Sangram Majumdar

Rooted in perception and working from things I find or make, my work explores how sense is derived from the visible world. I am drawn to experiences that resist direct interpretation. I find inspiration in aesthetic parallels in disparate painting traditions, the symbiotic relationship between light and color, and the haptic nature of making something with the body in mind. My work proposes a participatory connection between the viewer and the subject, opening the door for narrative, memories and direct sensory encounters.

A shot of Sangram's studio.

A shot of Sangram's studio.

Hi Sangram, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist? How has your work evolved over time up to this moment?
I was born in Calcutta (Kolkata) and we moved to Arizona when I was about 12. I can’t really say that I ever made a conscious decision to become an artist. Rather, I seem to have always been at it since I was a kid. My dad was my first art teacher, and my grandfather always encouraged me to follow my passion. In terms of evolution I would like to think that the work that I am making now is more representative of my interests than ever before. I spent a large part of my education making work that displayed a certain set of skills and ways of making along a particular painting tradition. I am still interested in some of those ideas, namely beauty, ideas of space, and the haptic nature of painting. But the ‘what’ of painting has changed considerably. I also want my paintings to operate as questions rather than being purely descriptive or didactic. One thing that is for certain, it takes me much longer to finish a painting now than ever before. Go figure.

Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the paintings? Do you plan the compositions beforehand?
My creative process is circular and associative. I work along multiple strands at any given time. One painting gives birth to another, but sometimes with a few months in between. I also can’t seem to make the same painting twice. It seems I always need to break the mold and start again.

There are multiple layers of decision making and planning that goes into my paintings. I draw constantly, make digital collages, and also create small working maquettes. Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), none of these singular moves or decisions lead to a painting. Rather, I seem to find something in each of these steps, a color relationship in one or the mood in another. I have come to realize that much of this is a way for me to become familiar with my motif. It helps me see the same experience from different angles, as if I was filming a scene from different angles or moving around a figure while sculpting a body. 

At first glance, the paintings seem to be abstract, but upon closer inspection there are hints at realism as figures and objects emerge. Do you use references, whether real or photographic in your work? Is the still life a source of visual information?
Yes and yes. I reference images, objects, spaces when I am painting. They function as a point of departure, a tether, and sometimes just something to bounce of visual ideas. The thing I like about the physical world is that it is constantly changing with the passing of time. Each time I come upon a familiar motif I find that my mindset affects greatly how I approach the space. I want my paintings to have a connection to how we make sense of the world. That means gravity, light, air, all these conditions we take for granted, matter. And especially since the paintings initially appear abstract it is important that they are recognizable on a haptic level.

There is a strong sense of ambiguity and mysteriousness in the compositions—visual cues that fight to remain unrecognizable. Is this feeling what you have referred to as a “visual echo” and how do you hope the viewer will engage with the information presented on the surface?
That’s a tough question to answer. I am mainly trying to create a sense of place that is simultaneously inviting but also resists nameability. I want the work to generate questions about what they are looking at in relationship to how it makes them feel. 

In an interview with the Huffington Post you wrote, "I am aware that artists/paintings that seem awkward or problematic to me initially are the ones that eventually win me over.” Can you describe this relationship to a painting as it might occur when confronted with a work you haven't seen before? Do you hope to achieve this effect in your own work?
It’s happened to me twice with two artists who I feel are cornerstones in many ways in how I understand painting and it’s relation to the world. The first is Giorgio Morandi. When I first saw his work in a book as an undergrad, I just didn’t get it. I remember thinking, “Why are the forms so wobbly?” A year later when I was in Italy as part of RISD’s EHP program, we went to Bologna, and of course to the Morandi museum. That was a revelation.  The other experience was quiet recently, and I wouldn’t say it has to do with an artist being awkward or problematic. I was at Dia Beacon a couple summers ago, and walked into the room with Agnes Martin paintings. As I walked in I felt my heart rate drop. The fact that a group of paintings can do that is incredible. I have been thinking about ever since.

In the same interview, you said, "But apart from being anachronistic or foolhardy, I am curious as to how our understanding of our own immediate lives, when slowed to the measure of a heartbeat, compares to our daily intake of virtual experiences. What is real?” Can you elaborate on this sentiment? Has this changed significantly in the last few years as the virtual experiences further encroach on the lived moments of our daily lives?
Well, a really great example is my two year old daughter watching a video of herself, talking back to her recorded voice, all the while as I am watching her reactions. 

Are there are any recurring themes or specific references that you keep coming back to in your work? What is at the forefront of your mind at the moment?
I have always been drawn to liminal experiences and this plays out in multiple ways in my life. Each time I talk to my dad I switch back and forth between Bengali and English. I drive back and forth on the New Jersey Turnpike between my home in Brooklyn and my job in Baltimore. And in the studio, I move back and forth between clearly recognizable and suggestive imagery. As an immigrant, this in-between space feels like home.  

