Pomona art professor Sandeep Mukherjee blends color and motion in permanent SoFi Stadium installation

A college professor sits in front of a wall displaying large teal, blue and purple aluminum tree trunk molds.
Pomona College art professor Sandeep Mukherjee won an art commission for the performance venue at the SoFi Stadium. (Courtesy: Sandeep Mukherjee)

SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, is the most expensive sports stadium in the world. The complex — which is home to the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers — cost over $5 billion to build and will feature not only a 70,000-seat stadium and 6,000-seat adjacent performance venue, but a connected park and artificial lake.

Over the five years of design and construction, the stadium has sparked conversations around everything from its intentionally Southern Californian design to gentrification in the surrounding Inglewood area. 

The stadium takes up a lot of space, both in the minds of Southern Californians and physically. Pomona College art professor Sandeep Mukherjee, whose artwork will be right in the middle of it all, is well aware of the scale of the project — and he wants his art to instill the space with some life.

“They cut a lot of trees to make the space,” he said. “I wanted to bring those trees back into the installation.” 

Mukherjee was selected for the commission in 2019 after a recommendation from three different museum curators he had worked with, including those from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. He ended up being one of three artists under consideration, all of whom were directed to think carefully about the SoFi space when developing their potential ideas. 

“We actually got a real tour of the complex. The history of the complex, the intention of the complex. The ideas around Southern California, the local environment, the idea of Los Angeles as a cultural process, the idea of Los Angeles as a physical process,” Mukherjee said. 

Ultimately, when Mukherjee was selected, the performance venue did play a role in the concept of his piece. “Since it was a music, dance, kind of thing, I wanted it to be really dynamic and moving,” he said. However, Mukherjee also spent time thinking about the land itself, and the impact a major construction project had on it. 

The piece is a multiple-part sculpture — at the moment, Mukherjee has created around 150 segments, he said, though not all of them will be used in the installation — made of aluminum molds of tree trunks, roots and branches painted in a series of vibrant colors. Mukherjee sourced the trees used to create the molds from a location not far from his studio in Claremont. 

 

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“They get the most beautiful tree chunks, trees that have been cut down and fallen … before they get further demolished, I’ve brought them back to the studio, and try to give them a new life.” 

The sculpture segments will be mounted on the wall in front of the performance venue. Starting at the stairwell of the performance venue, the work will “explode” across the wall, Mukherjee said, moving through a rainbow of yellows, oranges, reds, purples, blues, greens and browns. “There are parts of the pieces that look very organic … from natural events. And then there’s colors that look really man-made: synthetic, produced, industrial. So it’s a combination of both. Nature takes on different dimensions.” 

It is not the colors themselves but the movement between the colors that Mukherjee considers as inherent to the work, as well as the interplay between color and texture within the 3D sculpture. 

“I think of color less symbolically and more experientially. So I mean, I don’t use red because it’s supposed to signify passion, you know, there’s none of that. It’s more, what the space requires, or what I think the space will … what will activate the space, basically, for me.”

Mukherjee thinks about color not as a static, inherent thing, but as a relative trait. Growing up, his conception of color was formed by his experiences attempting to describe the colors he saw to his blind grandmother. 

“She would describe to me what she saw through touch, and I described to her what I saw through sight, and we would try to understand how we saw the same thing differently,” he said.

Mukherjee wants the sculptural nature of his piece to encourage different kinds of visualization: “You see through your body, not just through your eyes,” he said. 

Part of this physicality is present in the very process of taking an aluminum mold. 

“For sports people, and other people, to see the work and somehow have a relationship with it is really exciting for me.”—Sandeep Mukherjee, Pomona professor of art

“The aluminum is actually pressed onto the tree form, and pressed and beaten … and that’s how the image happens. So the images are all constructed in a physical manner … you can think of my words as physical encounters between the artist and the world,” Mukherjee said. 

Mukherjee, whose work has been displayed in museums across the country and internationally and reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, is excited by the new context provided by SoFi Stadium. The opportunity present in the constant flow of new faces who will be passing by the piece — concertgoers and football fans, pop stars and stadium staff — is not lost on him. 

“Most of the time my work has been seen by artists, art collectors, curators, gallery people, people who are in the arts … for sports people, and other people, to see the work and somehow have a relationship with it is really exciting for me.” 

Ultimately, the context and history of SoFi resonates with the way Mukherjee likes to think about his artwork and the role it plays in the world. 

“I think of my art as a gift, and I want as many people to partake of it as possible. The more the better. I want everybody to be able to have a relationship with it. I don’t want it to be elitist, I don’t want it to only be understood by a few or maybe others, you know, we all come with our own experiences and education and so each one will come to it at a different place … There needs to be an expansiveness and a generosity.”

In a slowly approaching post-COVID-19 world, football fans and concertgoers will be able to congregate at SoFi Stadium for the first time, watching sports games in the Southern California sunshine and marveling at the brilliant expanse of Mukherjee’s work.

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