Soumya Netrabile, Search Party, 2022, oil on canvas, 60 x 72in. Courtesy of the artist Andrew Rafacz Gallery 

Soumya Netrabile transforms the flux and unpredictability of the natural world - its shifting seasons and cycles- into an immersive spectacle of dreamlike spaces through blazing brushstrokes. She spends a lot of her time walking in endless fields filled with animals and vegetal life, only to return to her studio and conjure landscapes from her inner consciousness with fluidity across the surfaces of her canvases. The use of color and play of light inherent in her paintings reveal themselves as topographies of feelings and emotion that exist in a specific moment in time. Soumya’s paintings have a way of luring you in, leaving you to undergo enveloping sensory experiences like the feeling of the wind caressing your skin, the smell of burnt wood on a cold afternoon and the sound of birds chirping in the distance. 

The Particle Foundation sat down with painter Soumya Netrabile to delve into the artist's practice.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are originally from. What is your earliest memory of when art first entered your life?

I was born in India and spent my early years in Mumbai. My mother and I emigrated to the US in 1973 to join my father, settling in New Jersey where I lived until I finished my first degree at Rutgers University. After graduating, I moved to Chicago and have lived in this area ever since.

Drawing is woven into my earliest memories. It’s been my main pastime since I was a child. Family members remember me spending hours sitting and drawing. My mother told me I was very late to speak, so I like to think drawing might have been my first language.

I always felt a strong sense of intuitiveness shine through your work and I wasn’t surprised when you told me you paint from memory and collected experiences that you directly translate onto the canvas. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and why it is important to you to paint from recollections rather than having physical source material guide you?

I’ve not met an artist who doesn’t rely on intuition. I think that’s the equivalent of a hammer in our toolbox. I actually do use physical sources, but indirectly. I’ve always relied on my imagination, but a few years ago, I started to feel like I was missing something. I was feeling very disconnected to the world and disenchanted with the abstract work I was making. I started hearing the voices of past teachers who repeatedly told me that I needed to get out of my head, that I lived too much inside of it. That criticism always confused me, like they were telling me my arm was too long and I had to chop off a bit to make it right. But their words slowly started to resonate. And I wasn’t sure how to tackle this, so I started with something simple. I began to pay keen attention to what my senses were perceiving during mundane daily experiences, which was actually not easy for me to do at first. It took a lot of energy to focus. Part of my daily routine had always been walking or running through the woods. As I started to engage with the woods in a more conscious way, I began to see and feel things differently. Now I like to say I walk in the woods rather than through it.

Soumya Netrabile, Redeeming the Dream, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 x 60in. Courtesy of the artist Andrew Rafacz Gallery 

I started to spend more time in the woods, paying keen attention to the visible and invisible elements in the space. Doing this reinvigorated my imagination, but now it feels more connected to actual experience. I do think the physical world plays an important part in my process. I try to spend time each week drawing directly from observation—nature, still lives, people, animals. When I’m back in the studio, I’m not always trying to recollect, revisit or describe memories or experiences because I know these things are inside of me and they’ll express themselves when they need to. I mainly start by moving paint around, looking for interesting interactions between colors and textures. As the painting evolves and I’m lost in the process, memories might emerge. Sometimes I’ll push them forward and other times not. Many times the work is just about reverberations I pick up while I’m walking through the woods.

Soumya Netrabile, The Poet, oil on canvas, 48 x 60in. (left) and The Boot, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 x 36in. (right)
Courtesy of the artist Andrew Rafacz Gallery                   

Your practice involves mostly painting outdoor scenes that oscillate between abstraction and figuration. Some of your landscapes, particularly your diptychs and triptychs have this performative quality to them, where one feels almost absorbed by the scene's energy and spontaneity. What is it about the natural world and the notion of time that captivates you the most

As the recent work has been developing, I think more about my body as a physical entity and as a receiver. What does it actually register on any given day? How much stays with me and how much is lost? Time is relevant because it is deeply tied to how I am constructing my reality, the impressions I am collecting and sorting. I really want to tie the experience of my body moving through the space of the forest to the work I’m making. I’ve been experimenting with various ways to do this without resorting to using film (which I do think I’ll utilize at some point). The recent multi-panel pieces began as one piece, but then I separated them to work on them as individual paintings. I like that each piece exists on its own, but is connected to another. I like that there is a hidden journey between these pieces and possibilities for multiple narratives.

