Contributed by Jeff Bergman / I find myself absorbed in detail and affected by the stories that unfold in Sahana Ramakrishnan‘s exotic imagery. Ramakrishnan’s work, on view at Field Projects through October 28, embraces sculpture, painting, and print, all with exuberant color and crowded images bursting with elusive tales that lead viewers down a path – maybe a forest wood, dark and deep, or, just as likely, a stage set where we see the casters and pulleys. The paintings are sculptures, the sculptures are stage props. As viewers enter the artist’s world of religious myth and personal epic, the point isn’t the destination but the journey. The pieces feel talismanic, charged with the aura of a powerful and omniscient narrator. During visits to her studio and Field Projects, Ramakrishnan and I discussed mythmaking, Muay Thai boxing, and her interest in taking up challenges in the studio.
Jeff Bergman: Where does “A Night in The Woods” begin? Where is our entry point for the artist’s first step from blank white corridor to the diversity of form inside Field Projects?
Sahana Ramakrishnan: The exhibition grew around a character I have been ruminating on for a while. Just as you enter, to the right above the exhibition statement, there is a framed lithograph of a centaur with two sets of genitals who meekly wields a sword and shield. This character is the symbol through which I let ideas of masculinity, patriarchy, and idolatry come into the world currently installed at Field Projects. He stands in a field of trees mounted on trolleys, so they can be moved to confuse us in the space and make us lost in the woods. The idea is that this environment we have entered is his own domain; that he is both our guide and our greatest peril. I’m telling you this as the back story. As a whole, I was thinking of the context of the woods as one in which, in folk tales, a young woman has to travel through, accomplishing arduous tasks in order to achieve some sort of a transformation within herself or those she loves. This all said, each piece is different, and the work is about the expression of male and female bodies; of the materials used and the myriad of different cultural influences that have come together in the images.
JB: Are you always a storyteller in your art? Is there a story that will always inform images you make?
SR: More than anything, I think I regurgitate stories. I read a lot of myths from various different cultures and as I go through the world I’m sensitive to how mythological imagery manifests itself in daily life. What comes out of my head and hands is often a version or conglomeration of myths evolved by my own experiences.
What I aim to be is a storyteller that embraces the complexity of multiple perspectives coming together, existing in (dis)harmony at a single point in time. Painting is a space where I don’t need to identify with only one idea or one opinion. On that expanding skin of paper I can acknowledge both the effort and the futility of my ideals, particularly when it comes to my sexuality and spirituality. Contradictions are what keep the images alive and fighting. I want the paintings to reflect this detachment, despite there being such an active, almost aggressive investment in their physicality.
JB: One ongoing print project which is represented here by (5?) etchings in various presentations (collaged into larger works, with antique fishing flys attached, hand coloured) but I am wondering if you can give us a sense of its scope and trajectory?
SR: This project is the first marathon project I’ve undertaken (in summer 2016) and I can see myself stretching it out over two or three more years. I was initially inspired by Picasso’s Vollard Suite. It’s so beautiful and expansive and full of grit, I wanted to make my own suite of etchings for this time period and from my voice. I’m interested in this archetypal dynamic of the man-beast in relation to the woman or the little girl. This series takes a look at the different ways that archetype can be manifested, broken down, fractured, twisted and skewed in order to explore our evolving views on gender and sexuality.
JB: What part of your practice creates the most joy for you?
SR: That’s tough! When I just started really investing myself in painting, in my sophomore year at RISD, I remember that mixing oil and gouache and experimenting with colour theory would give me this incredible focus and this expanding feeling in my chest – everywhere I went I was hyper sensitive to the colours around me, and that gave me so much peace and joy. When you see a grey placed next to a yellow and all of a sudden that same grey is transformed into this subtle purple. Simple things like that would get me so excited. Colour feels so magical, and I feel that part of that is that it gives us some insight into just how important context and our own perception is. Now in my practice discovering new ways of applying materials, and the feeling of persisting through the frustration of learning a new technique and getting a result that surprises or succeeds is the best feeling. All that frustrated energy is transformed instantly into joy and gratification.
JB: As an aside, I know you have spent quite a bit of your time Muay Thai boxing as of late. Will that find a place in your work? Has it already?
SR: First of all I think Muay Thai makes me strong and happy enough to work through tougher times, so in that way it already supplements my artistic practice by feeding me as a human. Thematically and narratively, however, I am actually getting prepared for a new body of work that I’m going to complete over a residency. I went to Thailand for two weeks to train twice a day. Thailand is very interesting for somebody like me because there’s such a strong presence of buddhism and buddhist imagery in day to day life that also invades the world of fighting. Muay Thai in Thailand is a confluence of mythology, spectacle, sport, aggression, playfulness, and so much more. There’s a heavy presence of superstition and tradition, even superstition surrounding the bodies of women. And the sport of fighting cuts very directly into an aspect of the human psyche I view as very nuanced and difficult to digest. I’m really excited about my thoughts and observations from this trip – it’s really a rich pool for me to dive into. So stay tuned!
“Sahana Ramakrishnan: A Night In The Woods,” Field Projects, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through October 28th. A thoughtful statement about the show and a suggested reading list are available here to help orient readers to Ramakrishnan’s hybrid world of myth and memory.
Andrew Witkin, Atlas Discussion #162
Indian studies: Kathryn Myers
A.I.R. artists at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India
MFA report: Hrag Vartanian finds “home” in RISD painting studios