This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Natessa Amin: Hyphen, curated by Ali Banisadr, on view at CUE Art Foundation from September 12 - October 16, 2019. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.
A colorful mass of dyed newsprint emerges from the cornice where the gallery wall meets the ceiling. It cascades down and spills onto the floor, as though to confront the viewer who draws near. Sculpted objects and painted canvases coexist inside the space, suggesting that this paper skin can embrace divergent media, colors, processes, and patterns. Transformed through the various mixed dyes and pooled paint that have seeped into it, the thick newsprint evokes a flowing river or silk fabric billowing in the wind—it telegraphs change. A motif of the serpent emerges across the canvases included in this dynamic newsprint ground. Sometimes taking the form of a snaking line, a coiled pattern, the body of a serpent, or a combination of all three, this meandering motif announces hybridity as a mode of being and a process of transformation. The serpent is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols, evoking protection in ancient Near East cultures, fertility for the Hopi in North America, as well as the cyclical nature of time. Present across the history of humanity, it is a hybrid symbol of initiation, mystery, and change.
Natessa Amin’s Hyphen is a mixed-media installation whose inclusion of painting and sculpture alongside newsprint and embroidery stages its titular punctuation mark. Hyphenation is an act of drawing words together while retaining their difference: each word has a legible identity, yet hyphenation also leads them to signify something new. The hyphenated word “close-up,” for instance, evokes nearness and a direction in addition to its modern association with photography and film. Hyphenation also imparts a psychological quality to the “close-up,” where visual scrutiny is equated with revelation and intimacy. Amin’s installation posits hyphenation as a mode of bringing various media and artistic processes together to take dynamic—and hybrid—form. Rather than blending, which blurs the distinction between parts in favor of a larger whole, the hyphen draws individual entities into relationship. In the installation, the dyed newsprint ground expresses hyphenation. Each point of contact between the dynamic ground and the entities it contains can be imagined as a hyphen, which strings images and objects together into its winding, hybrid, serpentine form.
Amin herself embodies a hybrid identity. With family roots spanning India, Kenya, and the Pennsylvania Dutch, Amin grew up attending gatherings around kitchen tables that featured Indian curry dishes alongside Stroopwafels, American fruit pies, and Kenyan stew. Food became more than a way of honoring family traditions: it taught Amin that diversity is necessary for balance. Curry is a flavorful dish with a complex combination of spices and herbs. Whereas certain national cuisines prefer to keep different flavors at a distance from one another or feature a more limited palette of tastes, Indian cooking celebrates the rich flavor that emerges from the balanced combination of opposites. Similarly, the Pennsylvania Dutch strive to find balance between sweet and sour plates—the ideal dinner spread features a matching number of sugary and tart dishes. In Indian and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisines, various flavors are necessary to complete the meal. Diversity here is crucial to achieving balance—an apt metaphor for Amin’s interest in a radical inclusion of difference within her work.
When Amin’s grandmother gifted her a set of pots for preparing Indian cuisine, Amin brought these family heirlooms into her studio. Experimenting with the domestic objects, she transformed cooking pots into vessels and molds by pressing them against clay to impress their shape. Choosing to also use the cooking pots for mixing paint and holding small objects, Amin imbues the space of the artist’s studio with domesticity, biography, and everyday rituals while playing with traditional gender roles and cultural practices. Amin’s inclusion of culinary instruments evokes the work of contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is perhaps best known for preparing Southeast Asian curry dishes and sharing them in the gallery as a public performance of care, hospitality, and bringing people together. Amin is similarly interested in the gesture of gathering different entities into a communal space, but whereas Tiravanija’s cooking transforms various flavors into a single, complex dish that is then distributed, Amin displays each of her diverse “ingredients” across the walls and the floor of the gallery for viewers to witness. While Tiravanija’s cooking alchemizes each ingredient into curry, Amin uses the shared ground of dyed newsprint to hold paintings, images, and objects in a sustained embrace.
