The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows, by contemporary artist Sharmistha Ray, is a seductive image: A marigold crescent rests at the bottom of an indigo square. The square is inside a vertical rectangle and framed by a diagonal rainbow, such as one thrown by a prism. Rays of color seep through the blue but yield to the yellow crescent and the faint outline of a circle extending from its edges. The clean celestial geometry and jewel-tone inflected ROYGBIV color palette is unabashedly appealing.

The artwork’s description complicates the viewing experience: “60 hours of automatic writing with colored pens on vellum.” Yet it is hard to find writing in The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows, there are no legible words floating in the shapes or any script that could be recognized as text. In reality, text is everywhere. The tight, idiosyncratic cross-hatching that fills each block of color is actually Ray’s handwriting but they have layered their script so densely that it has become illegible. The concealment is no accident; the words are not meant to be read. Ray is using writing not as a communication medium but as a mark making process.

Kajal connected with Ray to discuss The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows, beginning with how the artist incorporated automatic writing into their visual art practice.

Sharmistha Ray, The Night Is Dark and Full of Rainbows, 2019, 60 hours of automatic writing with colored pens on vellum, 25 x 19 inches.

Kajal: How did you come to automatic writing?

Sharmistha Ray: I lived in India for about a decade after graduate school. During that time, my trauma related to migration, gender, and sexuality were surfacing in a big way. Spirituality became a way to work through some of the energetic parts of my healing process. I explored different psychological, divinatory, and ritual practices, as a way of entering the unconscious. I worked with a Jungian psychologist for a year and kept a dream journal. I also practiced more culturally prevalent forms of mind/body work like meditation and yoga. I learned automatic writing through channeling sessions with a healer I worked with for a while. It was a way of circumventing energy blocks and finding an authentic connection with my higher self. In the west, the tradition of automatic writing has roots in occult practices and was later appropriated by the Surrealists, most notably André Breton; but it has probable roots in premodern times in other cultures as well. In this process, the writer becomes a medium for a spirit body. That’s where I distinguish the kind of automatic writing that I do. Mine connects more with the histories of feminism and “streams of consciousness” as a way of liberating language from its patriarchal lineage.

How did automatic writing go from being part of your process of healing to a part of your art practice?

When I returned to New York a few years ago, I started to rethink my art practice. At that time, I was writing art criticism frequently and I was drawing. They were independent of each other, but it felt like they didn’t need to be. I wanted to find a way to merge the written and visual forms, so I started writing as a way of image making. In a way, there’s a genealogy of this in sacred texts and illuminated manuscripts, where the words and images often entwine. I work in series and the first works I did grew into a series I later called Blind Spot (2018-ongoing). Coming back to America, I felt like I had to write myself into a new culture. I see these drawings as planting new seeds in spaces of illegibility to make oneself more visible. These were done with simple ink-based pens on sheets of sketchbook paper in which I would draw a circle and start writing inside of it. I started out with single color inks and wrote in script form, in more or less uniform lines. Further on in this series, I added more ink colors and experimented with changing the orientation of the page and writing in different directions. The writing became entangled and eventually, patterns started to form within the circle, which I started to arrange in color blocks. Their relationship to Buddhist mandalas is inevitable.

Sharmistha Ray, Blindspot #6, 2018, Automatic writing with colored pens on archival sketchbook paper, 11.75 x 8.25 inches.

Is the particular text, the words on the page, important or is it Lorem Ipsum filler text?

The words I write are important to me when I am writing them, but the act of writing them is the catharsis that throws them out onto the page, where they continue to have a life outside of me but cannot be read. Much like journaling. I would be mortified if, at some point in the future, technology was used to decipher what I’ve written! In that sense, it’s unlike sacred knowledge that has been written in order to be remembered. The words I put on a page come out of my psyche, so it occupies the space of feeling-language, if I can call it that. I like the idea that written language also leaves an echo, a trace of languages waiting to be spoken. I like that it lives in hidden space, its echoes felt, even if they are incomprehensible. I call them spirit maps but they also function as protective shields.

