Ravi Zupa: “The Turmoil of Being”

at Hashimoto Contemporary

“Dostoevsky Thinks: Put Out Fires But Start New Ones,” 2016, Ravi Zupa, Acrylic, India ink, graphite, screen print, traffic cone block print, on paper mounted to wood, 24″ x 36″
Photo: courtesy the artist

Appropriation is commonplace these days, almost an art-school default strategy; rarely is it as emotionally charged as in the sardonic work of Ravi Zupa. This self-taught Denver artist recycles the art of previous eras and cultures-i.e., medieval and Renaissance Europe, Edo-feudal and Meiji Japan, pre-modern Buddhist Tibet, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica-creating pastiches of paintings and woodcuts that are eye-foolingly accurate. They’re also forthright in their artifice, sporting anachronistic details like collaged modern typography and samurai assault weapons (Hollywood, are you listening?). The show, titled “The Turmoil of Being,”nicely captures the current sociopolitical moment and the darker, demonic side of the human condition. Wrathful blood-drinking Buddhist deities, meet the demons of medieval Christianity and the skeleton crews of Holbein and Posada; Monsters from the id, both east and west, are seemingly as immortal as water bears, flourishing even in today’s global culture of scientific materialism.

The 17 two-dimensional works in the show fall into three groups: samurai woodblock prints; Tibetan thangka and Japanese battle paintings; and woodcuts of imaginary creatures from European bestiaries. The samurai prints, combining screen printing with drawing and painting, successfully imitate 19th-century originals, but add discordant elements like modern weaponry, faded and reversed images from blueprints and diagrams (including skulls and skeletons), and an artist’s chop mark or seal that combines handsaw, ax and star (reminiscent of the USSR’s sickle and hammer). Zupa’s thangka and battle paintings depict the usual fearsome personifications of anger and violence, but deglamorized: in one, a scrum of samurai battles furiously amid clouds of greenbacks like Breugel’s battle of the strongboxes or Bosch’s hay wain combatants; in another, Dostoevsky, who wrote about demonic revolutionary fervor, appears, observing through a rent in the curtain of time and space. Zupa’s 15-creature bestiary harks back to religious prints by Dürer, Schongauer and others in their fantasy and weirdness, although non-Western mythologies are incorporated (Quilin, Nine-Tailed Fox, Garuda), each graced with the artist’s laurel-wreathed saw/ax/star symbol-a stamp of approval for martyrdom? Also included are four sculptures from the artist’s Mightier Than series, assault weapons crafted from old manual typewriter platens and keys, with pen-nib or pencil-point bullets, vividly questioning whether the pen is always mightier than (or even in opposition to) the sword. A life-sized sculpture of a samurai on horseback completes this exhibit of beautifully crafted parodies assailing, slightly uncomfortably, our assumptions of moral and spiritual progress.