When Portland painter Srijon Chowdhury was invited to present a solo exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, he asked himself, “what’s the best kind of museum show an artist could have?” His answer: “a retrospective.” Endeavoring to create the effect of a career survey with his first-ever museum exhibition, he produced a series of new mural-size paintings on panel incorporating much of the imagery that has appeared in his work over the last decade.
The Frye show, titled “Same Old Song,” does not include any of his older paintings, but rather glimpses of past works in the form of motifs—things like morning glories, devils, angels, and knives. In creating the exhibition, the Bangladesh-born artist came to see these painted quotations as a kind of self-portraiture, so he literalized the concept: six of the works highlight his own facial features, all at enormous scale and in extreme close-up. “It turns the exhibition space into the inside of my head,” he told me during a studio visit.
Each of these six studies has one gigantic feature that, on closer inspection, abounds with allusions to Chowdhury’s symbolic vocabulary. Measuring a towering 10-and-a-half by 6 feet each, the five adjoined oil-on-linen panels that comprise Mouth (Divine Dance), 2022, induce a sense of envelopment. The interior of the mouth is a hellscape, with flayed and skeletal figures dancing around a fire, imagery reprised from a work Chowdhury painted as a hex against Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Surrounding the mouth, in the creases of the lips, about 150 figures from Chowdhury’s prior works are faintly rendered, like petroglyphs marking earlier civilizations.
The tension between epiphany and mystery remain an inspiration to Chowdhury. His 2017 exhibition “Revelation Theater” at the Art Gym at Marylhurst University in Oregon evoked the Book of Revelations, a Biblical series of visions representing the tribulations and final judgments that await saint and sinner alike. For “Memory Theater” in 2016, a show at Upfor Gallery in Portland, Chowdhury reimagined 16th-century philosopher Giulio Camillo’s proposed architectural structure, whose physical reminders of all the world’s important concepts promised the viewer omniscience. These ideas of sacred vision and prognostication appear again in the 2022 works in the form of divine messengers delivering succor and retribution. “I’m always going back to something,” he said. “I wanted to have ‘Revelation Theater’ and ‘Memory Theater’ in this show.”
Other panels depict some of the recurring motifs in Chowdhury’s illustrative oeuvre, including the morning glory and knife that replace the pupil and iris of Eye (Morning Glory), 2022. Both objects appear in multiple paintings made between 2018 and 2021—works that, for Chowdhury, allude to the thin veil that divides the everyday from the unknown.
The artist’s characteristic gestures include numerous art historical influences. The shell of the right ear in Ear (Good), 2022, holds a Blakean angel slaying a shadowy, semitransparent devil bearing a Francis-Bacon-style melted face. These references link Chowdhury to artists who have grappled with beauty and terror, exploring their moral expressions by producing works that are anchored to the real yet expand into the surreal. He sees these allegorical representations as a way to respond to contemporary circumstances: “In a moment when everything constantly seems awful everywhere in the world, I feel like the worst thing I can do is stop caring,” adding, “the modern world began with the symbol, and now we’re at the end of modernity. Symbolism is a good way to bookend that time.”