I made about 60 or 70 of the Blind Spot works. It became a meditative practice. Eventually, I wanted to test my endurance with just a few works, to really immerse myself in the automatic writing process. That led to the Cosmic Earth (2018) series later that same year. In those more labor intensive works, the act of endurance is part of the work. I adapt modes of automatic writing and schematic models to build intuitive geometries. In a process I call “performative South Asian queer-feminist emotional-intellectual labor,” I wrote for 50 hours to complete a single work in an iterative act of self-recovery from spaces of erasure. The entire series of seven works, which symbolize the passage of a day, was borne out of 350 hours of automatic writing.

Sharmistha Ray, Cosmic Earth, series of 7 works.

Sharmistha Ray, Cosmic Earth No. 3/7 (Chapters of the Day): Raag Asaveri (Late Morning), “Your skin as warm as pebbles on the beach/Noon-high sun/Manipura/Yellow-Pink” teen taal: 5’52, 2018, 50 hours of automatic writing with colored pens on vellum, 25 x 19 inches.

Cosmic art, specifically cosmic geometry, seems very much at the forefront of your practice right now. I’m thinking about The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows, your Cosmic Earth series, your collaborative practice with Hilma’s Ghost, and your curatorial work. How do you define cosmic geometry and why does it compel you so? 

Since 2020, I’ve been very involved with Hilma’s Ghost, a feminist artist collective I co-founded with artist Dannielle Tegeder. The collective’s namesake is Hilma af Klint, an overlooked woman artist who created a profound body of work at the intersections of art, mysticism, and abstraction. These intersections were already evident in my work, but it’s very hard to talk about spirituality in the contemporary art world without risking dismissal or mockery. The collective seeks to counter these western forms of rationalism and restore spiritualism to the language of art. We need it. Our culture needs it.

Our curated exhibition, Cosmic Geometries (2022), which took place at EFA Project Space in Manhattan earlier this year, really encapsulated many of the things I have been thinking about for the past decade. The group exhibition of 25 intergenerational and intersectional artists curated by Hilma’s Ghost examined the spiritual and aesthetic functions of abstract painting and geometry in art. The artists we selected deployed a range of painterly devices to create cosmic and transcendental visions that combine esoteric world traditions with the language of Modernism. Their motifs were inspired by sources as divergent as Islamic architecture, Buddhist mandalas, Hindu yantras, medieval Christian stained-glass windows, and quantum mechanics, rendering formal devices that range from tessellations, optical illusions, to elaborate ornamentation techniques. These artists primarily work with the language of painting, but also draw from languages and materials adapted from sculpture, installation, craft, textiles, and ceramics. Together, the works revealed a rich sensibility for color, shape, and compositional elements, bringing together some of the daring sensibilities that artists are bringing to the historically overlooked arena of the spiritual in art. These artists’ practices build upon palimpsest legacies of alternative power structures that are constantly being erased. As a feminist, I am keenly aware of those legacies in my work as an artist, writer, and curator.

Hilma’s Ghost (Dannielle Tegeder + Sharmistha Ray). Queen of Pentacles, from ABSTRACT FUTURES TAROT series and deck, 2021, Gouache, ink, and colored pencil on Fabriano Murillo paper, 17 x 9.75 inches. Courtesy: Hilma’s Ghost and Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago.

Installation view of 78 drawings from ABSTRACT FUTURES TAROT series by Hilma’s Ghost (Dannielle Tegeder + Sharmistha Ray) at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy: Hilma’s Ghost and Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago.

What is the significance of the icons in The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows? What is drawing you to the crescent? The rainbow? The square?

I’m intuitive when constructing an image. I rarely look at my past work or images of other artists’ work while I am working. This is because I want the image that arrives on the page to be a distillation of what’s already there, to well up from the deep crevices of my unconscious. Because I am using automatic writing in this work, there are thick bands of localized color, so I can write in one color for a period of time. The exception is the Crescent, the central icon in this work, which is a thin sliver of yellow and pale pink together to create a pale orange hue. In the process of automatic writing, it’s important that I am writing, not filling space as one may when coloring in. They are essentially different gestures, even if they both produce a block of color. I am interested in sacred images, especially iconic ones. The Crescent is a central icon in Islamic art, which I grew up with in Kuwait. The symbol is ubiquitous, but it’s also a source of direct experience; I am always haunted by a perfect crescent hanging in the sky, gleaming against the inky blackness of the sky.

