In Conversation with Kanishka Raja

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Art Etc. News & Views, 4(3), November, 2011: 6-8)

Originally from Kolkata, Kanishka Raja now lives and works in New York. For more than a decade, his large, hybrid painting installations –employing such diverse pictorial devices as Indian textile, linguistic and miniature motifs; drastic perspectives; pop imagery and surrealistic juxtapositions– have received a fair amount of critical acclaim. I sat down with this ambitious artist in his Brooklyn studio to talk about his art training, life in New York, and his views of contemporary art.    

SKS: You went to an art school here in the US?

KR: I came to Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, which I found while looking at the catalogs at the USEFI in Kolkata. The school stood out because not only did it have a liberal arts template, but it allowed the possibility of designing your own curriculum, and it was very openly structured and geared toward people who wanted to design their own program of study. And I had some sense that I was going to study something in the arts, but I hadn’t quite figured it out.

SKS: From there you went to Dallas for your MFA?

KR: Eventually, yeah. I spent a year in between in Cal. 

SKS: A critic says that you were “miserable” after you went to Kolkata after college. Why was that?

KR: (Chuckles). Time and place! I think I had some kind of romantic idea that I was going to finish my undergraduate studies and go to Cal and be an artist; that I’d just show up and it’d all happen. And as in most things like that, it doesn’t happen, no matter where you are. I was miserable mainly — at this point it sounds like too harsh a word, but I think at that time I was pretty miserable—because I had a hard time connecting with a community I could identify with: the right contacts, the right people. At that point I was already fairly committed to being an artist. I just didn’t find the right critical and intellectual context; and so, you know, it was…sort of… not interesting. Of course, most of that was my fault. I didn’t go looking hard enough. So I did a quick turnaround and said, to hell with this, I’m going back to the States. But of course, that’s logistically hard. I had to find a graduate school that I could attend for free and on a scholarship, which is how I ended up in Dallas.

SKS: How do you think your work fits into the legacy of the “end of painting” debate of the 1970s?

KR: It’s interesting to think about. I became interested in painting fairly quickly because when I was being trained as a student, it seemed like the worst possible thing to do. It was perceived as the least intellectually challenging, completely dead, moribund practice. And so that was clearly an immediate attraction. I think most artists have a contrarian strain in them that draws them into looking for the kinds of things that are rejected wholesale in any milieu. And I was interested in that immediately…okay, so why is this not interesting? And I entered into a painting dialog through that lens, in a way. I also discovered fairly quickly that I was just interested in pictures; that thinking about images and their reception and dissemination in popular culture interested me much more than thinking about objects. And most importantly perhaps, I was very invested in trying to find a place to enter the narrative as a brown artist within a larger global context – I didn’t see too many people who looked like me or shared my story in the books or museums, you know?  And I was starting to see how they were able to enter it via various other avenues: through film, through installation, through theory, but very rarely through painting. So it never felt to me like I was contending with any “end of painting” moment historically. On the contrary, it felt full of possibility.

SKS: It’s obvious that your painting is not the kind that was rejected in the 1970s. Your painting is full of fractures, indeterminacies, and hybridities. So your training in history and theory must have been very crucial to this?

KR: Yeah. It absolutely was, especially when I was an undergraduate, because I was working with high formalist kind of teachers, people who were really invested in tracking the legacy of Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and its trajectory via Minimalism: you know, the Robert Mangold, Brice Marden route of painting. And I developed an instant resistance to that.

SKS: Where did you find the turning point away from that Robert Mangold and Brice Marden legacy?

KR: I mean, just as a thing to resist, because within my undergraduate program at least, it was presented as the only real viable discourse. On the other hand, I’d come to New York occasionally and walk around in Soho or go to MoMA, and suddenly there was a multiplicity of other image-making strategies visible to me: from Warhol and Rosenquist and these exuberantly de-skilled paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the bewildering blown up Marlboro ads of Richard Prince, all of which I thought were more exciting visually than this other stuff I was being told was the pinnacle in some way, like Agnes Martin!

SKS: So when you were an undergraduate, you were already doing something else with painting?

KR: Sure. I was working in a very minimalist vocabulary, but working with scripts, finding ways to turn the Devnagari script into a kind of minimal language. I was making paintings that were essentially using these kinds of marks. I was looking for ways to enter this larger context. You know, I had a very simple, and on some level very basic kind of ambition – I wanted to be the guy in the museum, but as a painter, because I don’t see any of myself represented there. As you can imagine, all the models of my education were pointing toward a deeply western discourse.

SKS: So when did your practice of appropriation begin?

KR: I think probably after graduate school. All through graduate school I was making much more abstract work. But my practice became more and more invested in pattern and ornament. I was becoming increasingly interested in ornament as a place from which to enter another language of painting, and thinking about repetition as an interesting way of working. And from there it started to evolve into thinking about what it would be like to start injecting imagery into the work that was more pop-related.

SKS: One critic says that your paintings are “cosmopolitan”, such as you airport series. Is there any such thing as cosmopolitan painting?

