Jane South and Sangram Majumdar both have paintings on view this month on the Lower East Side — South in “Halfway Off” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, and Majumdar in “Confetti in the Shade“,“ a two-person exhibition with Miko Veldkamp at Nathalie Karg. Majumdar got together with South for a conversation about her new work — her use of the circle, how we visually knit everything together into collaged moments that are spatial, material, textural and emotive, the body in space, working with found color, and the mysterious process of making art.
Sangram Majumdar: To start off I was curious if you want to say anything about the title for your current exhibition “Halfway Off” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery.
Jane South: Ah, the tyranny of the title! I strive for a title that doesn’t describe or explain the work but teases out something to do with its impetus and evolution. My work riffs off what is obliquely experienced, avoiding any direct references, so “Halfway Off” sort of alludes to that.
SM: Get away with something?
JS: Yes, maybe also to get away with something or “tickle”. Tickle something. There are suggestions and teasers, but not the thing itself.
SM: Yeah! Well, the title halfway off makes me think of something that’s been misplaced or displaced. And in regard to your work, I always think of the word ‘place’ more than ‘space’ – of how you are an immigrant, that you seem to be always traveling, or that you move through the city on your bike, and these things you carry and bring into your studio.
JS: I think of my modus operandi both in the studio and the world as being something of a scavenger, a scavenger of moments seen on city walls, architectural details that make up the fabric of a place, strange juxtapositions between discarded items on sidewalks – anything that speaks to the vibe of a place. It’s a process of extraction and replacement.
The other thing about halfway off is spatial – that perspective you have on things when they’re neither right there in front of you, as objects, or over there, as land/cityscapes. It’s an experience of the world as a mashup, moments like seeing the edge of a building sliced by a lamppost as someone in a bright yellow raincoat runs past and adds a blur of color. Accumulations of these snapshots then rub up against others – collaged moments are spatial, material, textural and emotive.
SM: And if I think of the forms that you’re working with, for example, there are a lot of circular and rectangular forms, but they’re never square to the wall. The circle is always kind of an ellipse. And the square is often a parallelogram. It’s an oblique view. That’s also about being halfway off.
JS: That was what Cubism gave us, wasn’t it? a way of patching together a three-dimensional experience in two dimensions. What we do as humans is visually knit everything together. As an experience, it all feels seamless, but you give anybody a video camera to walk around with, and when you play it back, it becomes very clear how we “really” see and how jerky, disjointed and disorientating our experience is.
SM: Right, right. That kind of image of stitching or consolidating different distinct experiences brings up this relationship of the eye and the body. And one thing I was thinking about with this group of work, the rectangle takes a back seat. It’s almost there as an echo or a whisper in the back. And so this radial structure makes me think of the position of a maker in relation to the eye of the viewer.
JS: I remember the first time I made a circle piece. I think it was maybe my second show with Spencer Brownstone Gallery, and we built a false wall to shut down visual access to the space. The wall had a circle cut into it, so the visitors’ first experience of the show was via this portal. We’re used to looking through windows – rectangles and squares. The difference with the circle is it both mirrors the eye and sort of dissolves the boundaries between body and space – the act of putting an eye to a hole makes you enter a space only with your eye and not with your body, which can feel a bit like projecting yourself out of your body into space. For me, anyway! That’s when I started feeling that the circle offered more potential for a kind of untethering than the rectangle and square.
SM: Our bodies are built around curves, whether they’re convex or concave. Meanwhile modern architecture and the ubiquity of the grid everywhere makes the rectangle seem to be the pervasive framework when actually it’s the circle.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. As somebody who started in theater, I think I’m always alert to the body in space and how sightlines, colors, textures and scale affect the body – what pulls or pushes you in one way or another, what makes something act in either an imagistic way or an embodied way and the scale of possibilities in between.
SM: I love that you brought up color and I was thinking that the first works I saw of your’s, I know the use of the color black in the works I’ve seen in your place, but also the Aldrich Show was very key. But these new pieces from the last show, and especially in Neath, 2023, I’m very much aware of the white. But it’s a white that reminds me of something else, like the stain or the dirt when white is altered or affected. But then also these bursts of neon that are popping through. and these feel the most chromatically diverse in a certain way. So I am curious about this progression from black monochrome to the chromatic monochrome to the multi-hued space in these recent works.
JS: Yes. Although I have used color before – in fact, the first time I used fluorescent color was in my 2004 show, albeit in a different way – in that show, the overall palette was warm and grey, and the fluorescent color largely acted as spatial punctuation. In the more recent work, color is operating as a way to wander around the terrain of the work. My recent use of color emerged in my last show, “Switchback, 2020.” I was occupying my live/work space while the whole place was being deconstructed around me, and started grabbing discarded materials to use. So, initially, color entered into the work because it was inherent to materials, yellow foam from the sofa and pink and blue denim from old curtains.
In Halfway Off, the use of color is more painterly, more fluid. I often think in terms of sound when it comes to constructing work, such as feeling the need for something that operates like the disruptive blast of a ferry horn or wanting to add a smooth passage that operates like the low hum of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. But rather than painting color onto works that have been constructed, I use pieces of found and/or painted materials that I cut up and play around with during the construction process. So, color is literally part of the construction process.
SM: As you’re saying this, it makes me think about Ann Truitt, those jars that she would make of paint mixtures reflecting on her environments. It’s trying to distill this experience that is multisensory, right? And I feel like your work is so experiential, but I also know you obviously are a thinker. Very much so. I’m curious how you navigate the relationship between thinking and experiencing. Is it like taking off a hat, or leaving your office and entering your studio?
