Visitors entering the gallery see jagged swaths of color—the earthy colors found in topographical maps of the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Fault line in California.
Rumbling sounds of tremors and earthquakes interrupt the silence. It is as if visitors have entered a troubled landscape where the ground beneath their feet cannot be trusted.
Avantika Bawa’s most recent installation, “Parallel Faults,” was on view from March 16 through April 6 at Los Angeles Valley College, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Visitors might feel a sense of foreboding from the landscape around them—a valley run through with invisible fault lines, shadowed by a ring of mountain ranges.
“I wanted to respond to the colors of the topography as seen in maps and the idea of being sunken in, with this force that surrounds you and can implode any time,” she said.
A FOUNDATION IN RESEARCH
Bawa, an associate professor of fine art at WSU Vancouver, creates installations that respond to the geography or architecture of specific sites. She begins with extensive research, scouring the Internet, visiting libraries, poring over maps and books, and talking with researchers in the field. For “Parallel Fault,” she obtained field recordings of earthquakes and tremors from geologists.
Sometimes the research is playful. For “At Owners Risk,” a show in Seattle in 2012, for example, she wanted to capture the idea that the gallery was housed in a former body shop. So she visited body shops to observe their work. Bawa color-coded each element in the installation according to function: blue upright hydraulic lift, yellow clamp forms and so on. “The mechanical form of the hydraulic lift dominates the room and anchors the exhibition as the most obvious reference to auto repair,” wrote Craig Drennen in the catalog essay.
As part of the Portland Biennial in the summer of 2016, Bawa created an installation in Astoria, Ore., for which she received a faculty research minigrant from WSU Vancouver. Called “Mineral Spirits,” the installation is a haunting evocation of the economic cycle that characterizes life on the Oregon coast.
The Astoria building offered for use had once been a grand hotel, then low-income housing, and now was slated to be turned into condominiums and retail spaces. “It was beautiful but falling apart,” Bawa said. “I was taken aback by its vacuousness, its splendor and the decayed state it was in. I thought it would be interesting to address all those issues.”
As her primary material, she built scaffolding—a symbol of growth and construction—and painted it gold to symbolize the hotel’s former prosperity. “But it’s also isolated, which is why it sits in middle of the room,” Bawa said. “It looks like it does something, but it doesn’t—it’s just an object that’s more a metaphor for past and future.”
A BIGGER CHALLENGE
Her position as a fine artist teaching at a research institution with a lot of scientists intrigues Bawa. In fact, it was one of the reasons she came to Vancouver in 2010.
A native of India, Bawa earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. In April 2004 she was part of a team that launched Drain—Journal for Contemporary Art and Culture, which she still edits.
She’d had a lot of success, with work represented in museums and private collections, numerous exhibitions as both artist and curator, prestigious visiting teaching assignments, and many grants, awards and residencies. Looking for a change from the East Coast, she gave herself a year off, drove across the country for a residency and decided to see what happened. She found herself in Portland, where her success as a teacher, artist and lecturer continued. In 2014 she was appointed to the Oregon Arts Commission.
The move west also changed her work. She went from teaching at an art school to being one of two faculty members in a small fine arts department.
“It changed my research component too,” she said. “All these scientists and geologists around me—I wanted to make sure my work was significant in the larger context of life and not just a cool art community. It was a bigger challenge. And I do love working with a diverse body of students who don’t necessarily major in art. It’s a different perspective.”