A God In Training: Sangram Majumdar in conversation with Jennifer Coates
Sangram Majumdar’s show, “Offspring,” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects through November 11, is one of five current exhibitions to be discussed on The Review Panel, Tuesday November 13, at Brooklyn Public Library. The artist, who works in Brooklyn and teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, will also be the subject of a solo presentation at Geary Contemporary in New York next year. He sat down recently with fellow painter Jennifer Coates to discuss his working process and his aesthetic outlook.
We are sitting here in your studio and I wanted to ask you about these paper constructed dioramas you have made over the years as sources for your paintings. I’m curious about how they have influenced your work and how they connect to the taped mixed media on paper pieces that are in your current show with Steven Harvey.
Making the dioramas was a way to slightly detach myself from the physical environment, the kind of interiors we live in. If I paint something that’s in front of me or a space that I’m in, it’s hard for me to stop measuring my body in terms of what’s around it. Working from observation is about noticing the air around things and what happens when the body is in space. By removing that direct association, it helped me think of the painting as its own world, one step removed from where I am located.
So it’s a way to disorient yourself? Your relationship to an actual room had become too known and so shrink it down, to artifice it was a way to make it strange to yourself?
In a very simple way it was about being able to control it, do anything with it, flip it upside down. On one hand I wanted ground myself in light, air, gravity, but at the same time I wanted openness, and the ability to just change it all like it were a stage.
So you can be like a god!
Yes, I’m a god in training! The space in the paintings started to change, get more animated and dense.
After the 2016 election I felt like I needed to clean house – there was so much noise and anxiety in the world and I didn’t want that happening in the paintings. I wanted the painted space to be more of a refuge, calmer, a little bit simpler.
I was also thinking about the politicized language around walls and borders. I’d been painting rooms, but I hadn’t really considered the walls. What happens when you’re in a room? There is empty space that eventually hits a wall and what is that wall? The idea of literally getting closer to the wall was a way for the space in the paintings to get more compressed – layer on layer. My process now is about layering, removing, adding, and what happens if all the action is happening within a compressed space. Collage has become a way to approach that. When you layer collages over time, previous processes come through, and different layers of information are revealed. I remember one of the first times I saw frescoes in person and noticing how much was missing, how the decayed parts have become just as important as the information that was still legible.
What’s missing becomes part of our contemporary understanding of beauty. The ruin of the past in Classical sculptures that have lost their limbs, the darkening of formerly opulently colored paintings – the dirt, accumulation and dismemberment became part of western ideas of beauty. In some cases artists are trying to consciously re-make that.Yeah. I’m sensitive to that. I don’t want my paintings to become ruin porn. But I love how when there is information missing that our eyes can put it back together.
Ruins both unmake and remake themselves like a painting. When you have these moments where you see the picture breaking down and the materiality of it asserts itself. The picture remakes itself into an image and then it disappears into the materiality.
I’d love to talk to you about color. Is color intuitive for you or do you have specific color worlds you are imagining before you start?
It is intuitive definitely. I’m interested in discordancy and setting up odd color relationships. The color can come from different worlds. One world could be a really rich color space like Monet’s last paintings and you can put that next to a color world like that of Ryder and it can all co-exist in one painting.
So you have all these micro relationship of color harmony moments in a larger composition. That’s a really exciting idea.
Let’s talk about “Alarm” [a large work, not exhibited, in the artist’s studio]. I love this painting. This crazy peach color you are using. In one area the peach is more opaque and in another it is painted more thinly over yellow, which comes through and creates an optical buzzy moment. They represent two temperatures. And then there’s this large, black, semi architectural, semi bodily construction that makes me think of something epic that an abstract expressionist would create. It feels monumental in that way and participates in a certain kind of art history. But then you’ve got these rays, dots and dashes that seem to come from a video game language or maybe a diagram. And at the edge it tapers out to gray. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on?
Color is about making a decision and not screwing with it. I’m not trying to tweak things. That’s something I used to do, because when you are recording information, you have to really pay attention to the color relationships of the objects and spaces you are painting from. When you’re not observing but you have a thought in mind, then you have to just put it down. The only thing that you’re observing is really the painting and the world within it. Then painting becomes more about what are you willing to believe in, what surprises you. You can change it because you want to (or not) but it’s because of what’s in the painting rather than what’s in the world.
