A Heavy Crush: Jennifer Coates talks Modernism, Joie de Vivre and Trees with Elena Sisto
In her latest show at Freight + Volume (Jennifer Coates: Correspondences, through April 15) Jennifer Coates has transitioned her work from the boisterous images of junk food in her previous show at the same gallery to imagery with a pure reverence for nature and a newfound psychological complexity. She is also going to be in a two-person show with Caroline Chandler later this spring: Electric Mayhem opens at Crush Curatorial May 25th.
ELENA SISTO: In these new paintings you’re pushing towards working more coloristically-you’re clearly looking at Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre, Mondrian and early Modernism. You’re a violinist, like Matisse, and music’s important to you. Is there a relationship between how you’re thinking at this moment about your music, your color and Modernism? Why Matisse?
JENNIFER COATES: What’s important to me in playing violin is actually very related to my paintings: emotional intensity and patterns. In violin I find emotional intensity through lyrical phrasing and clear notes sustained with vibrato – I try to create arcs within melodic lines, so there is an ascending and descending presence to the phrases that can coax emotional engagement with the listener. I have a brain that is good at remembering sound patterns and fingers that learn them pretty easily. I love to play phrases that repeat and become spatial and trance-like in their repetition. I’ve played a lot of Old Time fiddle tunes, which I love, because they are all about pattern and disruption. They’re like brain teasers: just when you think you know what’s going to happen next in a seemingly simple tune, it totally surprises you keeping you awake and alert.
In painting, I’m drawn to repeated mark-making generating fields of visual information. I try to create emotional intensity through radiant light and color harmonies, heightening the presence of a shape with a surrounding aura, making each shape hyper-present through optical vibrations of color.
Matisse and early Modernist painting has become really important to me in the last few years. I teach a class on Modernism at the New York Academy of Art where we look at late 19th and early 20th century painters. Examining that period and having to account for its importance in art history (often to students who are not necessarily predisposed to care about it) I’ve developed a heavy crush on these painters.
I stare at an image of Matisse’s Joie de vivre almost every day. That painting sums up what is interesting to me about these Modernists. It relies on pure passages of color – color is part of the content in this intense and straightforward way. It depicts an idealized, utopian landscape that is about abstraction as much as it’s a picture. The figures and animals have an ancient, primal quality to them: these painters were being exposed for the first time to artifacts and objects plundered from all over the world brought back for international expositions and museums. They were also seeing cave paintings – Paleolithic imagery – for the first time valued as art. Matisse’s figures look like they could be based on Neolithic figurines and the animals based on those found in the caves in France and Spain.
Color was so important at the time. There was scientific inquiry into its healing properties called “chromotherapy.” Synthetic pigments were being discovered and distributed. Many Modernist painters believed that colors had occult meanings that produced certain states in the viewer. In particular Matisse believed in the hypnotic power of color. While I don’t believe that color can hypnotize anyone, or that colors produce measurable, repeatable reactions, I am indulging my own intuitive relationship with color, trying to establish mood and temperature, ultimately, creating the conditions for a meditative experience.
I believe one of your close relatives is a chemist. Do you think that has influenced the way in which you view your materials: in terms, for example, of viscosity, or the organic and mineral versus the synthetic nature of pigments?
It was my mother’s parents who were chemists. My father was a geneticist and my mother studied electron microscopy in grad school and then worked for a healthcare research institute for decades. Science is big in my family. I find the history of chemistry absolutely fascinating – the evolution of alchemy to modern chemistry. The relationship of this history to the history of pigment and dye making is another thing I love to read about. Some pigments are ancient and “natural” and others are by-products of industrial run-off – unpromising looking and smelling coal tar, black sludgy pollution made from the coal factories that rendered a slew of synthetic chemicals. Just as industry makes things from sludge – painters make pictures from inert piles of colored goo.
The artist Sidney Geist spoke often about hidden imagery in Cézanne’s paintings. Geist would point out a giant face in the foliage above a group of bathers, which Cézanne was using as a structuring element to organize the space and complexity of the trees but also to give the painting an emotional charge. I do see a lot of emotion in this work. You seem to be aligning or identifying with your idea of a tree, using it as an armature for the progression of your own psychic states.
