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In his solo show at Elephant, To Ransom the Prisoners, Nikhil Murthy draws on a wide spectrum of cultural and linguistic signifiers from pop music, baseball, politics, and centuries old Hindu iconography. The cross-pollination of all these sources provides an intriguing rabbit hole to go down, although the end results leave one with more questions than answers.
Two digital prints —Manifesting Within the Flames / Like Rihanna and The Lord Whose Half is Woman / Like Rihanna (all works 2018)—borrow from Rihanna’s moody 2012 strip club anthem Pour It Up, in which the singer boasts of a night out showering pole dancers with unending dollar bills. The song’s lyrics—“Throw it Up, Watch it all fall out, Pour it up”—provide the works’ visual structure, as the collaged-together text comes together to create an hourglass form. The letters are cut from election campaign lawn signs and rearranged like a ransom note, implicating our elected officials in a system of economic inequality and insurmountable debt, a theme in Murthy’s previous work. Between the triangles formed by the repetition of “fall out” and “pour It up,” the words “watch It all” flutter down in the middle, like so much currency thrown on stage.
Affixed to the digital prints are cards used in Keno—a lottery-like gambling game—onto which Murthy has painted abstracted geometric representations of the Hindu deity Shiva, known as both a destroyer and creator. The title of one of the works, refers to Shiva’s half-male, half-female form, Ardhanarishvara, echoing the dualities of Rihanna’s swaggering male and exhibitionist female characters, and the poles of affluence and financial instability.
A pair of architectural models in the exhibition depict a baseball diamond atop an octagonal tower, like a playful panopticon. According to the press release, in this eight-sided-stadium fantasy scenario, every member of the crowd has an equal chance of catching a foul ball. These sculptures combine two forms of play—baseball and chance, or gambling—a layering of dualities similar to the wall works. Tidy and self-contained however, they lack the visual dynamism of the prints’ concrete poetry and far-flung associations.
The show’s press release touts grand inspirations, from biblical scripture to contemporary economic theory, but how this manifests in the artwork is less clear. The juxtaposition of raunchy pop music, sacred image, and economic anxiety makes for an engaging visual and linguistic passage, even if the destination is elusive.
Nikhil Murthy: To Ransom the Prisoners runs from January 12–January 31 at Elephant (3325 Division St., Los Angeles, Ca 90065)