KR: (Laughs) I’m not sure that there is. But I know my experience has always been urban, if nothing else, and that’s clearly something I’m drawn to. And the way New York breeds a sense of urbanity…that’s been an indirect influence certainly, but I’m not sure what cosmopolitan painting means, to be honest.

SKS: Most of your projects have quite elaborated titles. It’s obviously deliberate, like a provocative, unfinished sentence or phrase.

KR: They are points of entry for the viewer, in a way. For a long time, as you’ve noticed, I used to title them fairly elaborately, and treated them as suggestive ways to maybe read a group of images, or a particular image. But at the same time they didn’t have very much directly to do with the pictures. And that was deliberate, because I’m not interested in directing your experience…

SKS: But there is this play between visual experience and language, which your teachers would definitely not endorse.

KR: Yeah, that’s really not their kind of game. Most of one’s experience as an artist –certainly it has been mine—is how to unlearn what has been taught in the academic context.

SKS: So how have you found the critique of your work so far in India and abroad?

KR: (Pause) Hard to generalize as such. My experience in India is really hard to talk about generally, because it’s very much through the lens of one show that I did, which was covered extensively. But the conversations I had there, the questions seemed to be much more directed toward establishing how I positioned myself, questions about…do I see myself as a diasporic artist, Indian artist, or an American artist…those kinds of questions, which are really not that interesting to me. I have to say that line of thinking seems fairly limited to me.

SKS: Critics have mentioned that you don’t consider yourself part of the south Asian diaspora.

KR: I don’t think of it that much, to be honest.

SKS: Why? Because you came here pretty much as an adult?

KR: Sure. If I were a first generation American, that’d be a completely different experience. So I think of myself most of the time as a painter with a biography that includes growing up in Calcutta and who lives in New York and who is deeply invested in living in New York. I’m totally interested in and committed to and energized by New York.

SKS: How about the critical reception of your work in the US?

KR: I don’t know how to answer that.

SKS: For instance, do you find yourself misrepresented, overdetermined, etc?

KR: No…well, mostly no. Of course, there are things that get written sometimes that are utter nonsense. On the other hand, for the most part I’ve resisted a single-channel view of my experience.

SKS: With contemporary artists of African origin, for instance, there is often the essentialization that comes across in critiques, interviews, catalog writing, etc.

KR: I don’t necessarily distance myself from that, but I don’t encourage it either. Of course, all artists want to resist essentialization, and I think it becomes particularly important for non-white artists to be aware of the dangers and pitfalls of the possibilities of essentialization that exist constantly. But I think it’s also imperative on you as the person setting that context. Maybe I live under the delusion that I have a little more control over it than I actually do. I think it’s important to define your context as far as possible. And if I chose to set my context specifically as a south Asian artist living in New York, I could. If I chose to claim a role specifically as a diasporic artist, I could. I mean, I claim all of that.

SKS: But sometimes the context you set for yourself is overridden by the art establishment.

KR: It’s a battle. It’s always going to be a battle. Academies and markets are going to categorize you, and your job as an artist almost always is to resist those categorizations. I think most artists try to resist that. So yeah, I do try to resist it, always. At the same time, I’m not interested in resisting it to the point of obliterating that context, or claiming a position that doesn’t acknowledge my position vis-à-vis the dominant culture. But it’s like negotiating that little passageway, which is what I do in my work anyway.

SKS: It seems to me that in this media-saturated culture, images that address social and political issues are too aestheticized to have any political impact. They are promptly co-opted by the system. What’s your take on that?

KR: Well, I think the wrong assumption to make is that art’s role in a culture has some sort of responsibility toward direct political action. If you really are interested in political action, there are plenty of other, far more effective ways to do that. So I don’t think art quite works that way, and I think art’s most essential role is as a kind of infection. Art tends to seep into the cultural consciousness very tangentially, and so it should. Having said that, I don’t disagree with you completely about the fact that the market is so overwhelmingly dominant that it tends to subsume everything and co-opt everything, so that the idea of a resistance seems almost quaint. Art’s role is to filter through these different processes. It’s actually the one place where the trickle-down theory does work, and I think for that reason alone it becomes highly effective. It’s absolutely vital for young students to grapple with that question, to confront that.

SKS: Just as there is the discourse of the art world that determines success and quality, there is also the artist working in his studio, which, though very much a part of that larger discourse, is also about one’s intimate interaction with his work. This is the reason the romanticism of being an artist still persists. I wonder where you belong in all this.

KR: I think it ends up being a model for freedom. It is a kind of romantic appeal, but it also has a dangerous appeal that both frightens and pisses people off; because this model, which I’ve chosen very specifically, is very threatening to a social structure because I’m sort of arguing here for the freedom to come into the studio and **** around! That’s not what a social order wants to see in its citizens. Like science and religion, art is a way of thinking about the world.

SKS: Which has nothing necessarily to do with success?

KR: That maybe is a corollary to it; but at the core, no! Does science have anything to do with success at its core? No. But nonetheless scientists have to fight for grants and look for funding everyday, don’t they?

SKS: Say, Jeff Koons, who has played with this idea all his life. Some people get very uncomfortable with it. They say he is just recycling kitsch, which makes serious art trivial.

KR: I think that’s what makes it serious. He is able to address all those contradictory forces, and that’s what is marvelous about it. If thirty years after he became an art superstar he still pisses people off, then something’s going on there that’s worth thinking about. Something’s going on there in your relationship with culture at large, if it makes you uncomfortable.

SKS: What is it about the global art scene that intrigues you, acknowledging that it’s not a monolithic thing?

KR: In my trajectory as an artist I’ve witnessed a massive expansion of the parameters of what constitutes mainstream discourse, which I think is fantastic. None of this existed when I was a student. That’s a pretty remarkable moment to live in.

SKS: You said before that you’re deeply invested in living in New York. But as you know, New York has a history of exerting its power over the mainstream discourse of art. Yet we’ve been saying since the 1980s that the art world had become decenetered, and that New York isn’t the center any more. Talk to me about that.

KR: I’m invested in living here not necessarily in the context of the art world, but in the continuing relevance of the immigrant New York, as the place of arrival, the place of fulfillment, due to which New York continues to occupy a central place, and the way the city as an organism finds ways to negotiate, absorb, and resist those influxes.

SKS: So how does that reflect in New York’s presence as an art hub today, as opposed to thirty or forty years ago?

KR: I know just from my experience that there are far more working artists here from other parts of the world, like me, from the non-western world, than there were forty years ago. It continues to be both a viable and an unsustainable place, because as we all know, it’s no joke living in this city.

SKS: But apart from that, what about its power to say the final word about art?

KR: I don’t believe it holds that singular authority any more, and I think most people don’t believe it. And I think that is a very good thing. Of course, there are people who would still argue to the contrary, but mostly they are not relevant. And I just want to emphasize that it’s better, working as an artist, not to be operating from a position of total and complete authority.

SKS: In your experience, how have you found the relation between the artists and the art writer in the current art discourse?

KR: I think it depends. It can be very symbiotic. A discourse between critical writers and practitioners is important, because it allows for the conversation to occur at a more substantive level. I don’t think they should be separated, if that’s what you’re asking.

SKS: Barnett Newman once said that he hated every critic on this planet. Ironically, he didn’t even like Greenberg, who championed abstract expressionism.

KR: That’s a different model of thinking, isn’t it? Modernism operated very much from a position of the artist as the creator with a capital C, standing outside and above whatever cultural milieu they worked in. And that’s just not a very valid model any more, obviously. It’s been thoroughly demystified. I don’t think practice should be led by theory; it should be the other way around, from the artist’s perspective at least. But I don’t know if I necessarily see an adversarial relationship between the artist and the critic.

SKS: What strikes you most about the current art scene in India?

KR: What strikes me is that the most interesting work being done in India is driven by performance, things that involve some aspect of theatricality.

SKS: Do you see, in the current globalizing phenomenon in India, a kind of blind borrowing? New media, for instance, is a big trend.

KR: That’s part of what I call a festivalism tendency; art that’s made for large international festivals. And that’s not work I’m interested in, for the most part. I think that is a very different model of art making than what I am engaged in. Festivalism, to me, is this expansive sense of production, which involves outsourcing, hiring…a small-scale Hollywood model, if you will; a model that demands finding a lot of skilled labor and utilizing that to produce these massive, spectacle-driven extravaganzas with intimations of a very vaguely generalized, fuzzily political, global arty discourse. Then there is this other model that is about being an individual, and that’s the model that I’m drawn to.

SKS: What do you think about Kolkata’s current art scene?

KR: I think it needs a larger infrastructure. It has no way for its artists to find support. My brother’s gallery (Experimenter) plays an important role in that.

SKS: Is infrastructure the only thing that’s needed? What about most of the art itself?

KR: (Laughs loudly). You know, that’s another six-hour conversation!  I don’t think very much about it because I don’t find it that interesting. I don’t have that deep knowledge of particular artist’s practices, but I haven’t seen that much which excited me to want to dig deeper.

SKS: Do you have any shows planned in Kolkata?

KR: Not at the moment. I hope it’ll happen at some point. I’m sure it will, but at this point there’s no specific plan.

SKS: And elsewhere in India?

KR: Couple of things in the pipeline next year that I can’t really talk about yet.

SKS: When you recycle these images, like Babri Mosque, etc., there must be a different kind of reception in India. Has the specificity of the images led to a critical conversation?

KR: No. That’s why I don’t have much of a response to it. I’m often asked this question: how is your work received in India? And my honest answer is: I don’t know. Maybe they don’t think about it at all. It hasn’t led to any kind of engaged critical conversation.

SKS: So your work hasn’t been written about in Indian magazines?

KR: It has. But what’s been written isn’t that interesting, to be honest (laughs loudly). But you know, in all fairness, they are often just reviews of shows and newspaper interviews. That’s necessary and important writing, but it rarely leads to any substantive engagement with the work. For any real art structure to thrive anywhere, the writing has to be a critical component. And I think that is still evolving in India.

Monday, May 23, 2011. 

Brooklyn, New York.

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