Arvind Sundar is a painter and art educator who sees our world as one that’s dominated by grids: from the stock market and Google Maps to architecture, city planning and the very screens that we keep staring at endlessly. A storyteller with the grid as his primary vocabulary, Arvind is a fresh new addition to our growing collective of exciting contemporary artists. He talks to us here about his journey as an artist, his inspirations, the influence of teaching art on his own practice, and more.
Q. How did your journey as an artist begin?
In 2014, I received my undergraduate degree in visual communication design but I wasn't sure about what to do next. I was always good at drawing but had never seriously considered art as a career. At that point, my parents offered me a trip to the USA to go see what was happening in that part of the world. I spent a summer there, and I just saw as much art as I could. One day I went to the New York MoMA where I saw Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, and that was the moment I knew that I wanted to choose art as my career. I went on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study painting. While I was there, I spent hours every day at the museum for an entire year. In 2016, I went to the University of Cincinnati to get my graduate degree in painting and drawing and since then I have been constantly building on my art practice.
Q. How did the grid emerge as a key motif as well as philosophy of your artistic practice?
Prior to 2016, I had a very different style of painting. I was so much into the politics of the USA and the Trump fever was raging at that time. So I was into making large scale caricatures and posters. When I started my MFA program in mid-2016, I was exposed to a different way of thinking and I started approaching painting in a very academic sense. My approach towards politics in art changed when Trump won the election in 2016. I turned my attention towards the more formalist attributes of painting and that is when I started researching and writing about grids. Around that time, I received a fellowship to study art in Italy. And that trip reinforced my interest in grids as I came across a sense of the grid in all the art that I saw in Europe. I wrote extensively on the philosophy and politics behind the idea of grids and my graduate degree thesis happened to be on the same. I see our presence in the post-modern world as a presence in a grid. It is everywhere - from the stock market and Google Maps to architecture and city planning. Even our feelings and emotions are quantified and represented through screens which are just grids of light, being stared at endlessly. In such a world, I consider myself to be a storyteller with the grid as my primary vocabulary. I find new geometries in the grid; the geometries that are us and about us.
Q. What other themes and ideas do you like to address and revisit through your works?
I consider my art to be an abstract parallel to the post-modern human condition. Even though my primary areas of exploration are grids and geometry, I’ve gradually pushed the boundaries to venture into non-objectivity and geometrical abstraction. Right now, I am exploring the manifestation of grids in sculptural forms especially and experimenting with various materials like steel, fibers and vinyl. One of the ways I usually operate is through series. I hardly ever make solitary pieces of work; they always come in series.
Q. How would you describe your approach towards colour?
Colour is a very important factor in my work. I do not attribute meanings to colour; rather I see colours in relation to each other. I do not think colours make meanings by themselves but the relationship between them puts us in a liminal space of meanings. I kind of see colour as an escape from the rigidity of the grid. I tend to create space inside the flatness of the grid using colour. I am an avid reader of Josef Albers and even in my teaching practice I teach my students Albers’ colour experiments.
Q. Which artists have inspired you most along the way? Outside the world of art, who would you count as the biggest sources of inspiration?
My primary framework comes from writings about non-objective painting from artists like Malevich and Mel Bochner. There are three movements in art history that I find particularly inspiring: Russian Constructivism, Minimalism, and Indian Tantric paintings. If I could name a few more from my long list of inspirations, they would be Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and Agnes Martin.
Q. What does a typical day in the studio look like?
I have had several studios: ranging from a fully equipped one with a workshop and furnace to single rooms in apartments. Right now, I live in a double bedroom apartment and I use one of the bedrooms as a studio. My process is mostly a research driven one. When I come across an idea, I sit on it for a while - researching for references and theoretical backings, followed by research about materiality and finally on to making the art object. I like to have a well-documented inventory. I always maintain a digital inventory and ensure I do daily updates in it too. Sometimes when I am doing something that does not involve reading, I would be watching movies on the side. I usually do not listen to music while working.
Q. What are you working on currently? Any recently concluded or upcoming projects that you would like to tell us about?
Right now, I am working on some sculptures and wall relief pieces with steel, vinyl, fibers and papier-mache. Some of these materials are new to me and I am having fun exploring them. I get to discover new things every day working with them. I am also making a series of still life watercolour paintings based on the local fish market.
Q. Apart from art, what else is keeping you busy nowadays?
Pepper, my cat. Also, my design studio. I have recently started a design studio focusing on bringing in Tamil literature and culture into the contemporary design scene.
Q. You are currently teaching art at Loyola College, Chennai. How would you say teaching has influenced and enriched your practice?
In so many ways, I would say. Teaching helps keep my skills intact. There is a saying that if you want to master something then teach it, and I totally agree with that. Since I teach both foundation level courses and graduate level courses, I get to work along different lines of thinking and skills on a regular basis.
Q. What's that one piece of advice that you would like to offer to artists who are just starting out?
“Keep making.” and “Make more.” These are the greatest pieces of advice that I got. And I give the same advice to my students as well.
Words by Shakti Swarup Sahu