JS: When I hear the word thinking, I immediately think cognitive, right? This is the mode we all need to be able to navigate everyday life. But we also have other modes and ways of processing experiences that are unclear and more emotive and phenomenological. If you look into what we now know about different parts of the human brain, you can see that the cognitive is only one area, but in current Western society, we privilege it. We don’t trust or value it if we can’t “think” it. In the studio, for me, there is a dance of translation where materials and processes act out all that we are. I don’t think you can describe this in everyday language. Doing so would be to situate all of it in the cognitive part, right? Often the very impetus to create (music/poetry/visual art etc.) is to enable us to communicate these aspects of our human experience. When faced with overwhelming beauty, loss, joy etc., it’s art we go to not “thinking”. Does that make sense at all?
SM: Yes, it does.
JS: For me, Art is not ‘aboutness’. When I visit other artists in their studios, I prefer to ask what the impetus for the work is, how the artist sees their work operating, or what they want it to elicit. Because I think asking what it is “about” or what the “idea” is reinforces what, to me, is a limiting privileging of “thinking”. Unless the artist is actively engaging in a conceptual arena – then it’s different! I think this is also why I find titles so difficult – because language is powerful. The words you use will conjure something. Therefore, I try to have a “blank”, thought-free space when I’m in the studio.
SM: The blank to me is the absence of linear thought when there are no words. Nothingness is reflecting back. I always think of this idea that all artworks are mirrors in a sense. I know there are certain artworks I’ve seen over decades, and whenever I go back, I find something new because I need something different now than I did when I was 18.
JS: I’m sure many artists experience this, and when you encounter your own work after time has passed, there are those that remind you of the struggle you had with that work. Sometimes it really is a personification, “You and I, we did battle! We have been many versions of ourselves in relation to each other”. And then there are works that seem to just appear. There is no point in trying to understand on a cognitive level how/why this is – part of the fabulousness of creating is the mystery of how it happens. It’s a connection to the wonder of the world.
In this show, the one that just “appeared” is Oer I can’t remember much about making it at all – it just seemed to be there, which sounds bonkers! I mean, of course, I did make it, but the process was so “light” as opposed to some other pieces when it’s all hair-pulling!
SM: A thought that came up in my head was that there’s this obviously found and altered conversation always in play in your work. And what I mean is, what has been taken and altered, what has been made fabricated to appear altered? What is the relationship between, as you were saying earlier, going around the corner and grabbing something or taking a piece of the curtain? If those objects or those colors or those marks come into your room, does it ever feel like “Okay, now I’m thinking about all these new things”? More and more I see the city coming in.
JS: There’s definitely the idea of the interloper, the stranger at the feast, the thing that, although it doesn’t make any sense that it’s there, catalyzes everything else. In Oer, I think the little tulle frill does that. And in fact, a wire also projects out of that piece. That’s the reward for the close looker! you don’t see it until you really get close or look from an angle. When I look at wall-based work, after taking it in as a complete work from the usual viewpoint, I also look from the side, almost with my shoulder to the wall, so I can look across it. That usually reveals something else, something other.
SM: I wanted to ask you about the lattice that is in some of the works. I was curious about that.
JS: Yes. For me, the lattice in Batted acts as a bridge between the piece and the gallery – and between notions of inside and outside spaces. I recognize it as probably having its origins back in theater. In theater sets, cheap everyday materials pretend to be other materials, and there’s a play between two and three dimensions. This has always been exciting to me, so a lot of my work employs this play, the three-dimensional pretending/pointing to the two-dimensional or vice versa. I like things that look like flattened things or as if they aspire to be dimensional. This lattice also connects to the “pretend” lattices at the bottom of the two adjacent works Aside and Pass Through, which are also throw-backs to the scaffolded structures I used in prior paper constructions.
SM: I was thinking about that triangular form you had against the window in your previous show. It was like the edge that cut in and then the sculpture that the courtyard on the outside.
JS: Exactly. So these are now an interpretation of that but in canvas and paint. I love showing at spaces I’ve previously shown in because I can nod back and connect bodies of work across time. With solo shows, considering how the work occupies the gallery and playing with installation opportunities on-site opens up future possibilities for the work.
SM: When you’re talking about how you get an artwork from the side, do you ever feel like you’re in a different place after a show has come together?
JS: Definitely, that’s one of the great things about being around longer! When I was younger, I’d have a show and get the post-show blues because, in a way I felt emptied out – meaning I was right back in that beginning, which is scary and frustrating – you know, the horror of the blank canvas! I have now experienced enough of these cycles to trust that I WILL emerge from them, so I can enjoy this empty terrain. I am looking forward to being back in the studio and playing around with other things that have been brewing. Perversely, sometimes I don’t allow myself to start work on what’s brewing because, on some level, I feel it’s got to brew a bit more before it’s externalized. How do you explain that?! It seems we are back again to the mysteriousness of the process – and ultimately, it’s curiosity about what will emerge that generates the motivation to get back to work.
Jane South, Halfway Off, Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 170-A Suffolk St, New York, NY, Through Oct 21
About the author: Sangram Majumdar, born in Kolkata, India, currently lives and works in Seattle, where he is a member of the art faculty at University of Washington. His work is on view in “Confetti in the Shade” at Nathalie Karg through October 14, 2023. In 2024 he will have his first solo exhibition in India at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke in Mumbai.