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‘Starry Tree’ show: Shambhavi Upadhyaya at Gallery ABBA

An adorable man with a hat is staring with pleasure at the rising sun as it peeks out of the ocean. As he continues to watch, however, the orange glob of gas stretches upwards to reveal that in fact it’s not a star at all, but rather an octopus-like cyclops emerging from the sea. This is the subject of Shambani Upadhyaya’s’19 piece, “The Unexpectedly Unfriendly Creature,” which is one of many works by the artist now on display at Gallery ABBA. The mini emotional story arc of the adorable hat man closely resembles that of the viewer who attends Upadhyaya’s exhibit, titled “Starry Tree.” First delight, then shock, then a sort of fearful reverence for a powerful new presence (in this case an artist flexing her swole af paintbrush muscles). 

Photo by Eva Claire Haykin.

“The Unexpectedly Unfriendly Creature” was created on Adobe Illustrator, but the vast majority of Upadhyaya’s works were painted with oils. The artist told me that her previous paintings were almost all done with acrylic, but two years ago she began oil painting and it quickly became her favorite medium. Her comfort with oil is evident in the wide variety of styles on display at “Starry Tree.” “Mind’s Eye,” for example, is an accomplished abstract expressionist work with tadpole-like dots and swooping, Cy Twombly-esque black lines, juxtaposed against a purple-blue-plum explosion centered on an off-white canvas. Displayed next to it is “Slumber,” a bedroom painting that beautifully mixes the flattened perspective of Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles” with the surrealist whimsy of a Magritte.

When asked which painting she would save if the gallery was burning down, Upadhyaya said it would be a toss-up between her self-portrait–a beautiful work of exaggerated features–and ____, a staggering slice of surrealism which features what might be described as a rainbow dolphin-shark (a sholfin?) with stalactite-like teeth. Both paintings are examples of how Upadhyaya weaves her obsession with the visuals of the video game New Super Mario Bros  (2006) into her work. The games’ mushrooms take on new life as hot air balloons in many of her paintings, and once you’re aware of the influence of Nintendo you start to see the games distinctive architecture and design crop up throughout the gallery’s pieces.

This influence is coupled with the artist’s fascination with underwater creatures. In her artist statement, she writes that she once “watched a video of a shapeshifting octopus and I thought it was the most horrifying thing ever. How could a creature be that… squishy?”

The painting that I found the most impressive and disconcerting at “Starry Tree” consists of underwater creatures of a different sort. Titled “Sinking,” the painting shows the detritus of a sink filled up with a strange green liquid. An old apple core bobs alongside various pots, mugs, and bowls, with each element disconcertingly floating in the liquid as if it’s been collaged into it. Perfectly out of place is a power cord, whose snaking cable cuts across the canvas and ends in a non-domestic converter that looks almost anthropomorphic (two eyes, a nose, and some baby metallic T-Rex arms with gorgeously detailed reflecting light).

It’s these small, unexpected details–a nude’s legs in a forest marked with lines like tree bark; twisting stairs that seem almost M.C. Escher-like until you squint and realize that their curve is structurally logical– that take Upadhyaya’s work past pure technical skill (which is certainly not lacking) and into a realm of memorable and affecting composition.  

“Starry Tree” will be on display at Gallery ABBA until April 6, and is more than worth the brief trek downtown to check it out (As an added bonus, if you tell the wonderful student gallerists that Nick Keller sent you you won’t have to pay for admission).  

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