The image of a room is a rich subject for me. As an only child I spent a considerable amount of time in my room drawing or playing games. It represented a place of solace, escape and imagination. This sense has stayed with me, augmented by my interest in dislocation, contradiction, and doubt. Recently I have been exploring the place between the dimensions of a wall and a room. This is linked to a few questions that have been circling in my head. How do I make a painting that is both empty and full? How do I create a sense of openness while accepting that labor is integral to how I paint? And how does beauty and the haptic experience that is part of my making process relate to the viewer?

What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
Too many probably, like most artists. But some of the constants are Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Fairfield Porter, Roman and Florentine frescoes and Rajasthani miniatures. Right now I am actually not looking at any artists in particular. Instead I am looking at images of figures moving through space, pulling from signage, videos of my daughter as she learns to walk, run and hopefully soon jump, and  Eadweard Muybridge’s studies in motion to name a few.

What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
Some of the earliest influences in my life have been family members and teachers. I also feel incredibly fortunate to have a small group of friends who are also amazing artists. I am always learning from them.

What is a typical day like for you?
A typical studio day for me starts with me trying to get to the studio by 7:30am. If I get there after that, finding parking is a nightmare. Since the birth of our daughter, my schedule has shifted primarily to a morning schedule, and nowadays I try to get just one thing done in the studio. If that doesn’t work, I switch to drawing, working on collages or smaller works to problem solve the painting. And if that doesn’t work, I go get another coffee.

What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio? 
My studio is in an industrial part of Brooklyn in Sunset Park in an area called Industry City. When I moved here about 8 years ago, there was nothing here. Now there’s a fancy charcuterie and a food court in my building, and you can get a $14 macha shake if you want as well. This is not a good thing in my opinion, at least for my studio rent. My workspace is fairly simple, but it gets cluttered fast. I work on about ten things or more at a time, so sometimes I just have to turn everything around to focus on a couple. Necessities in the studio? That would have to be podcasts as well as music. There was a time when I used to listen to NPR. But that was before Jan 20, 2017.

Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your mood or energy in the studio?
Robo-phone calls, work emails, and realizing that I forgot my coffee thermos at home. 

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Sure! When I first read Calvino’s Essays for a New Millennium in grad school, I didn’t really get it. Now I read it and think about it often. 

What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I listen to podcasts, and am always looking for new ones. It is important, at least to get the day going. Sometimes I also listen to one album on repeat for a few hours.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Here are some:
From a teacher/mentor : Try things. If it doesn’t connect, you won’t keep doing it.
From a painter : The only chance one has to really ‘make it’ is to be themselves.
From a painter and a really close friend : Stop worrying and just paint!
From my partner and wife : You are not the center of everyone’s universe so stop worrying about what other people think.

You have been a Professor of Art at MICA since 2003. How has your time as a professor impacted you, your work, and your practice as an artist?
The undergraduate students at MICA are amazing and I love working with them. I would say overall I have learned a ton about myself and my work through the act of teaching. Also, each semester I learn about new artists from my students, and especially in upper level courses, the collaborative nature of learning really goes into full effect. While I try to keep other voices out of my studio, sometimes I give myself the same guidelines that I give in my classes. 

You live in Brooklyn, but teach in Baltimore. How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? How does the constant movement and commute impact your life and work?
When I moved to Brooklyn in 2009 it was a necessary change. My relationship to Baltimore, and to my own work had plateaued and I knew I needed to rethink where the work was going. Since then I have met some amazing artists and people. Seeing their work, and also having access to more exhibitions than one can ever see is energizing but also overwhelming. However since becoming a parent the time lost during commuting has become an issue. Also, the rent in Brooklyn isn’t getting any cheaper. More and more of my friends have or are planning to leave the city, and it’s something we are considering as well.

How do you view technology and social media and has any particular platform or tool impacted you as an artist?
 I use it in moderation. I find that it’s a great platform for some artists, but for me social media makes me way to anxious, so I am trying to get away from it as much as possible.

What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Too many to think of, but in no particular order : David Humphrey’s new work at St. Charles, a great gallery in Baltimore run by my friend and also great artist Dominic Terlizzi. Also, a recently closed show of paintings by Jennifer Coates at Freight and Volume. More recently, as in last week, I saw two beautiful shows by Jennifer Paige Cohen at Nicelle Beauchenne and Helen O’Leary at Lesley Heller. There are still shows I am dying to see, namely Angelina Gualdoni at Asya Geisberg, and David Hockney at Pace. Oh, and before I forget, Leon Golub at the MET!

Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Ooh, let’s see. I love watching cooking shows, and cooking, especially food that takes an entire day to make. Besides that I enjoy watching brainless movies, the comic book movie variety. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, and after watching one I invariably regret it and think I should have instead watched something less meaningless. In a past life I used to play tennis quite regularly. I never really got into board games, but when I do play them I can get unusually competitive, as if it’s the most important thing in the world.

Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I am really excited to have a few works in a group show at The Landing in LA that opens in July. I also have two solo exhibitions coming up in NYC, one in the fall at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects and one next spring at Geary Contemporary.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Sangram and his work, check out his website.