Arvo Leo's This Is the Cow is equally gorgeous and illuminating

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Arvo Leo: This Is the Cow
At the Western Front until December 22

There’s something fresh and beguiling about Arvo Leo’s exhibition This Is the Cow. Beguiling, indeed, are the images and ideas behind his intertwined installation and film, created during his travels through India in late 2009 and early 2010. The two works form a visual and conceptual whole that is part travelogue, part social exchange, and part inquiry into how we assign meanings and make memories out of the vastly various worlds we inhabit. Even the artist’s pseudonym, “Arvo Leo”, derived from the first names of both his grandfathers, suggests a journey and an investigation.

Hanging salon-style on the walls of the Western Front’s exhibition space are more than 40 images and objects, including artfully painted signs on metal, naive drawings on paper, collages, X-rays, altered postcards, a sun visor made from a milk carton, and the ragged remains of an old quilt. Many of these humble and hand-made works reiterate or respond to a quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The quote, “THIS IS THE COW SHE MUST BE MILKED EVERY MORNING SO THAT SHE WILL PRODUCE MILK AND THE MILK MUST BE BOILED IN ORDER TO BE MIXED WITH COFFEE TO MAKE COFFEE AND MILK”, is from a story of insomnia, memory loss, and an attempt to anchor reality in the naming of things.

In bringing together the four dozen works in his installation, Leo collaborated with a number of people encountered on his trip. They include Indian artists, writers, sign painters, vendors, nurses, and typists, as well as fellow travellers, friends, and colleagues. In Udaipur, Rajasthan, a woman named Sybia used faded felt-tip markers to print a jumbled version of the text and draw a naive self-portrait, whose small scale is overwhelmed by her large depiction of a musical instrument made by her husband. In Calcutta, an artist named Ayush Saha created a mixed-media work on paper that interprets the Márquez quote through hand lettering and expressionistic human figures. And in Goa, Leo himself produced a series of makeshift signs for use in his film. They are crudely lettered in a mixture of dirt and water, and speak directly to his earthy experience of India.

Among the most compelling images here are those executed by the Indian artist Sanjay Soni, whom Leo worked with to create small, exquisite, surrealism-referencing paintings of three fish and a pipe on old postcards, and also to create a legend for the works on view. Mounted on the gallery’s north wall, this legend consists of an extremely deft drawing of a cow on which is depicted, by hand and in miniature, every image and object in the installation, with numbered citations below. It’s equally gorgeous and illuminating, satisfying our human need, again, to name people and objects—to make sense of chaotic experience through art and language.

The line of connection throughout Leo’s creative, collaborative, and geographic journey is the sacred status of the cow in Hinduism and its ubiquity throughout India. And it is the cow that is the prime (although not the only) subject of his film, which is also on view at the Front. Leo’s camera records cows sauntering along country roads and sleeping on city sidewalks, cows grazing in garbage dumps and ruminating in marketplaces, cows nodding, scratching, pissing, shaking their ears, flicking their tails, and gazing out to sea. While looking only incidentally at people (as they pass by the cows, on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle), the film conveys something of what it is to travel in India. The arresting soundtrack by Stefan Udell combines ambient noise with chiming, clanging, and clacking, suggestive of temple bells, cowbells, and other percussion instruments.

Although Leo’s film is a bit too self-consciously grainy and quixotic, it partners niftily with his installation, and with the wonderful companion publication the gallery has produced. Kudos to this emerging artist, and to the Front’s director-curator Jesse Birch.

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