Conversation with Sangram Majumdar

By Katherine Harvath

Discursion 1 and 2
Sangram Majumdar makes colorful, complex, and cerebral oil paintings. Always considering the layers of meaning attached to the signs and observations he’s folding into his work, recent paintings are built around glimpses of figures and hands. Informed by his experience growing up in India and immigrating to the U.S., Majumdar captures an in-betweenness in his nuanced paintings.
You’ve said your “studio practice is rooted in chance, intuition, and repetition,” How do these methods appear in your process?

The chance part comes in when I’m drawing from my paintings while they’re in progress or working out ideas for new paintings. An image will come alive because of a certain combination of imagery and process, and I’ll think, “oh maybe that’s a way to start.”I think I've always been intuitive with color, but more and more what happens is that I’ll pull in specific sensations that are driving the image, whether it’s based on memory, a certain color combination, or a specific climate I am trying to build the painting around. I am using the figure in specific gestures as an anchor and an armature in my recent paintings. This in turn opens up room for all sorts of things to happen.
What’s appealing or productive for you about making a painting indirectly?

I guess the notion of indirect to me is like hitting a pause button in my thinking. Often at the end of a studio session, I don't finish what I started. I realized over time that what appears as incomplete to me initially based on my original goal in some ways has nothing to do with how the decisions are functioning in the actual painting. Sometimes time will pass, and I'll come backand realize that what I thought was incomplete was actually working.It’s a bit like if I use the word “walk” - a word that can be a noun or a verb. And I could say “Walk this way,” or I could also say “I'm going for a walk.” I can come to a different resolution of a thought if I see it from a different angle. For me working indirectly allows me to see my workfrom this slightly different perspective. It's a way to do something that I wasn’t planning ondoing, something that I didn’t think I wanted.
What role does observational painting play in your work? Does all of your work stemfrom observation?

I'm always looking at something. Often, I am holding a sketch or a collage in my hand when I'm making a mark on the painting. There's always a surrogate, an other, that I'm in conversation with. Sometimes I look at something made digitally or as a collage and ask myself “how do I translate that into paint?” So, I'm always thinking about translation. To me, that's a big part of observation.

Recently I have been working on weather related paintings. I went outside and gathered a bunch of leaves and brought them into my studio and started drawing from them. I started noticing them more whether I am on a run or looking at them out of my living room window. Eventually, in the painting, I'm not really painting any of the leaves, but at some point, having the leaves around my studio helped me. What I'm interested in is that when I observe I find that I can access more specific or nuanced information.
Is there significance in the hands and figures visible in the recent work?

So, there's always been this sense of the liminal that has been a big part of my thinking and my work. Being a person of color and an immigrant, I feel a sense of ambivalence about where I belong in a country that to me feels racially very polarized along black and white lines. Maybe that’s why I find more meaning and a sense of place when my paintings live in the space between names – whether that’s the binaries of representation/abstraction or figure/ground or figure/landscape.

I think it was around 2016 when I went back to working with the figure. The walking figure became a representation for liminality itself, the idea that a body is present, and one foot is in the past one foot is in the future. To me what was really exciting was that here's a form that actually personifies a condition. And so that's where that starts.

I think working with this imagery has been a way for me to explore the potentialities of this sign. The 2016 election clearly proved that if you repeat “the sky's falling” enough times, somebody's going to believe you. So, I’m interested   
in how repetition generates an alternate truth. I am thinking about what would happen if I repeat this form? And that becomes an anchor point and opens up a range of creative possibilities. From painting to painting something totally different can happen as long as the anchor is the same to some degree. It is both a formal and a conceptual premise. At one point, I was working on a painting that was inspired by a character from a Rajasthani miniature painting. She had both her hands up, almost defiant. I found myself thinking about the string of shootings of Black males that seem to be never-ending. I was thinking about how this gesture can signal a welcome, a warning, or a self-proclamation. It can be positive or negative, aggressive, or passive. So, I started making drawings of hands, mine, my friends, for artworks, from stand-up specials. Comedians seem to use their hands a lot it seems! So, I was thinking about a hand as a stand-in for the body, and how everyone's fingerprints are a kind of synecdoche, the hand standing in for the body. And of course, the lineage of the oldest cave paintings is there as well.

