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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Artist Interview Series! Kanishka Raja

interview by Johon Masterson
The third installment of our artist interview series is Kanishka Raja! His work at the Armory this year was a stand out (represented by Greenberg Van Doren). We're always looking to share new talent so give us a shout!  
Switzerland For Movie Stars, 2012
installation view with limited edition artists' book
oil and block printed silk on panel, 24 x 336 inches
Share a brief bio, where are you from and how you began in the visual arts? I was born in Calcutta. My parents are shopkeepers.  Calcutta was once the capital of British India and, from 1977 until some months ago, capital of the longest running elected communist government in the world.  It has always considered itself the intellectual and aesthetic heart of the country.
I arrived in the United States in 1987 to attend Hampshire College: a small, experimental liberal arts school in Amherst, MA.  It confirmed my childhood assumptions that America was an open, experimental, liberal and secular society (I didn’t get out much).  
Apart from Calcutta and Amherst, I’ve lived since then in Dallas, Boston and New York.
Tell us about your work. What themes do you pursue? Well, before anything else, I am a painter – I make pictures.  So I think primarily about pictures: how they’re constructed, how they’re read, how painting is different from other ways of making pictures and how best to allow painting to speak in all of the voices I want my paintings to speak in.
Currently I am working on a body of work for which the starting point is Switzerland: Switzerland’s self-definition as the standard bearer for the ‘neutral’; Switzerland as a repository of a certain kind of worldly ideal; the importance of – in fact, the necessity of Switzerland’s existence as some kind of imaginative model in the world.  The thought that if Switzerland did not exist, it would be necessary for the world to invent it.
This is of course, a starting point – both the research and the paintings themselves have already taken me down several bewildering, exhilarating rabbit holes that involve Hindi movies, Kashmir (“The Switzerland of the East”), the Hadron collider, pattern and textile design, Norman Rockwell and by extension, systems of belief and the search for an ideal. 
Confused enough yet?
You can read a more involved and detailed discussion about the genesis of this project in a conversation I recently had with the painter Mary Jones here:
Switzerland For Movie Stars, 2012
installation view
oil and block printed silk on panel, 24 x 336 inches
How has your practice changed over time?As a younger artist, I think that I assumed that one has to bring the whole world into the work to make it mean something. I am learning slowly that the best way to have the whole world in the work may be to leave out as much as possible.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? This could be art related or not.
Occasionally for the better, but mostly for the worse, I can’t remember ever paying attention to any advice anyone’s ever given me.
Who have been your greatest influences? My parents, who are textile designers, built something that’s lasted 45 years at this point, with no training, no resources and zero access – based purely on intuition and love and sweat.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the first model for me of how to be and live as an artist in the world. It remains the model I hold closest to my heart.
Do you find yourself more attracted to work that is not like your own, or work that has similarities to yours? I am attracted to work that I feel like I can steal the most from.
Some things I’ve returned to again and again have been the films of Antonioni, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red and Outside the Whale, an essay Salman Rushdie wrote in 1984.
It’s probably too early to tell, but a show at the Met from last fall, Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900 may be the single greatest show of paintings I’ve ever seen. I want to steal it all.
What is your dream project and why? Let’s just say sky’s the limit. 
1.   To live in a very dense, massively diverse, mostly secular, somewhat vulgar, urban environment with a very good mass transit system.
2.   To be able to go to a room in that city, shut the door and play by myself all day, every day. 
3.   To eat something fabulous at the end of the day.
4.   Oh wait…
What do you do for fun other than your work of course? Cook. Eat. Read, watch or listen to something made by someone else that makes me envious. I’m reading a book of conversations between Michael Ondaatje and the editor Walter Murch, which I am finding extraordinary (“The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film” by Michael Ondaatje).

I just watched Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” and while I could never bring myself to make something that strident, I deeply admire the fiction and invention necessary to make something so deeply committed to fact. Beautiful.

The music I’m replaying the most from this last year are Death Grips’ “Ex-Military”, the new Shabazz Palace record and everything Flying Lotus makes.  And how not to adore Das Racist?

Upcoming shows? Most immediately, I am in a group show opening next month at D.C. Moore Gallery in NY, curated by the painter Barbara Takenaga which includes Carrie Moyer, Tom Burckhardt and several other great painters, which I am excited to be in. Long term: having just finished a fairly complex project at the Armory in March, I feel the itch to work things out in my studio, so I’ve postponed making any other commitments.
The artists' book for Switzerland For Movie Stars is available as an ebook at:
All images copyright and courtesy of Kanishka Raja. 

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