Soumya Netrabile sometimes closes her eyes to pick a tube of paint. She applies it using “anything and everything”: her hand, rags, a stick she found on the way into her studio. Her lush, whimsical oil paintings, typically depicting swirling nature scenes, aren’t meant to be representational; instead, they are phenomenological recreations of things she’s experienced. “I’m very aware that whatever I’m taking in is going to come out here, without even having to force it out,” Netrabile said of her intuition-led process during a recent visit to her Chicago studio. “Because it’s inside of me.”
Netrabile has always been an artist. Her earliest memories, dating back to her childhood in Bangalore, India, are of drawing. “I’ve always been very attracted to any sort of strong imagery,” she says. “When I was young, the imagery came mostly from mythology. My mother, to make me eat—because I was a poor eater—would bribe me with stories. And she’s a great storyteller, so she would retell all the Indian myths, but she would spread it out. She’d make it a lot longer than the story actually needed to be until I finished my entire dinner. I was fed on that vivid, vivid imagery.”
Portrait of Soumya Netrabile in her studio. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman/Bob. Courtesy of Anat Ebgi.
Netrabile’s attraction to visual storytelling is palpable in her work—brightly colored, loosely rendered paintings that immerse the viewer in teeming landscapes. Because Netrabile paints by intuition, her scenes are mostly imaginary: Plants swirl, Dr. Seuss–like, up a hill, or gauzy flowers blend into one another in a thicket. And now, after quietly developing her practice for decades, the artist is finally finding recognition for this work. At a flurry of gallery shows and fair presentations over the past three years, Netrabile has, in turn, fed a growing audience with her own vivid imagery.
When Netrabile was seven, she and her family emigrated to the United States, where her love of drawing had to coexist with her parents’ desire for her to secure a stable job and a steady income. She majored in engineering at Rutgers University; her father reasoned with her that once she had a job, she could put herself through art school. She did just that: After working as an engineer for a few years, Netrabile went for her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). There, she concentrated on learning to paint from life and observation, with a focus on the figure.
“Imagining things, making things up, has never been an issue for me. I knew that was something that I can always go back to. I really wanted to understand how to take something I was looking at and then make it happen with paint,” she explained.
When she arrived at school, Netrabile had never had formal instruction in oil painting. The learning curve was steep and frustrating, so in one class, she switched to watercolors. “I realized when I was there that I was able to be much freer with the watercolors than the oil paint. The oil paint—I was trying to control it. And with watercolor, I didn’t feel like I had to control it,” she said. In her final thesis presentation, she showed only watercolors.
After graduating from SAIC in 1996, Netrabile still didn’t feel like she had a good grasp on painting. “I just felt like that wasn’t even enough time to learn how to paint. I came out of there so frustrated,” she said. But the self-described slow learner kept at it for decades, working in her free time from a string of different jobs, from doing engineering technical support to art directing. She also added ceramics to her practice around two decades ago, creating layered, ventricular forms that often recall the shapes in her paintings.
Though she had been in some small shows throughout the years, it wasn’t until 2020 that Netrabile’s career really started to gain momentum, beginning with an invitation to show in “(Nothing but) Flowers” at tastemaking New York gallery Karma. Netrabile’s contribution, The Waning of the Powerful (2019–20), shows a mass of crimson red floral-like forms, with leaves falling around the sides and a dark peach background. With its vivid colors, it seems like a harbinger of the palette Netrabile now regularly uses in her work. The painting was highlighted in a New York Times review of the show—a group exhibition of nearly 60 artists, including Nicole Eisenman and Alex Katz.
This moment of recognition came not long after the artist had a reckoning with herself. In 2018, she had been working on her art full-time for a few years without garnering much notice. “I just had to have a reality check conversation with myself and say, ‘Why are you in this?’” she explained. In a moment of clarity, Netrabile decided to stop caring what the art world thought of her work, and just paint. “I think there was sort of a surrender to the paint and surrender to whatever was inside of me,” Netrabile said. “I thought, well, nobody really cares. So I’m just going to do whatever I want. I’m just going to be an Instagram artist for the rest of my life. And that was okay.”
Also around that time, the artist discovered a new font of inspiration. She started to take daily walks through the forest near her house in the suburbs of Chicago, paying attention to the details of nature: the plants, the bugs, the light. “I was getting so much relief from it, that I just kept going back there all the time,” she said. Those walks started to show up in the studio, as gorgeous, highly gestural landscapes, often mixing rich greens and peaches. The sense of play and daydreaming that Netrabile experiences in nature are, she believes, essential to her creative practice. Indeed, her romantic, often indistinct scenes have the hazy qualities of a dream or a landscape glimpsed from a moving train.
In “Between past and present/Between appearance and memory,” a solo show that opened in September at Anat Ebgi—which, along with Chicago’s Andrew Rafacz, now represents Netrabile—those reveries took center stage. The paintings in the show varied in color palette, from the dusk-toned At the Edge of Night to the more neutral, staid The Water Hole (both 2023). Also on view, for the first time, were oversized paper scrolls, which the artist draws after her walks. She unrolls a bit of scroll, sketches a scene, and then adds to it the next day. The scrolls are so large that Netrabile hadn’t been able to see them in full prior to the show, due to a lack of space. At Anat Egbi, they were rolled out on large tables.
With another solo show currently on view at GANA Art in Seoul, and yet another scheduled for 2024 at Andrew Rafacz, Netrabile is clearly on an upward trajectory, but she doesn’t quite seem convinced of its reality. For now, she’s just focused on her practice. She works every day of the week—whether in her tidy Chicago studio, painting watercolors or drawing at home, or making ceramics in a local pottery studio—and remains grounded in the present.
Soumya Netrabile, “Between past and present/ Between appearance and memory,” at Anat Ebgi, 2023
“Every single painting I start has to be its own journey,” she said. “I see it in the same way that every day I take a walk in the woods, and each walk is different.…My life is different 24 hours later, the thoughts running through my head are different, and the light coming down is different, the air is different. So the paintings have to be the same for me. I start a painting and the painting tells me where it needs to go.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2023
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The sixth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 10 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2023 and browse works by the artists.
Header: Soumya Netrabile, from left to right:“Houses on the Hill,” “The Water Hole,” “2pm In the Park.” All 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi.