Narangkar Glover

Oakland, Painter // July 2012
I made the decision to embrace my anger, and to make work that would not just tell a narrative, but would engage my emotional state as well.

I didn’t expect Narangkar’s work to hit home. But it did, like a hard wallop coming out of nowhere to knock me down. I should have anticipated it, I knew some of her autobiographical paintings directly intersected with a bit of my own history— namely, a difficult and bewildering childhood spent in the lush, damp landscape of an Indian hill station. But because the particulars of our childhoods are actually quite different, I had assumed I could come to Narangkar’s work with neutrality and distance. Instead, her paintings threw me right into a squirming mess of emotions.

At her Oakland studio she showed us two pieces from her Shangri-La Girls School series; these large paintings, which are rooted in her experiences growing up in a religious cult and at a boarding school in India, made my gut tighten. The landscapes are looming, the children are small, and there are no adults, ever. There is a sense of inescapable loneliness and terror— the terrain frames the paintings in way that evoke claustrophobia, as if it is closing in on the figures, ready to swallow them up. Layers upon layers of oil in rich, dark hues express a remarkable density and suggest the traces and texture of memory.

Narangkar’s more current work, also having to do with childhood memories, filled her studio walls and though these paintings depict a desert landscape instead of the sharp green hillsides of India, there is still that same loneliness and terror. While talking with Narangkar I was appreciative of how open she is about her experiences— not just with the details, but her emotions around what happened. She expresses anger, frustration and sadness in an unchecked manner, giving herself permission to be outspoken.

Addressing specific and personal stories in artwork can be tricky business; there’s always the risk that universality will be lost. But Narangkar manages to keep her paintings ambiguous enough to allow viewers their own experience. There’s an inclusive quality to her pieces, specifically those from the Shangri-La Girls School series, because they embrace a collective point of view. Narangkar recognizes that her childhood experience was shared, that many other children were involved, and the ‘we’ voice in her work is audible. This collective voice keeps the work from feeling static— instead there is open-ended and ever-changing quality to it that keeps it alive, almost restlessly so.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I work with oil on canvas primarily, plus most drawing and water media.

Much of my work is autobiographical, drawing from my upbringing in a cult called 3HO and my time spent at a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills in India. I deal with both the traumatizing and negative aspects of this upbringing, but also the empowering parts, and the whole grey area in between.

This work came about in response to an article I saw in National Geographic about Amish communities. I saw many parallels to my own upbringing and it got me thinking about the nature of these religious sects. Initially I thought I’d make work about cults in general, but I realized I had to approach this subject matter personally and allow my own experiences and memories to come through as part of the process.

It is empowering that as an adult I’m able to look at these experiences and recognize that they weren’t exotic or impressive— they were just weird, damaging, and traumatizing, and that’s it. At this point there is no longer any fear or threat, so I can tell my story.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
About two-thirds of my income is as a self-employed massage practitioner, and the rest is through the sales of my work. I like massage because it’s genuinely fun, I’m financially self-reliant, and my schedule is flexible. And it lets me engage in a practice that keeps me grounded.

You have said your work “takes place through an introspective investigation of memories”— how explicitly autobiographical is your work?
I’d say it’s specific, less explicit. The specificity is addressed first through the great question of what makes a good painting. My story may be unique, but the common thread unifying any person’s unique life experience is in allowing some ambiguity to exist. So if I got explicit within the pictorial space, one might feel he or she is being bludgeoned over the head with what to think and how to think it. I’m more interested in reaching people in a proprioceptive way– by looking at a painting, or any handmade object, one might experience the sensation of touch, and then experience a sense of intimacy.

Your series Shangri-La Girls School is ongoing, right? Is this because the memories you have from your childhood continue to unfold and evolve, almost in a never-ending manner?
I began this series by creating sort of a visual catalog that would account for much of the whats, wheres and whos. I made large drawings to get a sense of what I remembered— there was so much that I was able to pull from memory: textures, colors, moods, etc. This process put me in a vulnerable emotional state, but as the floodgates opened I was able to get a lot of raw information, and these drawings served as the emotional crux for my paintings.

