Born in Nepal to a family of reformist intellectuals, politicians, and poets, Jyoti Duwadi turned to art full-time after receiving his doctorate in political science from Claremont Graduate University in California in 1979. Since then, he has built on his childhood experiences in South Asia and the United States to develop a hybrid practice as a painter, printmaker, videographer, sculptor, and installation artist. While he was still a youth, he was drawn to the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich, the original set designer for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose aesthetic involved Eastern spiritual and shamanic practices.
Duwadi’s current survey exhibition, “Himalaya to Cascadia, Transcending Boundaries, Artworks 1973–2023” (on view through December 9, 2023), focuses on his unique objects (made in a variety of materials, including reclaimed industrial sanding belts) and also re-stages installations originally sited in Nepal. This is all to the better because Duwadi is an artist who took some time to find his voice, torn as he was between Hindu and Buddhist religious rituals and mid-century Western artists, from Brancusi and Kandinsky to Noguchi and Miró. Once he found that voice, however, his work became prescient.
Duwadi’s early paintings reveal that he was well aware of the themes explored in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s watershed exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” (1985), especially having graduated from theosophy founder Annie Besant’s school for children in Varanasi and benefiting from his grandfather’s close friendship with Roerich. Curator Barbara Matilsky (a professional art historian who is also the artist’s wife) draws heavily on these paintings, which expose a search rather than a discovery, and that decision blunts Duwadi’s anticipation of several contemporary art movements, including earth art and environmental art, in his more mature sculptures and public art installations.
These works, documented in photographic wall panels with explanatory texts, responded to historical and political events in Nepal by using ordinary materials such as thousands of lit candles, bags of rice, and stacks of ceramic stupas. Duwadi’s encounter with palm fronds and date palms in southern California led him to mix leaves and carved wooden posts, as in Brâncuşi (1994/2007), a blatant homage in which a palm pod perches atop a curving bamboo basket. Duwadi does not hesitate to incorporate highly crafted objects from South Asia into his work, using them as pedestals as well as individual elements, as in Yak Bell (2023), a suspended and inverted pair of bamboo baskets protecting a metal bell normally hung from the beast of burden’s neck. Such elements operate as both formal components and cultural referents.
This duality also characterizes mid-size sculptures, three to five feet high, featuring carved or gouged-out logs. Some, like Musique (2003), include inserted bamboo strands. Swan Lotus (2003/20) and V-2 (1990) retain the bark of their fat log bases, which support heavily carved, multi-planar abstractions, each with its requisite pierced hole, as if honoring Archipenko or Henry Moore.
Two tall Guardians (both 1989) expose white ash wood beneath dark bark. In the exhibition, they flank a re-created installation, Shristi (Creation) (2008/23), which captures Duwadi’s take on Modernism with a triangular entry path of temple-offering vessels made of copper, metal, wood, and live barley growing in woven baskets. Above hangs the triumph of Duwadi’s dual struggles to assimilate 20th-century Western art and align Himalayan spiritual practices. Painted with turmeric, pine tar, charcoal, and red earth, the image radiates a V-shape from its base, simulating a celestial aura. Its companion, Sounds of Earth Colors (2008/23), is backed into a corner abutted by a sandy triangular floor covering. More highly symbolic, with its brass “singing bowls” (which are silent), this installation is also more modern, its palm frond extending onto the sand, like a Louise Bourgeois spider, but organic, uplifting, and, as with all of Duwadi’s unusual constructions, ambiguous and mysterious. Culture is addressed but not dictated; sculpture becomes a vehicle for suggestions of occult meaning, not explicit instructions or strident explanations.