I knew I wanted to create a rainbow in the work, a signification of queerness, but formally I had to work out the composition to make the thick bands of diagonal color of the rainbow work with the sliver of the moon. That’s where the square around the Crescent comes in. It’s a formal device to balance the elements. There are very few elements in the work, so they have to be balanced. I am interested in creating visual harmony. My compositions move fluidly between landscapes and abstractions, like The Swan (after Hilma af Klint) (2019) which was done around the same time as The Night Is Dark and Full of Rainbows. I think of them more as cosmic portals or spirit maps, as I referred to them earlier in this interview. There’s a tradition of sacred imagery, including Tantra, which is a direct influence, of the image being a portal and not an end in itself. I like the idea of the image as a vehicle. It requires a different kind of surrender.

Sharmistha Ray, The Swan (after Hilma af Klint), 2019, 60 hours of automatic writing with colored pens on vellum, 19 x 25 inches.

Your rainbow is recognizable as a rainbow but it’s a little off…there’s no yellow, you’ve added in extra blues and a pink. Can you talk about these changes? Are these formal, aesthetic choices or symbolic?

Good observation! They are both formal and symbolic choices. The rainbow is, of course, a queer signifier; it’s so much a part of queer visuality. For my adaptation of the rainbow, I refer to the original Pride flag that the artist Gilbert Baker designed in 1978. This version of the rainbow has both pink and turquoise in it, both colors I am drawn to for personal and symbolic reasons. Pink, of course, has a lineage of queerness. It denotes flesh, passion, sexuality, desire. It had to be part of my color choices. Much of my work thinks about enlightenment and what that looks like for queer people. I’m searching for the spiritual aspects of the queer divine. I want to know what does that look like in images? I did a TEDTalk about this. It’s also interesting that the reason these colors were phased out for the more universal pride flag we know now is because of the limited availability and expense of pink and turquoise fabrics.

With regards to yellow, I couldn’t use it because the lightness of the hue causes it to disappear on the vellum. The vellum I use is a semi-opaque substrate which requires layers of writing to build up the color density you see in these works. Yellow on its own just doesn’t have enough body to anchor a shape, so that’s the other reason it’s been left out of my palette.

Detail from Ray’s The Night Is Dark and Full of Rainbows.

Why vellum?

Vellum, the kind I use, which is the Canson brand and comes in individual sheets measuring 19 x 25 inches, is just a gorgeously smooth surface, and has some weight to it so it’s not flimsy like most tracing papers. The level of transparency was just right for what I wanted to do, which is work with pens. When I wrote the first sentences on the surface, the lines just disappeared into the paper. I realized that I would have to build up the density of the writing in order for the color to have any body on that surface. It made me continue writing obsessively so that eventually language became subsumed by the writing of it. I think of it as a kind of drowning of words in a crowd; when all you hear is the chorus of voices and not any one voice. The words become indistinct. The field of writing sublimates into a color field. The page becomes a map. A spirit map that has these embedded tongues.

You’re doing a lot of automatic writing, thinking in a freeform stream of consciousness. Is your image making also an automatic process or do you map out your geometric compositions beforehand? What informs these shapes and compositions?

I spend a lot of time composing the image beforehand so that I can have complete freedom when I write. There are clear boundary lines established through the hard edges of geometric forms. My sense of patterning and color is deeply impacted by Indian textiles and craft traditions. I like to think of my compositions as “patterns.” I’ve had a lifelong relationship with Indian textiles, through my mother who was a fashion designer, but also in my exposure to Indian crafts from a young age. I’m fascinated with the patterning and colors of Indian textiles and their variegation across the country. While living in India for a period of time, I was fortunate to see important textile collections in the country, including The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad by the Sarabhai Foundation. The history is so deep and complex. I’m also interested in symmetry that is slightly off-kilter; a mild trompe-l’oeil of sorts. In terms of an image, I am very drawn to the minimalism and centrality of Tantric iconographies. There’s something totemic and essentialist about them. They feel grounded; I want my image-patterns to be grounded in the same way.