Yes. For me, trees provide an opportunity in nature to meditate, find patterns that turn into images. It seems like humans always want to find images in a chaotic tangle or mess. Painting trees provides an opportunity to tease out meaning whether it’s a hint of an animal or figure, written language, the dots and dashes of Morse code or the x’s and y’s of chromosomes.
We think of trees as being stable, soulful and structural. They can be centuries older than we are; they are vertical; their branches open up to the space around them; they have roots; we build things out of them. They pass through cycles we can easily observe, demonstrating the relationship between light, water, chemical nutrition, air and temperature. They’re one of the oldest and most central images in our culture. A tree by Jake Berthot becomes solitary and mystical. In Caroll Dunham’s paintings they can be stunted, abrupt or profuse and ecstatic. What do you want us to think about your trees?
Without trees we can’t breathe, we can’t exist. They communicate with each other and other plants and fungi. They are better than us and we can learn from them. As you say, we use them and make things from them: houses, furniture, pages, books, but they also make us. I am interested in the mystical aspects of trees, that they have inspired Pagan nature worship, that have encouraged people to imagine them alive with spirits and deities. Images of the brain and brain activity branch out like trees. I want to merge the tree with the brain – make images of a heightened state of consciousness and experience, images of trees that contain and make meaning.
Considering your last paintings were of junk food, why did you move to this imagery?
I had been making images of food for almost 4 years and I felt like I knew how to make those paintings and was itching to get into new territory. Towards the end of the series I was painting anthropomorphized food like animal cookies and popsicles of cartoon faces, chocolates in the shape of animals and humans. It was always about how these mass-produced, overlooked items might contain secret histories of shape and pattern that they might be occult talismans that I was trying to elevate. In the artificially made mass produced unhealthy food there was an implied opposite for me, which was nature worship. I wanted to literally get out of the studio and off the device driven research that inspired that body of work. I am painfully, acutely aware of climate change and how it has damaged and will continue to damage our ecosystem. I wanted to be in nature, learning from the plants and the trees, from the most run of the mill weed to the most majestic old tree. I had no idea where that endeavor would lead me or if it would lead me anywhere at all. I just thought I’d put my trust in plant life and observational drawing. I very earnestly wanted to celebrate and immerse in nature as it still exists. There is an urgency to it for me as I worry constantly about their ability (and our ability) to survive. But what was most exciting about this body of work was that as a new language developed, I felt it incorporating the confectionary aspect of the junk food paintings, the anthropomorphic aspect and also an earlier body of work that explored a sort of mystical, landscape-based abstraction. It’s always exciting when you feel disparate interests merging together and re-incorporating ideas from the past into new work.
Did you work from the landscape then? How did these paintings emerge from going outside?
The large paintings were made in the studio. I spent several weeks outside in the late spring and summer drawing plants and the landscape from observation. I made several small pen drawings that served as the basis for a few of the first small landscape paintings that I felt were on the illustrative side. After I switched to colored pencil, I found it easier to make paintings from those, as I was able to work out color ideas and begin abstracting things, establishing a language that I could explore in the larger works. I was particularly excited by the movement created by the expanding networks of branches.
Your pictures are in a constant threat of being overtaken by the poured, clotted magma-like paint. Would you comment on that?
I am really interested in how paint can both make and unmake images. An insistence on paint’s material, physical, properties is really important to me. I like to see what the paint wants to do, let it puddle and bleed and drip as well as corral it into recognizable imagery. For me it is also a metaphor for the contingent nature of the body – bodies are all eventually overtaken and disintegrate. I also think about it in terms of the sublime – the force that threatens to overwhelm the individual.
You seem to be painting a collaged space. Do you think in those terms?
I think I am abstract painter who won’t abandon imagery. The collaged aspect to the space is a result of keeping the process really open and driven by the materiality of the paint. With acrylic paint, it’s really easy to work in layers quickly due to the fast drying time. I have learned to work sort of indirectly, assuming one layer will be subsumed under the next, inform the next, but still be present. It allows me to feel freer with the paint – with each layer I say, it’s ok if this looks like crap because you can keep layering on top. The paintings are sometimes a series of failures one on top of the next, until the final, surprising and unexpected result – getting it right by allowing myself to get it wrong over and over.
Jennifer Coates: Correspondences at Freight + Volume. March 16th – April 15th, 2018, 97 Allen Street, between Broome and Delancey streets, New York City, freightandvolume.com