Interview with Sunil Garg

Sunil Garg is primarily known as an experimental light and illumination artist. His large-scale, site-specific public art installations (indoor and outdoor) have been exhibited in New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Key West, FL; Madison, WI; Summit, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Long Beach Island, NJ; and Jersey City, NJ. Garg has had solo exhibitions at Novado Gallery, the Affordable Art Fair, Clio Art Fair and the Visual Arts Gallery at New Jersey City University (curated by Midori Yoshimoto). He was a resident at Gallery Aferro in Newark and was selected to exhibit in the competitive Call for Chelsea and Call for Bushwick exhibitions. Garg has also been exhibited by curators at Index Art Center, Gallery 14, Walsh Gallery, Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, Hammond Museum, and Queens Museum, among others. The following is our interview with him about his life and work.

The Newarker: Where are you from?

Sunil Garg: This is a complex question! I was born and lived without electricity or running water for the initial formative years of my life on a farm ancestrally owned by my father’s family outside Delhi, India. When I was around 8 years old, the family moved to the old, historic section of Delhi, my mother’s ancestral home. I started “formal” schooling when I was around 10 years old, being home-schooled—due to lack of schooling facilities—until then. Upon graduating from the University of Delhi, India with an Honours Degree in Chemistry, I was privileged to receive a Fellowship at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ to pursue a Doctorate in Physical Chemistry. I lived in Hoboken for a couple of years in the early 1970s. Hoboken wasn’t then what it seemingly is now so I moved to New York City while still pursuing graduate school. 

I was trained as a classical Indian improvisational musician and got involved with improvisational Free Jazz and Third Stream jazz movements in the early 1970’s in New York.  

After I received my Ph.D. from Stevens Tech, I got a job in corporate research at a laboratory in New Jersey and lived in Teaneck, Westfield, and, finally, in Summit, where I live now. At the urging of my employer, I went to Rutgers Law School in Newark from 1981 to 1986 and then spent time in Newark as a lawyer and consultant. 

I was a well-received visual artist (in addition to a musician) in New Delhi and had a solo show of my paintings at a premier gallery in New Delhi in 1970. I pursued painting and sculpture sporadically through my corporate and legal careers. Around 10 years ago, I started spending more time on artistic endeavors and found that whole side of Newark that I didn’t know existed. I was a resident at Gallery Aferro and later maintained a studio at The Gateway Project/Project for Empty Space. I now maintain a studio at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. 

So, where am I from? Geographically: from New Jersey by way of India and NYC! Educationally: Science, engineering, law and policy, music! Culturally/Artistically: Visual Art, perception, avant-garde music spanning many influences. 

The Newarker: How would you describe your art?

Sunil: For the past ten to twelve years I have been exploring light and color and forms on a large scale. I place technological elements in natural or curated botanical spaces as well as industrial and post industrial urbanized locations where one would least expect them. The work is dynamic with vibrant color. Humans and even animals are affected by light and color and are particularly drawn to changing light colors and intensities as at sunrise and sunset, for example. Or looking at the sky at night with the variability that the stars and planets present. We get few such experiences in our lives now due to urbanization and light pollution unless we travel to remote places or sit in the middle of Times Square in NYC at night.

I modulate and program the intensities and rhythms of light to provide a reference point to recall or experience something at the edge of familiarity. Some of the work is interactive involving dichroic films and filters to personalize the experience for individual viewers. The essential basis of the work is to allow the viewer to experience transitions and changes in color and intensity and rhythm in real time without saturating the senses. I hope that the viewer will slow down and be contemplative, even meditative for a while in otherwise frenetic lives. 

ISIT ITIS (2019) on Long Beach Island, NJ

My work is sometimes accompanied by sound. Much of the programming is inspired by my experience as a musician and is often based on a piece of jazz, for example, “Three to Get Ready” or “Solar.” Some of the work derives from my science background, such as “Crystalline”, which is based on my experiences as a microscopist looking at structures at 20 to 130,000 magnification range. The connectivity between very small scale and very large scale structures becomes quite prominent in such work. 

I am also fascinated by the fact that while the human perception of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (spanning from very short wavelength Gamma radiation to long wavelength) comprises a very small segment of radiation available in the universe, we have become very adept at visualizing images formed by such radiation to a visible form. Think X-Ray, FLIR, MRI or CAT imaging, for example. This influences my work as well. 

The exhibition Boundless Light (2020) at New Jersey City University

I started painting, after a twenty-year hiatus, in 2020 during the pandemic after a gap of many years, mainly because several of my installation commissions were withdrawn or postponed. The two selections, both oil on canvas, attached here represent my fascination with graffiti-style profusely colorful paintings found on trucks, automobiles and other vehicles in my native India (Truck Paintings). This type of art is generally painted by self-taught, folk artists with little formal training. It tends to be “unsophisticated” in technique but inviting and immersive and unique in its own way. I have created these works with that in mind. “Mayur” means peacock and “Gulab” means rose, both of which are common symbols that occur in Truck Paintings. The large painting in the attached image by Kathryn McGuire represents work based on a FLIR image of a person. My efforts to explore how humans make visible the otherwise invisible portion of existence around us continues to delight me and my viewers. 

The Newarker: Any idea what your next project might be?

Sunil: There are a couple of commissions for outdoor installations that were postponed due to the pandemic, and I am waiting to have them revived. I am participating in a curatorial project involving installations or large-scale outdoor sculptures conceived by Jo-El Lopez to enliven the grounds at a location in Plainfield. I am excited about getting actively involved as a Board member of an impactful arts organization—announcement to follow soon!

The Newarker: Favorite places to hang out in Newark?

Sunil: I have always liked the vibe at Index Art Center for the quality of work and artists coupled with the informality and accessibility and conversation. I have great admiration for Project for Empty Space and for Gallery Aferro. Akwaaba Gallery is a new favorite as well. I have taken out-of-town friends (and occasional skeptics about Newark) to visit the murals on Treat Place and the environs. The Walla, Hobby’s Deli, Kilkenny Alehouse, among others, retain their charm for me.

Seated Figure (2017) at the Newark Arts Festival

The Newarker: Tell us something about you or your work few people know.

Sunil: I am generally recognized as a light and illumination artist, but I started out as a painter and have been painting again for the past couple of years. And I am a recorded jazz musician from the 1970’s who performed with the ensemble at Newport Jazz Festival and live on French National Radio from NYC with some illustrious “heavy cats”—that’s the 70s for you. And I self-identify as a seven-foot tall Indian American athlete playing in the NBA!

You can follow Sunil and his work here:

Instagram: sunilgarg3d

Featured image by Crystal Gwyn