Recently I started making scrolls, where after each daily walk I add notations to the paper. I want to make the viewer walk to absorb the work, incorporating time into their experience. Each scroll describes seven days of impressions, but I have plans to push this to longer stretches.

Soumya Netrabile, The Forgetting of Themselves and Each Other, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 72in. Courtesy of the artist Andrew Rafacz Gallery

How has the pandemic affected your creativity

When we first went into lockdown, I was experiencing many of the same anxieties as everyone else. For me, the anxieties set in motion a certain urgency, and my focus and productivity increased. But the pandemic coincided with the beginning of the transition I mentioned above, so it might have been both things driving the urgency.

As a traditional painter, I'm curious to know your thoughts on NFTs.

Honestly I have not given NFTs much consideration. They feel a bit alien to me. So much of what motivates me is the direct experience of paint—the experience of its materiality. As much time as I spend looking at digital images, nothing can replace the experience of standing in front of a painting and getting lost in it. But I do like innovation and technology, so I don’t discount the possibilities that NFTs may offer for artists.

Some of your works evoke a sense of premonition, which I think is shown by your masterful use of color. Can you elaborate on color and its relevance to your practice?

When I was a child I began playing a game where I’d imagine “what if” scenarios to keep myself entertained, and now it’s a habit I can’t shake, especially when I’m looking to kill time. Things like, “What if all the birds started falling down from the sky?” or “What if earthworms suddenly started to live above ground?” But I think this habit has cultivated some apprehension in me as well, which might explain the sense of premonition in the paintings.

Color for me is equivalent to wonder—its infinite possibilities and the fact that you can use it to directly convey emotion. And there is so much joy to be had in playing with it. In art school, a figure painting professor thought there was something wrong with my eyes. To him I was always using some weird color combinations and struggling with values, even though I thought I was describing what I saw. On his suggestion I got my eyes tested, but the eye doctor told me my eyes were functioning fine. I went through years thinking my eyes were broken in some way, but now I know that’s just how they work. I do try to analyze and understand the color and light information I am picking up when I am looking at things, though I no longer mistrust it. I just let it happen and hope for the best. In the studio, there are many failing color moments in the life of a painting. Just part of the process.

Soumya Netrabile, Wendigo, 2021, oil on canvas, 36 x 48in. Courtesy of the artist Andrew Rafacz Gallery 

What is a day in the studio like for you?

I usually get in before 8am and start working right away. I really don’t have a set way of working, because it helps me stay motivated. I generally have a few paintings going at one time. Some days I stick to just one painting, and other days I’ll move between them. I also take breaks to focus on small works on paper, or do something completely different. I still continue with the abstract works I had started five years ago which are meditations on body and land. I pretty much work straight till 3 or 4 o’clock, longer if I’m in a groove.

What are your biggest sources of inspiration?

Anything and everything! I don’t discount anything.

How would you describe your work to somebody who had never seen it? 

I would say that I make semi-abstract paintings, in which I am trying to process my experience of elements in nature and the architecture of the forest.

What’s next for you?

I just returned from a one month residency in Toiano, Tuscany. In addition to processing that experience, I also need to make work for a solo in November at Part 2 Gallery in Oakland, California.

Can you share a few artists that you have recently looked into as well as the last exhibition you went to where you had a “wow” moment?

Last month I visited Museo Novocento in Florence, where they are currently showing the work of Giulio Paolini, an Italian conceptual artist who was a key part of the Arte Povera movement. He manages to combine wonder, humor, self-reflection and history in such enigmatic ways. I loved his use of materials in such surprising, often thrilling ways. Upstairs they have a great exhibit of still lifes painted by Filippo de Pisis, whose work I had never seen in real life. The paintings are bizarre combinations of objects, but what I found really magical was his use of paint and color. The other marvelous art adventure I had was at the new Kunsthaus Zurich, maybe now one of my favorite museums and collections.

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Soumya Netrabile was born in Bangalore, India in 1966. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois and a BSEE from Rutgers University, College of Engineering in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Netrabilie’s recent solo and group exhibitions include To Meet and Be Met, 2022 at the Journal Gallery in New York, EXPO Chicago, in Chicago Illinois (2022); “Open Your Mouth + Taste the Spores” at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago, Illinois (2021); “Wish You Were Here” at Anat Ebgi in Los Angeles, California (2021); “Hot Tropics” at LaLoma Projects in Los Angeles, California (2021) “I Wake To Sleep” at Part 2 Gallery in Oakland, California (2021) and “Brindar Con Extraños.” at Trinta Gallery in Santiago de Compostolo, Spain (2020).