Neoteric Art: What made you decide to be a painter?
Sangram Majumdar: It’s quite a few things really. When I was a kid growing up in India, I remember a painting that used to hang in our living room that my dad had painted. It was a mountain peak covered with snow. I remember being mesmerized by the white impasto against the rich blue terrains, and the smell of the paint. Like many kids I was drawn to art as a recreation, but I think when I chose to attend RISD, I made a semi-conscious decision to pursue this world of making images a bit more seriously. Similarly, choosing to go to Indiana University for painting was another clarification of my purpose. But all in all, I suppose what has always drawn me to painting are two key factors: one has to do with how a painting is timeless. It sits outside time, to be engaged with in the manner of one’s choosing, and like a mirror, it only responds in relation to our questions. The other has to do the business of the “thing” itself – from the alchemy, to the nature of what it can become, something ancient but modern at the same time. It has strange and wonderful evocative qualities, be it representational or abstract; qualities that once embraced open us to a language that is as palpable, real and mutable as anything in music or literature. What keeps me returning to the studio is this continuing three-way conversation between me and the work, and the evolving nature of what is painting.
NA: Your paintings deal with the human form. Why is this important to you?
SM: This is partly true. What’s truer maybe is that the figure is primarily a foil for my painting interests, which are keyed off of the process of perception. As a painter, my concerns really revolve around form, space and the specificity of the experience. The painter Charles Hawthorne used to tell his students to go out and use paint like a “savage.” Like it’s something new, inexplicable, devoid of a built language yet powerful in its very nature. This is the very thing I find amazing in artists such as Auerbach, De Kooning, Giacometti, or Guston, where what they are able to show us isn’t something we didn’t know existed before, but more And it is the figure that becomes a sort of locus for this continued exploration.
Apart from this, the figure for me has been pertinent as a subject since my earliest memories. When I was a child, I used to draw Hindu deities, and was also more drawn to the characters in certain stories than the plot or the locale. For the last year or so, I took a break from the figure because it wasn’t helping move forward – like anything, something that seems natural or a strength, can sometimes be an obstacle or a hindrance in one’s development. It seemed to me the figure was beginning to become that. I felt I was often saying the same things with it. Or more importantly, what I wanted to deal with was better dealt with if the figure was physically absent. So, anyway, it’s a continuous balancing act – a lot of questioning…
NA: Do you struggle with the human form still being relevant in painting today?
SM: No, never really. I think subject matter is has to be personal first. And if an artist relates to the work, the work will relate to others. Furthermore, the conversation I am most interested in, is the rich and varied history of works created by man that goes deep into the past, from the works in caves in Lascaux, or Altamira or Ajanta. For me that link is more crucial than the link to the newest fad or trends.
NA: Share your process.
SM: My process is completely intuitive and relies primarily on direct observation. This however doesn’t mean I work always from life; it’s actually more like half and half. The sessions in between working directly from the motif are as crucial, because that’s where really a completely different type of editing happens than when working from life. I am drawing constantly, and the sketchbooks are invaluable for my paintings. At any given time, I have 3 to 4 sketchbooks going. That’s where the ideas percolate. The paintings are taking longer and longer, primarily because I am more and more convinced that a work of art is as tied to the image, as the physical object. This often means that certain paintings have multiple false, but necessary starts. The scale changes, panels are added or removed, or the composition is fully reworked. What I seek in the work is a sense of time and the range of human awareness and interest, from the sustained to the superficial. We never care or see something twice the same way. So, each time I look at my surface I try to take into account these tendencies. I don’t do studies anymore, partly because I don’t want to split up the “thinking” and the “making.”
NA: Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
SM: Well, since grad school, my work has been somewhat “split” between these figure groupings and the interiors, often with single figures. Mentally, I saw them as an outside/inside relationship. Also, they were more “images” in one sense. But my head is somewhere else now. I think every few years we take stock of what we know and have done. And I feel I am in an area where new thoughts have entered in to the mix, thoughts about surface, time, scale, physicality, and simply a more complex and layered idea of what a painting is and can be. I would like to find a fluid link between these two visible groups of paintings, and at some point I was trying to devise a “narrative” or “image” based link between them. But recently, the paintings of the shallow spaces, like “Threshold” or “Built to Spill” or “Home” have clarified the link in a more natural manner. I recently am reworking a couple old figure groupings, and we’ll see what happens. Recently, I was fortunate to hear a conversation between the Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia in conjunction to a major exhibition of his work at the Boston MFA. In the exhibition catalogue he mentions how we can learn about painting all we want, but at the end we have to build it ourselves. And in that we are in the same boat, part of a continuous and timeless conversation, in the making of art objects.