at Mindy Oh Gallery, through October 23

Of the eight recent works by Rini Tandon at the new Mindy Oh Gallery, the most immediately striking are the two largest, Limbus Version I and Limbus Version II. At a distance they appear to be clear plastic shower curtains printed with irregular colored patterns–splotches of green in Version I, brown in Version II. But at closer range it’s apparent that the patches are shards of curved glass, bottle fragments most likely, attached in a variety of orientations. Some seem flush with the plastic, shaping it to their curves; others curve aggressively outward, their jagged edges jutting from the plastic’s smooth surface. The shards are a variety of shades, hues, and thicknesses, suggesting different sources and creating a powerful diversity.

The irregular folds in the plastic sheets, hung on S-hooks from a metal bar to create smooth undulations in depth, and the irregular shapes and orientations of the shards perhaps suggest that the neat, pretty patterns of our domestic furnishings–especially as they appear from afar–in fact contain within them chaos and destruction. The plastic is smooth, even, but the broken glass is a bit chaotic; the plastic is clean and transparent, the glass opaque; the plastic transmits light evenly, the glass colors and distorts. It’s as if two utterly different systems were being combined–wholeness and fragmentation, clarity and opacity, the worlds of the sanitized bathroom and of the city dump. But step back, and once again the glass shards become pretty patterns on a shower curtain.

Similar bifurcations can be found in most of Tandon’s pieces here. Dark Horizon consists of a smooth gray wood block with a narrow slit in the front. A black rubber mat hangs from the slot and reenters the box through another slit at the bottom. I thought immediately of a rest room towel dispenser, but of course this object is utterly nonfunctional. Viewing it as art, one notices the difference between the ribbed rubber and the smoothly lacquered wood; one notices the way the rubber creates an enclosed space between it and the wood. One travels, in the mind’s eye, from a perception of the whole form to a close examination of its surfaces to a sense of the “inner” space between rubber and wood–almost as if entering the work, as one clearly cannot do through the narrow slits filled with rubber. In Fluid Circuit, a clear rubber sheet hangs from both sides of a similar brown wooden block, forming a closed loop below it. In the more elaborate Split Level/Mysteries Beyond, a rubber mat is threaded through slits in a horizontal tan block, forming a series of loops above and below it. Viewed from left to right, the upper loops grow smaller while the lower ones grow larger; the mat appears to be one continuous sheet, entering and emerging from the wood 20 times in all.

These pieces, which barely reveal the artist’s hand, seem in some ways like mass-manufactured appliances from another civilization in an alternate universe. At the same time, their simplicity and elegance make them strangely self-sufficient: they require no fictional, or functional, explanation. Tandon, a young woman of Indian birth who has lived in Vienna since 1978, when she enrolled in art school there, is clearly well aware of the traditions of modern sculpture. There’s a hint of Pop–and of the Duchamp readymade–in her references to everyday objects, and of minimalism in the stark simplicity of her forms. Her work also addresses a central issue in modern sculpture: the nature of the sculptural object.

Classical figural sculptures are perceived as illusions of persons; in other words, as objects. Modern sculptors have often tried to break down the separation between viewer and artwork implied by the classical tradition, in which the perfect body, placed on a pedestal, is presented as an ideal to be admired. Instead, many create works with interior spaces, such as those between Tandon’s wood and mats, which confound the distinction between inside and outside, inviting the viewer to enter the artwork imaginatively. The very mystery of Tandon’s nonfunctional objects turns the viewer away from the idea that the piece is representational–the towel-dispenser perception doesn’t last–and toward the unique forms and unique perceptual fields these shapes create. The works’ internal contradictions, between for instance smooth wood and ribbed mat, prevent them from being comprehended at a glance as a known mass-produced object would be, and instead they vibrate back and forth between smoothness and roughness of surface, between inside and outside spaces.

These works are hardly academic explorations of sculptural issues, however: a mysterious presence is perhaps their strongest quality. As one views the long rubber mat in Split Level/Mysteries Beyond, with its many entries into and emergences from the wood block, one first thinks of a journey, and of what purpose the mat’s journey through the wood serves. Soon it becomes clear that the question is unanswerable–that the work is a kind of given, a postulate. Similarly, the contradictory elements seem to have two paradoxically opposite effects. At times one is aware of the differences, of the piece’s internal conflicts. More often, particularly after viewing a work for a while, rubber and wood, or glass and plastic, seem to belong naturally together.

The viewer is thus led through a kind of process. At first the work’s oddness and internal contradictions lead one to expect an explanation or resolution; but once it’s clear that there can be none, it becomes a beautiful thing in itself, referring not to things in the world but to states of being. It’s as if the viewer moves from feeling free in space to feeling enclosed, experiencing solid and liquid states.

Fluid Triumph is a particularly elegant example. Stuffed through a small, off-center hole in a gray wood block is a large, clear sheet of plastic. As it emerges from the hole at the top the plastic forms a small irregular cone, while at the bottom it extends for several feet in a large, irregular, widening cylinder. There is a hint of violence in the way the sheet is scrunched up to fit in the hole, but also a kind of triumph in the way it emerges, free to distribute itself as it likes, the near-white clarity of the plastic contrasting to the solid lacquered wood. Each work allows, even encourages, the viewer to bring to it a variety of personal associations, but it seemed strongest to me when viewed as an autonomous, utterly new entity.

The autonomy comes in part from the things these works don’t do. Indeed, they rely on a series of negations. The apparent absence of a human hand means they lack the organic, variegated, potentially emotional quality of, for example, most forms of drawing. Though they resemble minimalist sculpture, their inner contradictions and hints that these are manufactured objects from an alternate world separate them from mainstream minimalism, whose elegant, unitary forms in theory attain a transcendent purity. Their combined inner and exterior spaces prevent the viewer from relating to them in any single way–they are neither separate objects nor sculptural environments one can literally walk through.

A possible source of Tandon’s use of negation is suggested in a catalog essay for an earlier exhibition. Markus Bruderlin, referring to her Indian origins, writes that in Eastern philosophies “the void [is seen] not as a structural vacuum into which man disappears but as a necessary state of mind in the process of cognition.” Negation is part of what gives these pieces their uniqueness.

Perhaps my favorite work is one I didn’t care for much at first, Zero-Point-Stretch. Eight thin red plastic tubes, a bit over 15 feet long, are tied together with brass-colored iron cuffs and mounted horizontally on the gallery wall. Tandon chose to install them so that they’re partly obscured by a wooden support beam a few inches away from the wall–something like the way her mats poke in and out of the wooden blocks. The tubes appear to be hollow, but slight irregularities in them prevent one from seeing all the way through; instead one sees multihued reds. Seen from the outside, the semitransparent plastic admits some light, so one looks into ambiguous levels of depth. The viewer can thus look at the work three ways: as an enclosed space, as seen from outside looking in, and as a whole from a distance. Various objects–I thought of bundles of fiber-optic cables–are suggested, as well as some strange but unspecifiable function for the tubes.

Tandon has written, “A sculpture or a drawing, although complete in itself, is located somewhere in a long procedure of activity and is therefore only a part of a process. There is then no final product.” Tandon’s interest in process may account for the several stages the viewer goes through in perceiving her work, and for the way in which some of her pieces suggest they might be used in some alternative civilization. But it doesn’t explain–perhaps nothing can–the final, undivided, and paradoxical presence each work has, like a short untranslatable poem, or an image of something never seen before.