How did the composition for The Night Is Dark and Full of Rainbows come to you?

I have worked with the image of a crescent moon for a while now. A few years ago, I was commissioned to make a large sculpture and I based it on the poem “On the Seashore,” from a collection of poems for children by Rabindranath Tagore, The Crescent Moon. I’m interested in how works can stand-in for poems, how they can become the poem. They are ekphrastic in this way. Images come to me in flashes and then they keep nagging away at me, until I start to work them out. Earlier in this interview, I talked about wanting to bring the rainbow and crescent, two major signifiers I work with, together into one work. Initially, I thought of the rainbow as being vertical or horizontal bands on the paper, but there was a synchronous incident which changed the orientation of the bands to a diagonal direction. The semi-opaque vellum was sitting on my cutting board, which had exactly those diagonals printed on its surface. As they appeared as a ghost image on the vellum’s surface, I had that aha! moment. I did one version of the drawing that just didn’t work. I had tried to minimize the number and color of the diagonal bands of the rainbow so that it wouldn’t overpower the sliver of the crescent. But the color-patterns were dull. I wanted more from the image; that’s when I arrived at the solution of the square around the crescent as a framing device to visually separate the elements. I was then able to adapt more colors to the rainbow without compromising the visual field of the crescent. I was lucky to get it on my second shot; usually it’s a lot of trial and error.

Sharmistha Ray, On the Seashore of Endless Worlds, 2015, Steel and acrylic paint, 144 x 60 x 156 inches.

When The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows was exhibited at Sweet Lorraine gallery, it was hung almost like a mobile versus a traditional 2D piece that’s flat on the wall. The shadow it cast activated the space around it. Can you speak more about that decision to show it in this way?

I’ve had different ideas around how I want to display the vellum works, because seeing them from verso is also an aesthetic experience, given their semi-transparency. The colors seep through the paper and render an ethereal quality. When it’s held up to the light, you can see the layers of script, which you can’t see when the work is conventionally framed and flattened. The act of “seeing through” also connects with Tantric notions of a work being a vehicle rather than an object. The former has to do with ideas of transcendence, the latter, with surface and pleasure; although in art, the lines do get blurred! The curator of the show, Sarah E. Brook (who is also an artist) and I worked together to imagine this work suspended in the gallery. That show, Writ, was a group show so I didn’t have much control over the lighting. I would have liked to play with light and architecture more in relation to the work, but that show was definitely useful in thinking about my work in dynamic orientations to space.

Installation view of Ray’s The Night Is Dark and Full of Rainbows at Sweet Lorraine Gallery, Brooklyn, NY.

Is it functioning like a flag? 

It’s so interesting that you mention that. I didn’t think of it as a flag, but I generally do think about flags a lot and what they symbolize in terms of identity and movement, especially restricted movement, in relation to borders. I often talk about political abstraction, which is what I believe I am doing, but through a spiritual lens. I need beauty. I need poetry. I need their abstractions.

I wanted to end by asking you about the title, The Night is Dark and Full of Rainbows: it’s such a poetic and mysterious phrase. Did it come to you through automatic writing? What does this title mean to you?

The poem I mentioned earlier by Rabindranath Tagore inspired this title. Americans don’t really know Tagore, but he embodies an entire culture, which is Bengali, which is also my family’s heritage. Part of the politics of my work is to enter my culture authentically, especially the parts that risk erasure here, in America. To risk illegibility is itself a necessary act of resistance in order to preserve what’s worth recovering. That’s what this work is also about: the glimmer of hope that arrives through dark shadows. Direct experience can give us that: an astonishing moonlit night; a sudden shooting star; the perfect curve of a crescent moon; a faded rainbow in rain washed skies. All these things reveal the perfection of all that is. There are those sublime moments within the queer experience too. Moments of transcendence amidst overwhelming challenges; a wish to continue along the delicate arc of life, to fully embody your existence, even if it’s incomprehensible to others.

All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.