I'm interested in how to paint a hand so that it sounds like a scream, or a whisper, or signal “STOP!” So those were the surrounding thoughts and phrases that were animating the decisions.
Cassandra’s siren
I appreciated Barry Schwabsky’s description, “The bodies seem shadowy orprovisional—not intangible but apparently becoming so.” Are the figures in motion ortransitional states?
I think intangible is a nice word because it gets to my ambivalence around being present in the world. What I mean by that is that sometimes I want to be seen and sometimes I don't.

I don't want to perform, whether it's brownness or being Indian or whatever, through a kind of illustrative means. Something triggered when the stuff that was going on around immigration during Trump, when legal immigrants weren't being allowed back into the country. We didn't have those issues when we moved to the US back in the early nineties, but also at the sametime, that could easily have been us.

The figures in my paintings arrive fully but also obliquely, whether as a silhouette or a composite of many. Sometimes they appear misaligned, off kilter, or composed of both personal and cultural fragments. In hindsight, the paintings that directly preceded these were all about creating a place where a body could come in. Playing with ideas of a staged interior or anthropomorphized plant forms was a way to hint at bodies without painting figures. But I realized I wanted more, and I am exploring ways to re-present the body through a more personal and symbolic perspective.

I’m interested in how repetition generates an alternate truth.
How does light operate in your work? 

Light is something I think about all the time, even when I don't think about it, I think it's something that is part of the DNA of my paintings. But one way I've been thinking about light lately is the kind of light a painting generates because of the colors that are at play. It might be triggered by something symbolic, or it might be purely optical and phenomenological, or it could be both. And that's the big shift in terms of how I thought about light in the past. When I was working from direct observation, I was depicting light with color, light that I was looking at. But now I might be thinking of a certain climate. For example, there are three paintings I did last year, all called Becoming 1, 2, and 3. The first one is kind of a white painting with a geometric lattice where color has a more symbolic function. There isn't really any observational light in there, but the painting generates a blinding light that is sharp and aggressive. In contrast, Becoming 3, I was thinking more spatially and phenomenologically. I wanted to do a painting that felt dark and bright and immeasurable all at the same time.
You seem to build a compact, layered space, sometimes with lattices or patterns laid over deeper pictorial space. Can you talk about how you build this space, how you use it in the paintings?

Well, I go back to this notion of what was and what is to come, this kind of in-between place and how that sense of in-betweenness can make itself present visually. I am interested in the figure existing within, in front, and behind the picture plane, which itself shifts from a wall to a void from painting to painting.

On one level, this in-between and compacted space is a result of how I paint. I put things in and take things away all the time. I'm interested in how the last mark in a painting can sit next to one from weeks ago. I am not sure how else to say it but that it’s a type of place that I trust, a place made visible through time. I grew up in India before I moved to the U.S., and I remember streets named after British generals next to streets named after Indian freedom fighters. I remember feeling a sense of familiarity when I first went to Rome and stepping into the Forum, realizing that walking through it was literally walking through time.

So when I paint, I am always thinking about moving through time and space. When I stand in front of a painting in progress, it feels disorienting. The lattices or patterns provide a spatial continuity that I can then push against. I find myself looking for markers, carving out pathways, traveling within. I can tell the painting is close to completion when I feel like I can trust the space in front of me, not because I can name it, but because I can almost smell it.

Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar has an MFA from Indiana University and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Recent solo exhibition venues include Geary Contemporary, NY; Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, NY and Asia Society Texas Center. Selected group exhibition venues include Mamoth, London; Shoshana Wayne Gallery, LA; The Landing Gallery, LA and James Cohan Gallery, NY. Selected awards include a Mellon Faculty Fellowship in Arts, NYFA Grant in Painting, Purchase Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, NY, a MacDowell Fellowship, a residency at Yaddo, the 2009-10 Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Space Program Grant, and a MICA Trustees Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2019 he was inducted into the National Academy of Design. His work has been reviewed in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, among others. He has also lectured on his work at numerous institutions including Columbia University, RISD, CCA, Cranbrook School of Art, Pratt,PAFA, SUNY-Purchase, Princeton University, and the New York Studio School. Majumdar lives and works in Seattle, Washington and is an Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at theUniversity of Washington.
Katherine Harvath is an artist, curator, and art worker based in Chicago. She is interested in finding meaning in material and form. Quick gestures, familiar objects, the history of painting, and the semiotics of color all play a role in her painting and sculpture. Harvath received her MFA from the University of Chicago in 2013 and BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. She has been included in exhibitions at SPRING/BREAK, Los Angeles, 2019; Outback Arthouse, Los Angeles, 2018; Produce Model, Chicago, 2016; and Spears, Chicago, 2016. More about her at