious. Even so, here Saluja builds on this basic figure and gives it an abstract flavor.
"What I set out to do was to take the very, very complex and disciplined structure of the centuries-old mandalas and infuse a sense of recklessness or freedom," Saluja says. "Thus, my abstract expressionist tendencies were combined with the structure (a square, circles, reckless colors, etc.) and the result is before us."
The other set of paintings are abstract depictions of Hindu deities, particularly Shiva, Ganesha, Sarasvati, as well as a few others.
In "Shiva," the artist has depicted the god of destruction in a softer light than is typical with Hundu art. He is portrayed with a trident, crescent moon, fire, a snake around his blue neck, framed by his matted hair. Sarasvati is treated in similar fashion. In Hinduism, Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, and considered to be the "mother of the Vedas, the oldest scripture in Hinduism."
"The goddess is often depicted as a beautiful, light-skinned woman dressed in pure white often seated on a white lotus," Saluja says. "The lotus symbolizes that she is founded in the experience of the Absolute Truth. Thus, she not only has the knowledge but also the experience of the Highest Reality."
Finally, the piece "Varanasi" is a representation of the holiest city in India. Also known as Benaras or Kashi, Varanasi is situated on the banks of the River Ganges.
"It is considered among the most exotic places in the world," Saluja says. "It is famous for its temples and cremation Ghats on the banks of the river." Which goes a long way in explaining why the artist chose to paint it in bright-orange hues, as if the whole city itself is on fire.
Saluja insists he chose his subjects for "purely aesthetic" reasons.
"The subjects of the paintings are really not that important since I have no religious, social or political agenda," he says. "The subjects are excuses to apply paint to canvas in which I delight and my soul expresses its being."