Laura McPhee’s Calcutta Comes to New York

Laura McPhee’s interest in Calcutta can first be traced to 1998, when the artist traveled to the city on a Fulbright scholarship. In her fifth solo show with Benrubi Gallery, “The Home and the World, a View of Calcutta,” McPhee presents photographs taken during several stays in the former Indian capital. Of particular interest to McPhee are the locals and the far-flung influences that have shaped the city’s eclectic architecture. 

Particularly intriguing are McPhee’s series of “Driveway Portraits,” humanistic images that spotlight small groups of passersby posing by a gate outside of McPhee’s temporary residence. Sisters, a street performer, and an ice cream man are among the subjects who stare out at the viewer, some smiling, some scowling, and some just pausing for a moment, amidst a daily routine.

In other images, McPhee focuses on the patchwork of patterns and textures that make up the fabric of Calcutta’s cityscape. The city’s architecture is characterized by a singular mix of eastern and western influences; McPhee captures it all angles, from crumbling walls to spotless temples. She has an eye for interesting visual juxtapositions—a pot of towering, climbing vines in the center of a humble courtyard, for example—that hint at the paradoxes upon which the city thrives. 

In some cases, McPhee has captured bits of Calcutta that no longer exist. Puja (Prayer) Room, Sikka Palace, (Now Replaced by High Rise Apartment Blocks), South Kolkata (2005), shows piles of bananas on a white marble table under a devotional style painting. The fleetingness of the fruit is a solemn reminder of the fate of the palace that is pictured.

With the exception of a few images, like Sleeper, Prayer Hall, Nakhoda Mosque, North Kolkata (2013), McPhee’s images are devoid of people—allowing the viewer to enjoy the intricacies of these rooms, isolated from their day-to-day functions. Reminiscent of architectural shots by Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth, McPhee’s photographs create a sense of vastness even within the confines of the intimate gallery. A window into the  visual rhythm of Calcutta, McPhee’s show leaves one yearning to see more.

—Kat Herriman

The Home and the World, a View of Calcutta,” is on view at Benrubi Gallery from Oct. 29–Dec. 12, 2015.

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