Artist Interview: Avantika Bawa

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Interview with Portland-based Artist, Educator & Curator, Avantika Bawa.

Learn more about her background, art experiences, how she maintains and balances her art practice with being an educator, the evolution of her work, and her upcoming solo show at the Portland Art Museum this August.

Photo Information: Avantika Bawa at Washington State University. Photo by Ashley Armstrong.

Please tell us a little about yourself...

I was born and raised in India. My father was in the Navy, which caused us to relocate to different cities often. Although inconvenient at times, it brought out the travel bug in me at an early age, and gave me the ability to adapt to new surroundings quickly. 

Because we moved so often, my family and I had to learn how to pack everything and resettle often. Boxes and shipping containers were an integral part of my life, as was their repetitive use. Boxes imply movement while also being solid and static. This contrast appeals to me.

In 1996, I moved to the United States to pursue an MFA in Painting/Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The grid of this city was a stark contrast to the chaos of the major cites in India where I grew up. I finally began to realize that this modularity, with lots of similarities and repetitions, was worth exploring. It was deceptively simple, but not strictly minimal. Soon, space and place became a core query in my practice, which has led to many of my site-responsive installations.

Aqua Mapping, 2015. Installation at the White Box UO, Portland, OR

What's your background in art? 

As a child, I carried a sketchbook with me everywhere I traveled. I sketched voraciously. During my undergraduate years at the MS University of Baroda, India, my initial focus was on developing technical skills while soaking in all the Art History knowledge I could.

My interest in drawing construction sites, derelict or historic buildings, and obsolete machinery started in high school and continued to develop through my time as an undergraduate. Besides painting and drawing at the university, I did a lot of printmaking that, sadly, became dormant in my practice until recently. 

 Bawa discussing her work at the Portland Art Museum.

Bawa discussing her work at the Portland Art Museum.

Washington State University, Vancouver, where I currently teach, has a great Photopolymer printing facility that gives me the opportunity to experiment with newer and more experimental printmaking processes.  Residencies at Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Crow’s Shadow Institute of Art also helped reignite this interest. At Crow’s Shadow, I got to work with old and new printing processes. The collaborative process of working with two master printers led to the creation of work I could not have done independently. Conceptually, a return to printmaking reinforced the power of images that result when the repetition of a constant produces variables. 

Since moving to the USA in 1996, my interest in architecture has grown exponentially, and now forms the crux of my practice. An interest in site-specific art began as a simple challenge to install one drawing in as many ways as possible. In the process, I became more and more interested in the architecture of the site where the work was to be installed, and soon the space surrounding that site became part of my focus as well. 

Another Documentation, Measuring Blue, Mineral Spirits are some of my recent projects that echo my interest in working with site-based installations.

Along with my studio practice, I curate both collaboratively and individually, as this allows me to investigate ideas and media that I do not typically explore in my own work. ‘Carry on Drawing’ was one of my first curatorial endeavors. For this show, I literally collected over 150 drawings from emerging and established international artists and transported and stored them in a compact custom-made ‘carry on’ bag. The drawings were presented at traditional and non-traditional spaces, literally all over the world! When a ‘space’ was not available, the works were viewed by carefully flipping through them in the box itself. In other cases, they were installed traditionally in a gallery space. One of the more memorable viewings was on a passenger train in India, when even the ticket conductor became a part of my audience!

  Another Documentation (study),  Digital print of site-specific installation, NOIDA, India, 2012

Another Documentation (study), Digital print of site-specific installation, NOIDA, India, 2012

  [..#..#...],  2012. Acrylic on vinyl, wood, metal and looped audio. Site-specific installation for  Preternatural , St. Brigids Center for the Arts, Ottawa, Canada.

[..#..#...], 2012. Acrylic on vinyl, wood, metal and looped audio. Site-specific installation for Preternatural, St. Brigids Center for the Arts, Ottawa, Canada.

How did art making first find its way into your life?