I’d assert that if I weren’t making paintings about my experience in this cult and in this boarding school, the memories would still be quite acute. I made the decision to embrace my anger, and to make work that would not just tell a narrative, but would engage my emotional state as well. In this way, it is ongoing, although I am beginning to engage broader questions about the fragility of the human psyche– those things that fundamentally shape how we navigate the world.

In some cases my paintings address the collective experience of the boarding school. Before Facebook I had only my own childhood photographs. Things changed with this phenomenon. I was struck when a disturbing photo surfaced from one of my ex-schoolmates. In the photo there were seven little boys, who happened to have been in my age group, all with filthy, dirty socks stuffed in their mouths, and holding up a sign that read something like ‘we are the dirty boys.’ I spent a lot of time studying it, and experiencing, first, anger and then deep sadness. After some time it served as the impetus for Vincent Hill Dirty Socks.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
I like to visit natural history museums and museums for ancient art, and lately I have been relying on my regular walks through Mountain View Cemetery. In those places it dawns on me how long, and how short, human history is. I recently visited The Cloisters and I was blown away by all the creepy-cool crypt stuff in Gothic and Medieval art— the demons and the hellscapes! There’s a gravitas to the work that, yes, is totally didactic and meant to scare people into literally buying into these stories. But when you don’t buy in it’s quite rich to look at, and thought provoking.

For a long time I’ve been enamored by the work from the Bay Area Figurative Movement. But for the sake of my own work I’ve had to pull myself out of that love affair — just because my work, and the manner in which I work, isn’t ever going to be in alignment with that school, or any other school for that matter. And it’s important to stand on your own two feet when it comes down to it.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I have been in my current studio in Oakland for nearly ten years. I did work out of a Cal studio at the Richmond Field Station during grad school, and over the last year I split my time between here and Headlands Center for The Arts where I was a Graduate Fellow. It was healthy to go far from home for a while, but my place in Oakland is home. I quite enjoy it, and I feel privileged to have it. It suits me to keep it minimal and tidy, allowing maximum wall space for hanging works in progress. Needless to say, it’s crucial to have a dedicated workspace, and to be disciplined about showing up regularly. Even if it’s just to stare at the walls or listen to NPR radio!

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on a group of paintings that revolve around an incident when I was seven, before I was sent to boarding school in India. My big sister and I had been handed over to a couple of strangers for what I think was supposed to be a full school term. My religion used the technique of “child-swapping” with the intention that it ruptures the nuclear family, a textbook technique in cults. Our “guardians” were horrible people– neglectful, abusive, and careless. They dragged us on a camping trip in the southeastern Utah canyons and on day one, got us caught up in a flash flood that nearly swept us away for good.

The image of the rushing waters is a repeating snapshot of a frightening experience. I am thinking about the idea of the specter – the ghost – as a signifier for memories from which one cannot escape. I see a parallel between the specter of memory, and literal ghost stories– like La Llorona, or the tale from boarding school, about the ghost of Mrs. White, a matron who fell down a set of stairs and died, and now forever haunts. La Llorona was the crying woman who roamed the arroyos at night to steal children. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans tell the story to their young children to scare them from going into the arroyos, precisely due to the danger of… flash floods.

How do you navigate the art world?
I approach it in ways that I know I can make contributions, and that won’t sell myself up the river. Simple things like showing up on time, following up, showing appreciation for opportunities given, making referrals, asking for referrals, and handling conflict as professionally as possible. Andrea Schwartz represents me, so I am fortunate to have a great group of people to take care of the business side of things so that I can focus on making work.

If I look at The Art World as this huge behemoth that can never be penetrated, I run the risk of becoming cynical and pessimistic, so I try to approach it as if it’s made up of a bunch of microcosms in which there is something for everyone. Of course, there is always a legitimate place for criticism within art industry practices, labor, ethics and fairness. These are things we can contribute to though, and we as artists are equally responsible for making ethical choices.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
My painting Vincent Hill Dirty Socks is in a group show for the 2011 recipients of the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA grant. It’s at the CUE Foundation in Chelsea New York, and it’s going on until July 28th.

And this November (November 14 – December 21) I will be in a two-person show along with Gwen Manfrin at Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco.

To see more of Narangkar’s work: