It’s hard to imagine two studios more dissimilar than the ones Srijon Chowdhury pivots between in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. In the bustle and din of the Jefferson Park neighborhood of LA, blocks from Koreatown, he shares with two other artists a dark, cave-like space with barred windows and leaky pipes; while in the sylvan hills of southeast Portland, he has his own studio, airy, open, and quiet, save for the chirping of birds outside and the rustling of breezes through evergreens. The artist has been dividing his time between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest for two years now, and while negotiating such disparate milieux might prove whiplash inducing for some artists, it comes naturally to Chowdhury, who’s spent a lifetime moving fluidly between cultures. Born 29 years ago in Dhaka to a Bangladeshi father and an American mother, he traveled frequently between Bangladesh and the US as a youth. Today, his artwork often integrates motifs from the artistic, architectural, and spiritual traditions of the two countries.
Case in point: his current exhibition, “Memory Theater,” at Portland’s UPFOR Gallery, which runs through May-a circular installation that viewers are encouraged to meditate inside. The work is based on a set of arches at a mosque near Chittagong, Bangladesh, which the artist visited many times, most recently in February 2015. Reinterpreting those arches with stretcher bars and linen, he created a network of 11 panels, with light flooding in to impart a honeyed, opaque glow. He sees the space’s interior as a contemplative zone akin to Monet’s Nymphas, a wrap-around environment of water-lily paintings at the Muse de l’Orangerie in Paris: “the colors and the softness of it, the way the shadows hit the linen and bleed into it with this feathered quality…” Hanging from and leaning onto the structure’s exterior will be works by two-dozen artists from the US, Columbia, Iceland, and Norway. Those artists, Chowdhury explains, share a common thematic focus on “work that’s ritualistic, fetishistic, or outside of time.”
The exhibition’s title refers to the idea of a “memory theater” advanced by Giulio Camillo, an Italian Renaissance thinker who proposed an invention that would serve as a repository of knowledge. People could access this knowledge simply by walking through a three-dimensional structure filled with objects. “I’m thinking of [the show] as a theater piece, a spectacle,” Chowdhury says. “The gallery becomes a theater, the painting becomes a stage, and the viewer is an actor activating the work.” The installation incorporates a sound component composed by his friend and collaborator, Brian Strandberg. The soundtrack’s rhythm derives from the sound waves generated by a black hole a nod to the artist’s interest in science and science fiction.
Combining such eclectic influences Islamic architecture, Renaissance thought, sci-fi- into one installation is a typically inclusive strategy for this artist, who grew up surrounded by art from around the world (his parents were gallery owners and avid collectors). During his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, he studied journalism as well as art, which infused his aesthetic viewpoint with a broad, multidisciplinary range. After graduating, he traveled to Mexico and Norway before returning to the academy and earning an MFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. While he is primarily a painter and one deeply interested in painterly effects he is equally committed to exploring the ways in which paintings are viewed and the metafunctions they fulfill. Although many of his paintings incorporate the figure, he is quick to point out that these figures are metaphorical, not parts of a traditional narrative.
So far this year, Chowdhury has been pressing forward his interdisciplinary investigations on a range of fronts. In addition to “Memory Theater” at UPFOR, Chowdhury will have work in a group show in May at Vox Populi, an artist run nonprofit gallery in Philadelphia, and in September he will have a solo show at Klowden Mann Gallery in Los Angeles. For that show, he’s preparing a suite of blue-hued figurative paintings in which the colors grade so liminally, the figures appear to dematerialize.
When it comes to discussing his intent, Chowdhury is earnest, thoughtful, and resolutely unswayed by the art world’s orientation toward irony and post-irony. He believes art can and should change lives, including his own. “A lot of my work the last few years,” he reflects, “has been about origin stories trying to get back to the beginning in the hopes of making the world better. I’ve been trying to understand who we are and what it means to be human, which is something that’s always changing. What comes from that figuring-out process is an enlightenment that I’m after, a moving forward. I want to learn from making this work. I want it to affect what I think and do.”
“Srijon Chowdhury: Memory Theater,” will be on view at UPFOR Gallery, in Portland, OR. from April 13 – May 28, 2016. www.upforgallery.com