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BALTIMORE — Towards the end of my visit with Sangram Majumdar in his Baltimore studio, he looks at me and says, “Hey! Can I ask you a question?” He shows me what he is thinking of, compositionally, for a new painting. He asks me to weigh in on whether the space around the figure should be emptier or more full, and what I think of specific elements, like the figure’s shoes. “Do you think this will work?” he asks. We talk through the possibilities, and the next day he shares an image of the painting-in-progress. It occurs to me that Majumdar’s curiosity about what viewers will see, and how they will respond, is a crucial ingredient in the mix of his working process. His questions extend to what a painting is capable of expressing, how it can be done, and if it registers in our world.
Majumdar’s painting consistently challenges our expectations. Visual disorientation is part of the driving aesthetic of his work. Rendering may be easy, and color may be intuitive, but everything else is subject to open-ended, non-conclusive investigation. In earlier paintings, he showed interiors that veered back and forth between nameable, quotidian objects and unnameable “abstract” interruptions formed by his source images. Later, he began painting from set-ups assembled from photographic, art historical, or digital sources, on top of which he collaged cut paper or drew with strips of tape. His recent work turns to the walking figure as a recurring motif, still utilizing multiple elements to piece together — and intervene in — the formation of a clear narrative or definitive objecthood.
I’ve known Majumdar since about 2009, and in that time, I have been thrilled and inspired by the many visits I made to his studio (formerly in Industry City, Brooklyn), which revealed intense, rich color-worlds of paint and paper, and the most surprising set-ups: rearranged dollhouse furniture; cut paper and images laid out on tables like pieces of a mystery puzzle; image projections into corners of his space — and, sometimes, a mundane but beautiful segment of the outside world he points out from his window.
Born in Calcutta, India, in 1976, Majumdar has an MFA from Indiana University and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Recent solo exhibitions were held at Geary Contemporary and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, both in New York. He was also the subject of an exhibition at the Asia Society Texas Center, Texas, and of a traveling exhibition at Drew University, New Jersey, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the University of Vermont. His work was included in recent group exhibitions at Shoshana Wayne Gallery and The Landing Gallery, both in Los Angeles, as well as Freight & Volume, James Cohan Gallery, and Gallery Zürcher, all in New York. Majumdar now lives and works in Baltimore, where he is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Jennifer Samet: Can you tell me about early childhood visual experiences, growing up in Calcutta, that may have informed you and your work? Were there particular experiences with other art that resonated with you? How about when you came to the United States when you were 13?
Sangram Majumdar: I don’t remember going to art museums, but there was something about the walls, the streets, the smell, and the sounds in Calcutta that I think about a lot. Specifically, I remember going to Durga Pujas with my dad or uncles almost every year. I would bring art materials with me, and in the madness of overcrowded visitors and worshippers, I would find a little space on the ground in front of the deities and start drawing or painting. I loved the visual possibility of the gathering of gods, demons, animals – all within decorative structures. It’s something I drew over and over again.
I used to save Sunday newspapers with color images. I cut out photographs of soccer and cricket players, scenes where players were tackling each other in the field, or a bowler or batsman in action. I would create compositions by pulling characters from them.
Coming to the US definitely affected my visual sensibility. I can recall specific memories, many of which center around smells. I remember getting off the plane in Phoenix and sensing the air was drier. It felt extremely bright. One evening I remember going to a Fry’s grocery store for the first time and noticing the ceiling track lighting. There were no shadows anywhere. Light flooded the aisles. Some days after school my mom would ask me to go and get some curly fries from the Jack in the Box behind the apartment complex where we lived. That was my first experience with fast food.
I only have vague memories of the artwork I made in high school. But I do remember one student in art class who constantly made really accurate colored pencil drawings of Michael Jordan. We got paired to do a wall painting for the drama room that depicted characters from various Shakespeare plays. It wasn’t until I went to Rhode Island School of Design that I had total immersion in visual art and painting.
JS: You studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and got your MFA from Indiana University. How has your work evolved from what you were doing after graduate school?
SM: One of the last paintings I made in graduate school was a 12-foot-long painting of people in an airplane seen in profile from the outside. This led to a body of work where I was beginning to explore ideas of transition, by situating figures in airplanes, subways, and escalators. I was also exploring anonymity by working with crowds or masses of bodies. There was a thread in those paintings that has continued. It has to do with exploring the sense of in-betweenness that is culturally familiar for most immigrants, especially those who come from different language and cultural traditions.
