What does it mean to be alive today? In conversation with Srijon Chowdhury

There is an urgency to Srijon Chowdhury’s art. The enigmatic imagery in his paintings references diverse histories, contemporary and ancient mythologies and mysticism. His dream-like, surrealism compositions are at once unsettling and alluring; the rich colors and ambiguous motifs acting on a subconscious level between knowledge and emotion.

Srijon is interested in ideas of faith, repetition, structures of knowledge and histories. He is also conscious of the mechanisms of art and representation, and the construction of meaning. His large-scale and immersive painting installations play with this authorial perspective, which in turn invite the viewer to consider their role.

Many of Srijon’s paintings depict an archway or window around which flowers grow. It is not immediately apparent however whether these frames offer views outwards or reflections back inwards, or perhaps both. The plants similarly remain ambiguously symbolic, at times neat and manicured and at others creepingly overbearing. But nature has another meaning in Srijon’s art too, and that is the very real and literal threat of climate catastrophe.

Srijon’s paintings vibrate with the anxiety of our times. The symbolism in his work responds to the dystopian reality that defines today—environmental destruction, war, political instability, inequality, misinformation. In his recent installation Revelation Theater, Srijon staged an immersive monument of the end times. Midway through making this work however, Srijon found out that he was to be a father, which inspired a twist in the tale and hopeful ending.

The question of what it means to be alive today shapes Srijon’s art and thoughts. Alongside his own art he is the co-founder of Chicken Coop Contemporary and the Utopian Visions Art Fair, both platforms to explore alternative narratives and histories. We spoke with the Portland-based artist to find out more about his work and what the future might hold.

Srijon Chowdhury and daughter Inez. Photography by Posy Quarterman

AMM: Hi Srijon! Have you always painted or did you find your way to painting via other mediums? What have been some of the defining points that have shaped you as an artist?

SC: I have always painted, but in college my focus was on intaglio printmaking. I grew up in Bangladesh where my parents owned an art gallery, so there was always a support for art. My worldview of seeing extreme poverty right next to extreme wealth in Dhaka is what shapes me, I always feel guilt and some degree of anger, and I’m sure that guides my work.

AMM: Many of your paintings depict surreal or dreamlike scenes that suggest complex narratives. Please tell us about the subject matter in your art.

SC: I think of my paintings in two ways: Some of them are to conjure a new and better world and the others are to clarify what is happening around me. I don’t think my images are that complex. A large work I showed January 2018, Revelation Theater, used imagery from the Book of Revelation as a starting point to think about our apocalyptic moment, because of the scale there was a lot going on, but the story I believe was easy to decipher, although it has maybe a twist ending that is hopeful because in the middle of making the paintings my girlfriend and I found out we would be having a child and I needed to change my mindset. In my current exhibition at Antoine Levi there is a painting of my girlfriend Anna holding our baby Inez, this is a classic image, but I think it also vibrates with an anxiety of our times.

AMM: Plants are a recurring motif in your work. What do these represent in your work? Do they relate to a larger concept of nature?

SC: I like to play with symbolism, there is so much meaning built up over thousands of years of human thought and that is true for images of plants and flowers. I don’t think I have a concept of nature, I live in it in the Pacific Northwest and I work in it thanks to my job at Leach Botanical Garden. I love nature, it reminds you.

Srijon Chowdhury, ‘Red Glowing Morning Glory’, oil on linen, 101.8 x 76.2 cm, courtesy the Artist and Antoine Levi, Paris, photography by Aurélien Mole

AMM: Arches are another visual element that you return to in your paintings. In your series entitled Arches however, it’s not clear whether the arched forms are windows opening onto other scenes or mirrors closing in and reflecting back at the view. What do these structures symbolise in your work?

SC: The arches come from a mosque that my great great great grandfather Asgar Chowdhury built outside the coastal city of Chittagong in Bangladesh. The plants surrounding the arches are the ones that you see around the mosque, it’s in the middle of a working farm. The floral in the center of the arches are a reworking of a floral motif from my series The Garden. The Garden was an attempt to create a new origin myth that would bring more love into the world… which has clearly been a failure. In Arches I painted the flowers from The Garden again, but removed the paint as it dried, it was my way of thinking about how religion takes something like a myth and changes it, obfuscates it, and ornaments it.

AMM: Color is a very powerful device in your paintings. Please tell us about the way you work with color in your paintings?

SC: Color affects a person viscerally and quickly, color is the first layer of conveying meaning in my paintings. I think about the chakras: Red is reality and the body, Orange is all the good things about yourself, Yellow is the power to create reality, Green is love, Blue is truth—but a depth of truth that can be hard to decipher, Purple is intuition, White is infinite. Sometimes those meanings are in conflict with the content of the painting.

Srijon Chowdhury, ‘Rose in Hand’, oil on linen, blackberry vine, 21 x 16 cm

AMM: How do you play with and subvert traditional notions of painting?

SC: Painting has developed with human history, it’s embedded in us. I am interested in how paintings act on a person and how to use that for my own means. I use the history of painting to mine for techniques, and each new exhibition as an attempt to try those techniques out. I am also interested in how to make a person aware of their body and thoughts while contemplating the work, which has led me to using painting to make installations.

AMM: When and why did you first begin thinking about paintings as three-dimensional objects and how did this influence the way you conceptualise, make and present work?