It just did! I cannot pinpoint exactly when it started, but working with drawing tools was always part of my life. I recall one day, when I snuck into my father’s office at age six, and began to draw with staples. I wondered how many other non-art materials I could draw with; from there, the curiosity and explorations kept growing. 

 Avantika Bawa in her studio. Photo by Christine Taylor.

Avantika Bawa in her studio. Photo by Christine Taylor.

  Coliseum, Dark Red Sky , 2018, Lithograph, 14" x 10", Printed at Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts, Collaborating printer, Judith Baumann

Coliseum, Dark Red Sky, 2018, Lithograph, 14" x 10", Printed at Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts, Collaborating printer, Judith Baumann

What advice would you offer to people interested in pursuing a career in the arts?

People pursue arts for such a plethora of reasons that it is hard to say something general. Do not be afraid to practice art styles that are “out of style.” Resist demands to say something with your work if you do not want that. Pursue new ways of displaying, promoting and selling your work. Study the history of your field, and master form and technique. Explore color.

What keeps you motivated and engaged in your creative practice and how do you maintain it? 

I want my art to get better and have a significant impact in the art world. I constantly push and challenge myself, and make sure even that when the work is solid, I can think of improvements and refinements. 

Also, a lot of people (fellow artists, colleague, students and family) have faith in me and have trusted me with opportunities, jobs, honors, etc. I owe it to not just myself, but to them as well that I keep on pushing and building my practice.

My hope is that the appreciation for work that leans more towards the formal, minimal and quiet will soon have a larger audience again.

  Mineral Spirits,  2016. Paint, scaffolding, looped audio. Dimensions - 68'x43'x23'. Site-specific installation for  Portland 2016, A Biennial of Contemporary Ar t. Presented by Disjecta. Astor Hotel, Astoria, OR. Curator Michelle Grabner.

Mineral Spirits, 2016. Paint, scaffolding, looped audio. Dimensions - 68'x43'x23'.
Site-specific installation for Portland 2016, A Biennial of Contemporary Art. Presented by Disjecta. Astor Hotel, Astoria, OR. Curator Michelle Grabner.

Could you describe a moment, experience or situation that profoundly changed or influenced your work? 

A good friend of mine pointed out to me that an older work, the scaffold in Another Documentation (2012), could be the starting point of an ongoing series of works. In 2016 I did another scaffold in gold in a haunted former hotel in Astoria, enhanced by field recordings.  It gave me a launching pad to work with variants of a single concept. The Coliseum work is the same, one building, but with endless iterations.

Also, this past year has been super. I was granted a sabbatical from my university to create art and do research. Immediately after that, I was offered a solo at the Portland Art Museum, and most recently I was awarded the Hallie Ford Fellowship. I feel people are looking at, and paying more attention, to my work right now, and this challenges me to continue my explorations with great care.

Do you have a favorite artist(s), in general, and/or right now?

Piet Mondrian has been rather inspiring to me recently. I attended an ambitious exhibition in Den Haag in 2017, which allowed me to trace the evolution of his work. His scrupulous attention to detail, the quiet nature of his mature works, and the pace at which his works evolved appeals a lot to me. His categorical avoidance of narrative is subversive once again.

Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, and Nasreen Mohamedi are other artists I admire. The power of the restraint and simplicity of their works is impressive and inspiring. The work of Tilman approaches form, color and space so poetically. It makes me smile every time.

Are you currently working on any projects you can share with us? 

Oh yes! The Veterans Memorial Coliseum series, an extensive investigation into the formal qualities of that building, is explored primarily through drawings and prints. The series will lead to two solo shows, one at the Portland Art Museum (August 18, 2018 through February 10, 2019) and another at Ampersand Gallery and Fine Art Books (September 27 through November 11, 2018). There will be a limited artist book, too!


Avantika Bawa

 Avantika Bawa in Varanasi, India. Photo by Aschwin de Wolf

Avantika Bawa in Varanasi, India. Photo by Aschwin de Wolf