So in this painting “Alarm,” I put a figure in it to make this really monumental body. This was the key painting that led to the work in the show at Steven Harvey. The figure comes from an Indian miniature painting that depicts Thataka, a princess turned into a demon attacking Rama and Lakshman from the story of Ramayana. While in the story Rama is obviously the good guy, it’s Thataka who has such commanding presence in the painting. She was so much more interesting, almost heroic even. She is holding her ground. She’s in profile with one hand raised and her feet are moving in the same direction, but she’s a schematic figure. She’s holding potential energy within her body.
Does the color of the figure in your painting relate to the color of the demon in the Indian miniature?
No. In this painting I decided to pare down the color world into primaries plus black and white. I wanted the figure to be a luminous blue but dark. In Hindu mythology Krishna is often blue but that is not necessarily why this figure is blue.
I’m curious about your relationship to modernism and how is that connected to these Indian miniatures. How do these interests play out and intersect?
I have a somewhat detached relationship to where I grew up. I was really young when I left Calcutta. At RISD and at Indiana University where I went for my MFA, European art history penetrated my brain and body. I didn’t really know anything about Indian art growing up. When I started looking at the miniatures they reminded me of early medieval Italian art like Frangelico and that use of schematic color. I’m more drawn to the geometry, the color, the space, the framing elements. In this painting we’ve been talking about “Alarm,” the framing elements are like a video game I used to play.
I always bristle a little bit when discussing my work in terms of modernism because while it’s obviously there, I’m more interested in finding parallel connections from other histories and sources. A figure might come from an Indian miniature, but the color might come from a video game just as easily.
That’s what I love about this painting – your brain is telling you it’s a shallow space, but those modulations in the black – the matte to shiny, cool to warm – hint at a deeper more mysterious space. And then all the diagonals move into this vortex and with the scale of it, you are pulled into something overwhelming.
I like this painting too. I’m trying to trust what I’m drawn to, whether it’s in art or other elements that have been part of my life.
More just your lived experience embedded in the paint?
Yeah, the aspects of any given painting may relate to my cultural heritage or it may change and have a totally different set of associations.
A few years I gave my students postcards of paintings and had them paint them really from far away really quickly. The idea was to get them to focus on color and composition as broadly as possible.. One day in the studio I decided to try it myself with some postcards of Indian miniatures. I’m painting this postcard of a miniature done with a fine brush very carefully by someone who’s spent their lives learning these specific skills that I don’t have. I don’t paint like that at all – I’m painting with a bristle brush from far away, trying to translate it in 20 minutes. Failure is built in but so is that dislocation I’m interested in. My version will never be that. But at the same time, this is the only way for me to really discover it.
I just want to get back to the mixed media pieces for a minute. When I look at those pieces, there’s a sculptural quality that comes through and then it makes me think of your dioramas. But it also makes me think of this pixelated language that you’ve found in the direct painting gesture. What was the evolution of this stuttered language, how does that relate to three-dimensional space?
I ended up doing things I never thought I would do. if somebody had told me a few years ago I was going to use tape to do something, I’d be like, really?
The tape on a very simple level is an extension of a mark. You tear it, you put it down, you’re holding it at both ends, the hand presses it down. Maybe you try to rip it straight, but it never really rips right. I’m not cutting it with a knife or anything. So on one level it’s the closest mark to a painted gesture. But built within it is a distortion. I make a mistake, let me put some more tape on. It literally covers and erases and creates ground for a new decision. I like having that at my disposal because I feel like if I can make an image work with that blunt instrument, it’ll work when I’m going to paint it. My natural inclination is to be really sensitive to color and mark. So it’s disrupting my own sensibility.
The tradition of perceptual painting that I come out of is about observing slowly and carefully. But I want the image to hit you quickly and then then break down slowly via the layers that have accumulated.
Am I playing for both teams? I’m playing for the team that’s about erasing history: down with the past, newness is best, let’s move on to the future and just tear it down like an old building. But I’m also on the other team, which is about retaining connection to the past. That tension is akin to the world and how we exist as human beings. I want my paintings to be like that. I want them to be like people.
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth Street, between Houston and Stanton streets, New York City, shfap.com