Terri Ciccone for artinfo.com
When Aakash Nihalani walks through the streets of New York City, he notices interesting colors, shapes, and other objects as much as the next person. But instead of taking an Instagram photo or making a mental note, Nihalani outlines that interesting object or shape with using the neon tape that he carries on him at all times, boxed within square or cube patterns. It is an ongoing series of both street art and indoor installations, the latter of which can be seen at his current show “Islands” at Brooklyn’s Signal Gallery through May 14.
This street artist highlights and emphasizes space in a way that’s elegant in its simplicity and form. Out in the world, he uses just his simple household material to make a basic shape that brings attention to contrasting forces in our urban environment, such as tape rectangles around a homeless man begging for change outside of an NYU dorm building, and neon green “bricks” among decaying grey and dull subway walls. Indoors, he uses simple forms that instead seem to pass through surfaces and change their dimensionality, making viewers more conscious of how they ordinarily walk through a space with walls, a floor and ceiling.
The gallery experience of “Islands” is certainly unique and interactive, disorienting his viewers (in a good way). It’s also very different from most of his recent outdoor work, which is known for its eye-popping neon green, pink, and yellow tape choices. This show, instead, is devoid of color. Large black-and-white square and rectangular shapes are taped onto the walls, sometimes spilling out into the floor of the space itself. “Cut outs” or shapes created on a wall with tape, and then filled in with black paint, seem to emphasize negative space more than they might highlight objects, and rectangular shapes seeming to change the dimensions of the floor area have a dizzying effect.
“Outside I’m always using the bright palettes of tapes to emphasize or highlight something. And in this show I really wanted to react to the gallery space in the way that I react outside,” Nihalani recently told ARTINFO. “When you simplify the gallery space, it’s just white walls, a floor, and a ceiling, so I tried to react to that. The black is the most contrasting color and speaks to the form the most.”
The most striking part about “Islands” is the idea of forced perspective, and how the artist used the quirks in the space’s architecture to work to the show’s advantage, and give his audience a unique viewing experience. The gallery is set among a cluster of auto garages on Johnson Avenue in Brooklyn; at first glance, it appears the space was probably also a mechanic’s shop at one point, with five or six metal industrial plates installed around the floor. Rather than seeing these plates as an eyesore, Nihalani saw them as the “islands” or points of perspective where the viewer can stand to engage with the pieces on the opposite wall, moving from island to island to see how the pieces enter and recede from the room from different perspectives. When the viewer moves around, the objects’ optical illusions take shape, tricking your eye to appear as though they’re moving in the way a sundial’s shadow moves across the ground.
“What I found really exciting about these works is there’s this way of walking around the space,” Nihalani explained. “Like this piece [pointing to “Impact,” a row of black-and-white cubes appearing to recede into space] is distorted unless you walk through the show. So there’s the constant shift from being just the passive viewer to being a participant, which I think helps guide the viewer through the gallery.”
Before becoming a tape artist, Nihalani went to New York University to study Political Science, but often painted hats and T-shirts as a hobby, while growing less enthusiastic about his studies. When his friend suggested he switch to the arts program, Nihalani began to develop his style and create work, soon feeling the frustration many artists feel from storing away paintings that are rejected by collectors and galleries. Out of this frustration came Nihalani’s choice of medium: rolls of colored tape.
“It was something that I can go outside with immediately and work with whenever I want to,” Nihalani said. “It was immediate access to the public. When I put something up, people on the street could see it and react to it right away.”
At first glance, you might think the pieces are inspired by 11th-grade math class, but the shapes and colors are actually influenced by the “big minimal boxes” and other square architectural elements of New York. The sometimes dull color palette of the city also played into his choice of neon tape.
“The city is very neutral — it’s like greys and tans and khakis — so it made sense to use these really bright colors,” Nihalani explained. “What I’m basically doing outside is seeing something on the street and wanting to highlight it, so I think the color choice goes hand in hand with the choice to emphasize. It really creates a contrast. The colors don’t exist in nature, so it pops in the environment."