Satpreet Kahlon, installation view of “the inscrutable shape of longing,” 2023. Photo: Jeuquian Fang, Courtesy the artist

Satpreet Kahlon

Bellevue, Washington

Bellevue Arts Museum

Migrations, chosen or coerced, are often experienced episodically or in fragments. In her recent exhibition “the inscrutable shape of longing,” Panjabi-born Satpreet Kahlon captured this quality perfectly. A central suspended screen of torn fabric and wood and cardboard paper scraps, surrounded by wall-hung mixed-media assemblages, was penetrated by video projections that ranged from archival footage of rural Panjabi celebrations to images of people fleeing violence, migrating to safe areas, or meeting in communal settings. With a muffled soundtrack of poetry and music running through the darkened space, Kahlon’s exhibition became a total experience, immersing the viewer in an unsettling, unstable place, a site of exodus and arrival, captured in random flashpoints.

By tightly editing the film clips and sound bursts, Kahlon obliquely approximated the tension and drama of flight and transit, conveying the anti-nostalgic nature of memories associated with such events. Those memories take form in her irregularly shaped wall assemblages, works so raw and artfully patched together that, although influenced by Robert Rauschenberg with their photo transfers, dangling cords, and brightly colored rags, they make his constructions look like French couture sketches. The crudity that Kahlon brings to the execution of these works, exaggerated by slipshod embroidery and cheesy advertising tear-sheets, undergirded the larger optical experience of the central screen, the eponymous inscrutable shape of longing (all works 2023).

That work, with the implication of unknown desires in its title, commanded the gallery, its web of see-through hanging wires and rags woven with found materials, including childhood photographs, jewelry, and beads. The curved walls of the space, covered with mock bricks made of white paper, acted as tentative enclosures for those seeking escape or release. High above was a painted green forest, a shelter or hiding place so far away as to be unattainable by those seen in the videos: brightly turbaned men, men kneeling in prayer, women dancing and discarding hijabs. Edited into short, moving snapshots, the scenes—all projected as circular shapes—jolted the viewer into a state of movement held in check by the ragged curtain and contained by the wall-mounted memory boxes.

One of those memory boxes, from all of us, shares Rauschenberg’s penchant for cardboard, which Kahlon turns into a palimpsest of smudged family photographs, diary entries, chips of wood, yarn, beads, pipe cleaners, and “rainwater collected from the Great Basin in Nevada.” With a central rectangle in the shape of a portable TV screen, this implied triptych pulls together awkward visual remembrances into a form that suggests chaos but attains formal coherence through strong composition and assured color.

Using many of the same materials, juxtaposition of two unlikely formal inclinations (half the size of from all of us) focuses on images of a mother and daughter. Divided into two barely connected parts, everything hangs from a cobbled-together wooden rod. A selection of scanned archival photographs on yet more cardboard is compressed to one side, just balanced by a cascade of tattered fabric, some strands still richly embroidered with gold thread, as if a dowry cloth or wedding gown had been torn to shreds.

Elsewhere, Kahlon had scrawled more excerpts from her diary on the wall. an orbit, an echo, a spiral played up the tension between the public and the private, with largely unreadable fragments in graphite and on typed paper. It is the public dimension generated by the personal, however, that triumphs over the more intimate.