SC: I first started thinking about paintings three dimensionally when I was making the Arch paintings, I wanted to mimic my family’s mosque and use the paintings as walls to make a structure that one would actually walk in to. I think it has made me more aware of the architecture of the space the work will be shown in.

AMM: Two series of work have the word ‘theater’ in their title and involve immersive painting installations that are reminiscent of stage sets. At what level does the performance take place and what role does the viewer play?

SC: In Memory Theater, the unpainted stretched linen was used as walls to make a circular structure, the outside was the backstage that was ornamented with the actors—sculptures, plants, etc.—it was lit so that shadows created a painting inside the structure. Visitors became actors as their shadow changed the work but viewers as they entered the space. Revelation Theater was at Oregon’s oldest Catholic University, the history and belief from the land, architecture, school, and visitors was meant to absorb into the work and also release back into it all.

AMM: In your painting installation piece Revelation Theater the viewer’s first sight is of the reverse of the canvases. What is the concept behind this (excuse the pun) and how does the context of the space speak back to the work itself?

SC: The scale of the work came from the iconographic windows of the gallery, The Art Gym. The stretcher bars were built to mimic the design of the windows: a double arch with a circle between. You enter the gallery, you see the huge windows, you see a large structure in the center that is mirroring the windows, you enter the structure, you see the paintings, you think, what is the point of these windows, of this structure, of this gallery, of this building, of this school, of this painting, what are they trying to do to me? The school declared bankruptcy shortly after my exhibition.

Srijon Chowdhury, ‘The Revelation Theater’, painting installation at The Art Gym, Marylhurst, Oregon, photography by Mario Gallucci

AMM: You describe this work as “using imagery from the Book of Revelations as a jumping off point to think about the consequences of a worldview that anticipates the end.” Why make this work now?

SC: Because the world is ending.

AMM: In a short statement accompanying your series of small-scale paintings The Coldest Night, you write: “My intention is to find beauty in darkness and see the darkness that frames all beauty.” This is a very intriguing idea. Can you please tell us what you mean?

SC: Right now I am sitting at my aunt’s house in Florida looking out their window at beautiful green tropical plants and trees and flowers blowing in the wind, the sky is clear and blue, light is reflecting on their pool, monarch butterflies are dancing between the pink roses and feeding on the milkweed, a salmon chested ring dove is cutely bopping around. The fertilizer the housing association uses on the grass is seeping through the ground draining into the stream next to their house, feeding algae and causing red tide which is causing a genocide of plants and animals that live in and around the water. A bloody war continues in Yemen. Climate change is destroying the prospects for a good life for more and more people. But back home in Portland, my beautiful baby Inez is waiting for me to get home and I can’t wait to hold her and kiss her and tell her I love her and to watch her smile.

AMM: What themes or ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

SC: How to live.

AMM: Alongside your own art you co-run a project space called Chicken Coop Contemporary that shares a space with a clutch of chickens. Where did the idea for this space come about and what was your intention of starting it? Has this changed over time?

SC: The house came with two barns, one is my studio, the other is half chicken coop and half gallery. I moved to Portland from LA and was used to being around more art, so the gallery was at first a way for me to bring art that I wanted to see to Portland. It is still that, but now the curatorial vision— at least for the time being—has more to do with following a thread of mysticism and creating a what-if version of American art history where Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism were never backed by the CIA and Morris Graves and the Northwest mystics were the artists that naturally led the way. Would we be in a world facing climate catastrophe?

AMM: How has running this space influenced you as an artist?

SC: Understanding how other artists and curators approach exhibition making and their work has been an incredible experience. I just brought the drawings and sculptures of Harry Gould Harvey IV to NADA Miami for a solo presentation. He is one of the most incredible artists working right now, being able to spend time with him and talk to him is a serious blessing, and being able to share his work with a wider audience has been truly rewarding. The gallery and its obligations expand my mind and my world.

AMM: How does your personal history influence you artistically? Does this come through in your work?

SC: There are moments of immediate personal and family life that are in the work. Family and friendship is a big definer of how you are in the world, and through my work I am trying to understand something about the world.

AMM: Besides art, what are some of your interests?

SC: My family and friends, gardening, my chickens, Van Morrison, yoga, Settlers of Catan, I am trying to learn Tarot, Science Fiction—Ursula K Le Guin is one of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolano another, sitting around zoning out, cooking curry, going to Applebees and eating boneless buffalo wings with a Coors Light, I went foraging for mushrooms for the first time last month and I will probably start doing that more.

Srijon Chowdhury, ‘Glowing Glory’, oil on linen, 40.6 x 30.5 cm

AMM: What is your process of working? What does a typical day in studio look like for you?

SC: I turn on the heaters in my studio, make some coffee, take one of my stepdaughters to school, I sit around and think, mix out my palette and start painting, I pick one of my stepdaughters up from school, I eat lunch, I paint some more…

AMM: What inspires and influences you artistically?

SC: Good art and good books make me think and that makes me need to work.

AMM: Do you have any new projects coming up that we should know about? What’s next for you?

SC: I am showing work with Antoine Levi at Miart in Milan in the spring, and next winter will have a solo show with Et Al in San Francisco. In 2020 I will bring Utopian Visions Art Fair to The Retreat for Conscience in Nepal, there are a couple of other things coming up as well that I can’t talk about.

Find out more about the artist: www.srijonchowdhury.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Srijon Chowdhury, ‘Green Vase’, oil on linen, 40.6 x 30.5 cm