The type of painting tradition that I come out of is about finding the image and the space through the process of painting. A lot of the changes would happen in the painting. Now, drawing has become a way to work through ideas. I start painting at a point where I feel like the image is set.
In earlier work, there would be ten paintings under the final painting. Now I feel that doesn’t need to happen. I want the actual work to happen somewhere else, other than the painting itself. I want to displace the process of thinking through, and changing my mind.
Instead of beginning with the mindset, “I’m just going to get going, and I know it will change,” I want to go into it thinking, “This could be it. Start now.” It puts more pressure on the decisions. You can’t be half-conscious. I think about the level of reserve that makes Alex Katz’s paintings work. There’s a showmanship that is striking when you realize how little is there. Every move counts. It is not a cacophony of decisions.
JS: Over the years, you developed ways of working from observation that weren’t always just working from a model or set-up. For instance, you would create elaborate collages of cut-up images on top of photographs, and work from that, or project an image behind an interior set-up. What motivated you to create these kinds of set-ups?
SM: In the painting “reconstructed photograph” (2011), the space is both a still life — strips of paper and photo fragments on a table — and an interior that forms as the image parts lock together, like puzzle pieces. I made two paintings that depict rooms in my grandfather’s house in Calcutta, which no longer exists. The source of “self-portrait in interior” (2011) is my silhouette on the glass of a framed photo. For “interior” (2012), I projected an image of the space in my empty studio. Both paintings are about trying to present a space where I fit or perhaps feel most at home. These were probably the last paintings where there were clear, recognizable markers.
Between 2013 and 2017, I shifted further into a fictional space, making paintings that began to appear abstract while still being rooted in observation. I began working from dioramas that used reconstructed background elements from Indian miniature paintings, and dollhouse furniture. The domestic, the mundane, the theatrical, and the mythological were finally together.
It is a way to create a three-dimensional experience out of an idea. It gave me more information, from which I could start editing. I have never been interested in representing an existing reality. My interest in representational painting comes out of the fact that every time I look, it feels different. There is something that happens when there is an accretion of sight; something alien about it. It is challenging, and it doesn’t make sense. That’s why I’m interested in artists that push working from perception to strange territories, like Leon Kossoff or Ellen Altfest or Lois Dodd.
It is also why I love medieval art, and art that isn’t completely naturalistic. You are aware that it refers to the world, but that you are also entering another universe, a built-in contradiction.
JS: I also think about how your work involves erasure, in the sense of taking away pieces of information that might otherwise easily locate the paintings in terms of recognizable images. Why are you interested in doing that?
SM: There are two main threads to this for me. In terms of perception, or looking, I am often thinking about how much I actually need in an image. What is it that is actually necessary? How precise does it need to be?
Alongside this, I am trying to articulate the sense of how it feels to be a body in the world, what it feels like to be present or not – to feel visible or feel invisible. These issues have particularly come into the work because of the Trump administration policies on immigration. For people who are at risk of being deported, it might be better for them to remain somewhat invisible. I’ve been thinking about how it would have felt if that had happened when we immigrated. It hits home, and I’ve never before really thought about politics so directly with my work.
Not everyone wants a platform to be visible. Some people want to just live their lives. The highest level of privilege is when you can just go out and live your life and not have to worry about it. You can just live a sustainable, middle class life. That is really hard for some people, for multiple reasons. So, in terms of painting, how do you give a body agency so that it can choose to be a presence, or not? Most people who are marginalized don’t have that choice.
People might look at the work and feel like I’m not being clear. But the idea of being clear, as it aligns with a mode of painting, doesn’t belong to me. That is not my reality.
However, I have also been thinking about how you can give a viewer something to grab onto, when you’re making paintings that feel deconstructed, that don’t locate either representationally or abstractly, or that give you bits and pieces. What do you give them so they don’t feel disoriented? That is where the idea of working with the figure more as a symbol has come in.
JS: Yes, can you tell me more about the walking figure, which was a central element in your recent work?
SM: The symbol of the walking figure has become the anchor, recurring across several paintings. A connecting thread in my work is trying to make paintings that have feet in two worlds. The walking figure pose is an embodiment of a psychological space – this liminal condition. I think about the different ways you can be in-between, whether it’s a head-space, or the time between graduating from high school and going to college. It is that indefinable, null space.
