Contributed by Sharon Butler / Many of Sangram Majumdar’s new paintings made of echoing lines, exposed charcoal under-drawings, and pale, often flat, unmodulated, color seem to quiver with expectation. According to the essay that accompanies his solo at Geary Contemporary, Majumdar’s starting point was an 18th-century illustration of the Ramayana, one of two ancient epic Sanskrit poems – the other is the Mahābhārata–from India. In 24,000 verses, the Ramayana describes the exploits of Rama, a celebrated prince from the Kosala Kingdom. In one tale, 16-year-old Rama and one of his brothers are dispatched to a forest to kill Tadaka, a princess who, after avenging the death of her husband, had been cursed, transformed into a old hag, and banished. Still she wreaked havoc. Although forest-goers feared her lethal combination of cruelty and cannibalism, young Rama has trouble killing her because she is a woman. Instead, he merely chops off her hands. At that point, to avoid further injury, she uses her super-demon powers to become invisible and continues terrorizing travelers until Rama finally kills her by shooting an arrow through her (invisible) heart.
Majumdar’s new interest in invisibility is manifest in how the shapes and lines shift in and out of representational modes. In a return visit, for instance, the viewer might see a figure, but then again, maybe not. The notion of a moving, elusive form that leaves a trace of its erstwhile presence – a phantom object, as it were – seems to become a metaphor for the uncomfortable state of not-knowing.
I asked Majumdar about his approach to drawing, and he told me that he is fascinated by the hand and its severance, in terms of both imagery and the painting process. That trope, in turn, connects with Tadaka’s story and has become a thread running through much of his work, in which detached hands frequently present themselves.
“I want the drawing to be present. I suppose this corresponds to the continuous relationship between the body and the hand, thematically in the imaging of the paintings and procedurally, in their making. Also, I have been thinking about how drawing can be like speech, a type of shorthand that invites the viewer in, casually, openly, a type of generosity. That is what I was thinking about in a return visit, a loud sun blinds, or once and twice, (for I). Conversely, the drawing in Cassandra’s siren or call and response is more architectural, working with the grid, and hence a bit more reserved and reticent. They take a while to get to know.”
Majumdar is a professor in the painting program at MICA, and widely regarded as a highly skilled, arguably brilliant, colorist. Lately his palette has been migrating from saturated color combinations reminiscent of Matisse, to paler, less muscular pairings – as if the seduction of color and the ineffable sense of beauty found in the illusion of light have become less important. The sheer virtuosity of Majumdar’s color is now less prominent in many of the new paintings, and the meaning, conveyed in terms of color choices, more complex. Uglier colors like pale acid yellow, muddy brown, and variations on white – warm and cool – take on more responsibility. Majumdar told me that he has been thinking about how certain colors like yellow, red, black, and white, signify the past or the present. Earth pigments found in art objects around the world also serve as colors for stop signs, road lines, traffic cones, etc.
“Finally,” he said, “I’ve been trying to reduce certain color spaces down to a specific color/value/temperature that operates as a null space but also as a general ‘field,’ something that can accept decisions that suggest spatiality but also exists as a neutral, pictorial plane. A friend of mine described it like a membrane, something that is opaque, thin, but also really resilient and tough.”
I like that.
“Sangram Majumdar: once, and twice,” Geary Contemporary, 185 Varick Str., Soho, New York, NY. Through April 12, 2019.
Artist’s bio (from the gallery website): 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 Barbara Davis Gallery, TX; Asia Society Texas Center, TX, a travelling exhibition at Drew University, NJ, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, TN and University of Vermont, VT and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, NY. Awards include a Purchase Award from the 2010 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NY; a MacDowell Fellowship; a residency at Yaddo; the 2009-10 Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Space Program Grant; a MICA Trustees Award for Excellence in Teaching; and two Maryland State Art Council Individual Grants in Painting. Majumdar lives and works in Brooklyn, and is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.