In Conversation with PADMA RAJENDRAN

All images: © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

Curated and written by Varia Serova

Through the years, Padma Rajendran maintains a devoted and energetic multidisciplinary artistic practice. Her joyous colour rich textile works unfold on the walls of her studio space, revealing silent dialogues, exquisite craftsmanship and the artist’s notion for experimentation. With the potent restlessness, Rajendran produces one wide-eyed and joyous body of work after another, rearticulating the world in her unique terms, not portraying the details of life but the imprints they leave. Light is spoken through colour, movement through media and process, narrative through form. As Rajendran states very well herself, her artworks reference “the duality and contradictions of culture and the multi-facetted definitions of universal heritage.”

Padma Rajendran was born in Klang, Malaysia. She studied at Bryn Mawr College and received her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design. Rajendran has exhibited at the International Print Center New York, Ortega y Gasset Projects (Brooklyn), INDEX (Los Angeles), Beers London (UK), Field Projects (New York) and September Gallery (Hudson NY). She lives and works in Catskill, NY and teaches printmaking at SUNY Purchase. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings, Art Maze Magazine, and Maake Magazine and is currently on view at BRIC Arts Media in Brooklyn, NY.

Padma Rajendran in her studio © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

Varia Serova: You started printmaking in college, and experimented with monotype, screen print and lithography. How did your interest in printmaking develop?

Padma Rajendran: I came to printmaking by chance. It was part of the traditional academic art foundation. It was not till I was out of college and figuring out the logistics of how and where to make work that I fully appreciated the communal aspect of printmaking studios and the process. The accessibility community print shops offer to many people is important. I responded to the immediate inclusion beyond the hierarchy of monetary funds, race/ethnicity, experience, age, or even “long term artistic commitment.” That artists of all backgrounds can find a place to come, participate, and make work at all points in their life regardless of the typical constraints is particularly meaningful to me.

VS: Does your background in printmaking continue to inform your broader practice?

PR: I see my affinity for repetition and the multiple play out when I consider a new piece. Often printmaking makes an appearance as part of the process for a larger fabric piece. I ask myself what ways to incorporate a different effect that sits on the surface or even implies imperfect patterning. Printmaking is all around us from the clothing we wear to the paper money we may use, and I continue to reference some print ideas in the work even if in round about ways.

Studio view of 'Keys to Home', 2020, dye on silk, 95 x 108 in. Dyes directly painted onto stitched silk surface © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

VS: Being born in Malaysia and raised in the U.S., you come from a cross cultural environment that you were exposed to from a very young age. How does this personal journey inform your artistic practice and method?

PR: Moving a lot when I was young made me aware of being an outsider and/or observer. There was a point when detailed observation and adapting quickly to a new place was a main priority. It also let me acknowledge hidden differences and even universal connections between cultures, especially in architecture or art objects from one place to another. This continues to hold my interest.

VS: How did your interest in working with textiles begin?

PR: My interest in textiles felt more intuitive and came from a consumer or domestic interaction that I initially thought as separate from my studio interests. We all have a relationship with fabric since we all wear clothes and consistently engage with a myriad of textile objects that hold different functions. My time living in Riyadh and when visiting family in India made me conscious from an early age of the performative elements of textile, specifically what and how we wear it on our bodies and the selection of acquiring textile. Much of this interaction is about unfurling and the reveal.

In graduate school, I became more interested in questioning and understanding the notion of home and belonging in an effort to feel more connection to this idea of Homeland (India) and needing to redefine my relationship to a place despite never having lived there. My investigation stemmed from a common language of ritual, repetition and symbolic structure found in architecture and continued as coded space for communicating ideas and evidence of regionalism. Soon I decided not to simply reference textile pattern and structure within my prints on paper but work directly onto the material itself.

Studio view of 'Curved Palm', 2020, Dye and resist on silk, 100 x 79 in. © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

Dye and resist on silk paintings - 'Untitled (Flower Comb)', 2021, Dye and resist on silk with stitching, 15 (h) x 11.5 (w) in. and 'Untitled (Mountain Cup)', 2021, Dye and resist on silk with stitching, 15 (h) x 10.25 (w) in. © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

VS: What specific qualities of fabrics do you most enjoy, and what are the challenges you are facing during your work process?

PR: Much of why I work with fabric is that most humans regardless off art background know how to understand the language of textiles. All humans have a relationship with fabric. We understand its worth and how it functions. This point of access is important to me and opens up a range of references and options with how I work and possibly install a piece.

I love working on silk, specifically silk shantung. It takes the dye colors I use really well and has some natural imperfections in the weave. The sheen of the fabric is a component that adds to the scene. I do work with other found fabrics but those works have different objectives in terms of process and outcome. I tend to separate the dye paintings from the applique and printed pieces. Often with the latter, the elements function in a collaged format and sit on the surface whereas with the dye paintings the material itself transforms and the image becomes a part fabric itself.

VS: Let’s talk about your studio space. What tools and elements are necessary and always present, how is the process staged?

PR: I’m most productive in work spaces with a lot of natural light and feel fortunate that my current studio has a lot of windows. I often start with a range of small ink drawings or perhaps focus on a memory or observation. If a drawing resonates with me I draw it multiple times and if it still holds interest I'll work to translate it into a larger piece. From the initial sketches I’ll do multiple color drawings or do this while I’m working on the larger fabric piece to understand how the pieces fit together or play with different options. Of course, it’s always a different outcome than I originally intended, which keeps it interesting for me. I work on tables or on the floor for very large pieces. I am interested in the relationship to the floor or the horizontal structure that supports the work while it is being made. It has let me consider how these pieces take up space and sometimes I re-consider their presentation.

Sketching a guide for additional resist drawing on denim © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

Indigo ink drawings on paper and dye on silk © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran

VS: What are some of your sources of inspiration?

PR: I am inspired by everyday elements in my environment, rituals, folk art objects, storytelling - historical myth to folk tales, cultural dress, fabric patterns, food, and good conversations.

VS: When thinking about your home country and cultural heritage, what inspires you most?

PR: I think about the contradictions of the idea of “home country” and where and how one gains a sense of “belonging”- if it is there or not. I am inspired by this potential tension and the simultaneity of being of other spaces not so easily defined but are still hopeful.

VS: What are you working on right now?

PR: At the moment, I am working on finishing a larger dye piece that is not on silk that I started a couple months ago but had to put on pause. I am also working on a couple collaborative ideas with a Mexican designer from the Yucatan and continuing my collaboration project with Clay Pond Studios.

Untitled (Flower Comb), Dye and resist on silk, 2021 © Courtesy of Padma Rajendran