How do you make paintings about that? It is still just as real as anything else. The gesture of taking a step might take less than one second. How do you stretch out that microsecond? Painting does that. There is no time in painting. A microsecond can last forever.
I’m thinking about the function of repetition, and how each painting of the same motif can differ. There can be a carry-over from painting to painting. You loosely know the structure, but not exactly what the pattern is going to be. It’s like anything you do ritually, like going to the gym. You have a plan of what you’re going to do. Some days you feel stronger; other days you don’t. You adjust.
In the past, when I painted the figure, I thought about who I was going to paint, and what pose the person would take. Now, the “who” has been replaced with the symbol. But I still don’t know what the painting is going to look like, what kind of tempo it’s going to have. Which way is it going to tilt, both structurally but also psychologically? If you move a foot a little too far, there is almost a threshold point, past which the body is no longer going to function, or be able to support itself.
When you align a figure in a painting with the structure of a painting, it is the visual equivalent of the cross brace. It is the thing that holds the painting up in the back, and it is repeated imagistically in the front. If a person is standing, looking at a painting of a figure standing, there’s a mirroring effect.
I like the idea of taking the most average thought, or average body, or average gesture, and turning it into an icon. A walking figure doesn’t have to claim a particular cultural space. It lives across time and cultures, and modes of high and low. And, it is a pose that allows me to access different emotional and psychological states, from positive to anxiety-filled.
JS: I know in the past you’ve spoken about art world pressure to make paintings that are more overtly statements of your identity. And, often, artists are expected to bring visibility to a political issue, so it’s interesting to be dealing with invisibility. However, I do know that in recent work you were using Indian poetry and miniature painting as a source. Can you tell me about this work?
SM: For the work in my most recent exhibition, I was referencing a section of the Ramayana, which is an Indian epic poem. There is a section where the two main characters, Rama and Lakshmana, encounter a demon, Tataka, who used to be a princess. They kill her, and in some versions of the story, they dismember her.
What was striking to me — I was looking at an illustration in the collection of the Walters Museum — is that her figure is the more visually powerful image. The demon is three times taller than the heroes. So I had the idea to turn her into the primary character, to make her the icon, and give agency back to this character.
JS: I’m thinking about your painting, “a loud sun blinds” (2019) in terms of some of the ideas you have mentioned. Was that painting about considering this “threshold” point, in terms of what is enough to comprise a painting or an image?
SM: I wanted to make a painting where things were really pared down. That white and pale yellow of the painting hits you, and there’s a blinding starkness to it. When you go outside and it is really sunny and you’ve been inside all day, the light can be blinding. There is an interesting dichotomy in how light, which theoretically gives you information, can actually remove information and disorient you.
It wasn’t a planned painting. I just kept the door open, considering if I could make it work in context with the other paintings. That became the goal. It was like bringing someone who was very different into a situation or a family. Instead of trying to change the person, you could try to change the situation around the person. It requires empathy and willingness to be more open.
I suppose part of this also has to do with how to activate ideas around the periphery, either through subject matter or process. Often, the things that are in the periphery of my paintings have become over time the major thought. For example, for a period when I was working around the motif of the still life, I made several paintings about detritus, which used to just be an element of the work. When I am looking at artwork in museums or galleries, I look a lot at the corners, the tops, the bottoms of paintings. I am interested in how a thought comes to an end as it reaches the physical boundaries of a form.
For a long time, my paintings were about me looking at the world. And, in part, looking at the world was a way to escape and not deal with who I was. I am trying to be honest and vulnerable in my studio, considering who I am, and how the paintings I make have a certain worldview that might be a little different — or not. How do I live in the world; what are my anxieties and fears and frustrations?
Over the past few years my life has gone through a big change. Annelies and I have a four-year old daughter and we spend a lot of time with her. I paint significantly less, but I feel the paintings are stronger, clearer, and hopefully better. I am thinking a lot about what is important to me, what I can’t live without, what I miss, and what matters.
Sometimes I think that my paintings are all self-portraits of someone who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed or tokenized. It also has been a way to push against a tradition of painting that I have absorbed from my training, but which I am not fully at home with. I keep making paintings that reflect the fact that nothing is ever one thing. Life is complicated, and I want my paintings to reflect this condition, while also being generous, inviting, and beautiful.