The passage of time assumes material form in the weathered surfaces we see around us: the crumbling facade of a building, the paint peeling off a wall, the moss that creeps up on paving stones. But it is time’s stealthy marks on metal surfaces that Manish Nai is drawn to, as was apparent in the shades of rust left to linger on the assemblages of corrugated metal sheeting in his recent show “Regenerative Visions.” Such sheets are often hastily pulled together to create temporary shelter or provisional housing, for instance in shanty towns. Nai has frequently encountered them in the slums that dot the city of Mumbai, where he lives and works. But only recently was he was seized by the overwhelming urge to use the material in his practice.
To make one monumental sixteen-foot-long work from 2021—Untitled, like most of those in the exhibition—Nai orchstrated pieces of corrugated metal roofing to produce bands of coordinated color. Rusty reds, metallic silver, and grays dominated the field, punctuated here and there by undulating panels of turquoise blue. In a smaller piece nearby, horizontal bands of deep green, blue, black, and beige were interrupted by a shock of tomato red and vertical strips of gray sheeting. The surfaces of both works bore scratches and other signs of wear and tear.
Nai has a proclivity for objets trouvés, scouring markets for materials that he can reuse and recontextualize. While viewers might discern links to the Arte Povera movement in his choice of objects—newspapers, books, old clothing, cardboard, and gunnysacks—his exposure to these commonplace materials was through his father, who traded in clothes as well as in jute and other packing materials. It was natural, then, that at art school in Mumbai Nai would choose to experiment with jute: His preoccupation with this fiber continues to play out today. On display in this show was a dark-indigo rectangular relief (Untitled 2021) that drew attention to the coils and convoluted contortions of the compressed burlap out of which it was fashioned. In another work (also Untitled, 2021), the artist removed threads from indigo-dyed jute cloth and employed paint and tracing paper to generate a pixelated patterning that had a vibratory feel to it. Elsewhere, in Untitled, 2017, brightly colored used clothes were wrapped around an array of wooden sticks, which were serially propped up against the gallery walls. These were strangely reminiscent of multihued larkspurs.
Although his works using found materials may evoke notions of recycling and circularity, Nai is more invested in exploring materiality itself. In his attempts at transformation, he plumbs the hidden depths of substances, getting them to reveal unknown characteristics. Simultaneously, his geometric forms—squares, rectangles, circles—indicate his interest in the formal language of abstraction and Minimalism. This concern was also reflected in his digital archival prints Digits XIV and Digits XIII, both from the 2016 series “Billboard.” Here, his unerring ability to cut through the clutter and clamor of the metropolis and zero in on geometry and pattern was revealed in photographs of billboards shorn of any advertising. What lay exposed instead was a grid of distressed surfaces interspersed with numerals and letters of the alphabet, which appeared like codes in need of deciphering.
Greeting the visitor in one of the smaller rooms of the gallery was a row of abstract paintings created on a ground of mosquito netting. By placing nets on top of each other and pushing paint through the mesh, Nai discovered that he could produce a lenticular effect. The result was a series of blurry, dancing forms, which escaped the viewer’s attempts to pin them down in one place. Like many of Nai’s sculptures, these paintings served to reinforce the message that time doesn’t stand still.