C2003.20.2HAR65250Shiva Vishvarupa, Nepal 19th century, Mineral pigment on cloth, Rubin Museum of Art

Before I can grasp it with my mind, this painting has already saturated and immobilized me. What am I looking at?  Not so much a painting as a force. Before me is a medium-sized vertical rectangle with what seems like a figure (that would be Shiva). At first I only know this by his head in the iconic center two-thirds the way to the top… though to focus here is impossible as the face drops into the painting like a stone into water sending out waves of imagery to the painting’s edge. This is not the usual  visual tour signposted by the kind of composition I am used to experiencing from paintings. It is a challenge not to get atomized and redistributed into the field, which I’m feeling could well be the painting’s stealth function.

Take Shiva’s head as the place to start. Then relax and feel your peripheral vision pulled outward to where one face duplicates into a perspectivally receding tower that telescopes to the very apex of the painting. This is not a one-track action but a string-theory multi-verse ascending cascade of heads. They turn in profile facing both right and left as they climb, diminishing as they go, forming a pyramid of heads, selves and eyes seeing in each direction and dimension.

Meanwhile some other piece of visual consciousness grapples with the radial array of arms haloing Shiva (…wait – it’s two figures as Shakti mirrors Shiva in an embrace). Visually sliding along the arms you find you can’t stop because they busily proliferate outward in a ripple pattern of yet other arms, ever-smaller arms, tree-rings of them. When they run out of mudras (magical hand gestures), they clutch attributes (figurines of power). Beyond this they are capped off by miniature enlightened beings that make for a ticklish cilia-like fringe. All this before you reach the actual mega-flame that holds the whole ensemble within its mandorla eye. At this point your eye might fall off the “ground” which is also the “figure” and see littered beyond in the inky field, galaxies in an expanding space which are in fact other flames holding other Shiva/Shakti pairs amidst their own fans of hands, heads and flames, each larger or smaller depending on where they fall on the spatial/relational continuum.

Such proliferation and profusion defies description as well as defense mechanisms…  and implies that just as the deity holds and beholds everything at once- a form of generous ubiquity- by seeping into the painting the viewer also is ubiquitous in a generous universe.

Mount_MeruSarah Walker, Mount Meru, 2012, Acrylic on panel, 28 x 26 inches
(Courtesy of Pierogi and Gregory Lind Gallery)