The newsprint is another important site of alchemy in Hyphen. Gravitating towards throwaway materials for their formal potential and layered cultural associations, Amin began experimenting with newsprint, a low-cost paper consisting mainly of wood pulp, that is commonly used for printing newspapers and advertisements. Due to its perishability, newsprint is rarely archived. It circulates broadly and sometimes acquires alternative use as gift-wrap or scrap paper, but quickly yellows and cracks. Newsprint’s tie to the ephemeral communication genres of daily newspapers, community announcements, and advertisements makes the material sticky with social associations. By bringing newsprint into the privileged space of the gallery, Amin activates the latent sculptural and painterly potential of the low-cost, throwaway paper and welcomes the social sphere of mass communication into the distinctive space of the white cube, as well as an economy of recycling and repurposing. For this exhibition, Amin used rollers and brushes to apply paint by flicking, pressing, and rolling dyes onto the absorptive ground of the newsprint paper. In certain places, the different paints have pooled and mixed, blending into one another to evoke a tie-dye pattern or early chemical processes in photography. After the paint dried, Amin sculpted the dyed newsprint into an undulating mass, which became the installation’s structural scaffolding for sculpted objects and canvases vivid with various colors, patterns, and painterly techniques. The sculpted newsprint renders Amin’s practice of radical inclusion in spatial terms, suggesting that the dyed ground also offers a shelter for difference to inhabit.
In an interview, Amin cites Frederic Church’s nineteenth-century home, the eclectic Olana mansion in Hudson, New York, as an influence on her work.  Primarily known as a landscape painter associated with the Hudson River School, Church was also a self-taught architect and landscape designer, as well as an experienced traveler and art collector. He worked closely with architect Calvert Vaux to design a building that served as a family home and artist’s studio, and combined Victorian, Middle Eastern, Moorish, and Italianate elements, as well as polychrome ornamental stencils that continue across its inside and outside. Not so much a synthesis as a striking example of hyphenation in architecture, Church’s polyglot Olana mansion retains the legibility of each influence. Named after “Olane,” an ancient city in Persia that was once described as a “treasure-storehouse” by the Romans, the mansion fulfills its name. Towering over the landscape, it is a treasure house of the many objects and artworks Church and his wife Isabel collected.
Inspired by Olana, Amin approaches art making and exhibition installation as a way of constructing shelters for a radical inclusion of difference. Just as a shelter offers temporary protection, art installations are often impermanent structures. Historically, galleries and museums have been far from safe or inclusive spaces for those embodying hybrid identities, and Amin imbues her artwork with protective talismans. Eyes are a frequent motif in her work. Single and multiple eyes confront the viewer’s gaze and evoke mati, or the evil eye, which is found in cultures across the world to protect from malevolent spirits. But they are also an invitation to look closer. The longer one observes Hyphen, the more the mass of newsprint begins to take the form of a snake, a motif that Amin often pairs with watchful eyes. Another symbol found in various cultures, the snake often signifies transformation and creativity because of its ability to shed its outgrown skin. Comprising numerous layered sheets of paper, the dyed newsprint perhaps suggests the molted skin of a serpent.
Amin approaches installations as shelters for metamorphosis. Newsprint has been a generative part of Amin’s practice since 2015, and she continues to bring new materials into its fold. For Hyphen, Amin introduced a black gesso ground to her canvases and began experimenting with glass bead gel, a textural gel with real glass beads that adds a reflective quality to the painted surface. Black ground and luminous surface add dimension to Amin’s vibrant patterns. The matte gesso ground appears embryonic in its rich blackness and the sheen of the painted glass beads seems to emerge from this depth. To move around these canvases is to observe painted forms and light effects evolving within the black ground. Under the protective glance of watchful eyes, we are invited to change as well.
 Natessa Amin, interviewed by Roksana Filipowska in the artist’s studio in Philadelphia, May 3, 2019.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Roksana Filipowska recently completed her PhD in art history at the University of Pennsylvania with a dissertation titled “Plasticity against Plastic: Synthetics in the Practice, Theory, and Conservation of Art since the 1960s.” Her publications include “Ree Morton’s Celastic Turn” in Ree Morton (2019); “Richard Hamilton’s Plastic Problem” in Distillations Magazine; “On Plasticity and Plate Tectonics,” an essay on contemporary artists responding to climate change in Speak Speak; and “In Defiance of Propaganda: Photographic Failure as Shared Ground” in Too Good to be Photographed (Lugemik Press, 2017).
Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based writer whose book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015) received the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. A former Senior Editor of Art in America, where she remains a Contributing Editor, she has also written for The New York Times and many other publications. Princenthal is the author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and a co-author of two recent books on women artists. Her essays have appeared in monographs on artists including Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold, and Alfredo Jaar. She has taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; and Yale University; and is currently on the faculty of the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts. Princenthal’s book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s will be published in October 2019 by Thames & Hudson.