Research plays a vital role in my writing. I take pride in it. It's important to me that I get the details right and even more so with my full length, The Killing Jar. The Killing Jar is set in 1962, Philippines. It's a play about artists. It's a play about a place and people outside of my own culture. It's important that I not only hit the books, as they say, but show my work to and get feedback from the community in which I am writing.
As I have spoken to more and more people, I've come to realize how fascinating their stories are beyond the details and technical questions that I'm asking. Therefore, I decided to record the interviews of these encounters and share them here as a side project to the play. There will be interviews with artists, curators, actors, and other people I meet along the way who decide to go on this journey with me.
My first interview is with painter Adam Cochran. It takes place in his studio in Vallejo, CA. I first met Adam through the Jen Tough Gallery a couple months ago, and since have asked him if he'd be willing to talk art and mentorship with me. He agreed. Here is our discussion.
What is your background?
As a painter, I received my BFA from California College of the Arts in December of 2014, and I will be going to the grad program at UC Davis starting September 2017.
I've always painted, but I didn't start taking it as seriously as I have recently until I was about twenty-eight, twenty-nine, somewhere in there. Art has always been a part of my life, but you struggle with it going through life wondering if it's the right decision or not, and then I got to the point where I knew it was the only decision. That's when I decided to make it what I do for a living.
I wanted to ask you about your artistic statement. You talk about the physicality of painting and your query into its limits. Can you talk a little bit about that and what limits have you found?
Okay. Well, just like any medium, there are only so many things you can do with it. And there are certain ways of painting--action painting or really delicate painting--different tools that we use throughout the centuries, everything from our fingers and sticks to really expensive brushes and airbrushes, and everything gives a differing result, but I like the physical movement of it. I don't like painting in a dainty type of way. I've always painted in a really fast kind of way, to get it on there. I explore that, and I try and juxtapose different techniques in paintings, because my paintings are all so much creation and destruction within them that there's a lot of--Even the act of sanding the paint down is physical and comes a lot from working in construction before, and building things and working on giant walls. Um...Limits. I haven't really found anything yet that's stopped me. I haven't gotten to the point where I've said "No, I can't do that." There are things I haven't tried yet, but I haven't reached a point where I've said, "No I can't do that." I might not have figured something out, but I'm still working on things. As far as physicality goes, it's always about movement and getting it on the canvas.
You also talk a bit about the handmade in a world of technology, which is interesting, and I'd like to fold that idea into the question everybody asks: what do you see as the artist's role in society?
Well, I think...well, in my view, I suppose that can be answered any number of ways by any number of people, but for me, an artist is someone who looks at the state of things and creates a visual or auditory or whatever, some kind of sensory response to it that touches upon human emotion as a response. It's not the mathematical, scientific, rote, robotic way of responding to the world around you. It's the more sensory, emotional, sometimes spiritual way of reacting to it, and a lot of artists, as technology increases and changes, have always included it in what they're doing. They started doing video art and printing and using different materials to paint with--radiator paint in the 40's and 50's--so for me, I always go back to the old school, which is paint and canvas. It's always been something that's been around for a long time and I relate to it the most. I feel it's going back to that physicality. I feel more emotionally connected to the paintings by making them with my own hands as opposed to printing something out on CNC machine or something like that. That's how I respond to the world, try to put emotion into the paintings.
You've done oil , acrylic--
A tiny bit of water color. It's not really my thing--
Do you have a favorite medium to work with?
Oil. By far.
Again, the physicality of it. If you hold a tube of oil paint, burnt umber, in your hand, and you hold a tube of acrylic burnt umber in your hand, the oil weighs more. It's heavier, denser. Good quality oil paint has such a beautiful, buttery consistency that is hard to match. I don't think it's impossible, but I love the way that the light shines through it and hits the canvas and bounces back out...it can create a glow depending on what you're doing with it. It doesn't end up with a plastic-y feeling to it like acrylic can in a lot of ways. Um...It's the old one, you know, it's something that got invented in the 1400's I think; there's a traditional kind of connection to the past with it. I think it takes a lot more...not a lot more, but it takes some handling, some practice to get it down, and I haven't mastered it by any means, but using too much or too little medium or thinning it out too much and your paint cracks and it can fall off the canvas, and there's a trickiness to it and a reaction and the paint works with you but it also works against you. And there's...there's something about oil paint that as it interacts with itself it sorta tells you what it wants you to do, and you have to tame it, but also allow it to do what it wants. And there's a balance there that is really kind of beautiful in a way I think, that I haven't really found in another paint.
What pisses you off? In general.
In general, um...injustice and meanness, greed...I think greed is the most evil of all of the of evils. It leads to all of the other evils. I think spite is kind of--it makes me angry that people do things just because they want to be mean and hurtful to somebody. I guess those are probably the biggest things.
What themes are you exploring in your work?
There's always...I mean a "theme" is just sort of a road that pops into your head at one point and you go down it or you don't, or you go down it a few feet and turn back. So there's all kinds of themes that I think of but currently, I'm working with the idea of unfulfilled promises. Growing up white, middle class in suburbia and having parents that grew up in the 50's, with the whole birth of the American Dream and the reality of how much of a lie it really is. And I'm really fascinated by things that are complete opposites of each other, they're basically an oxymoron but with life. You say one thing but it's a complete--like civil war. Like the term "civil war" kind of blows me away that we would even say something like that. So, like, perfect suburbia seems like uh...a weird idea to me. It kind of goes back to the creation and destruction in the work. I don't ever set out to try and make a perfect painting right off the bat...I can't, so I've embraced the fact that in order to make anything as good as I can make it there's a lot of destruction to it, getting rid of a lot of things that I don't like, and that just naturally lends itself to the idea of looking at something in a critical way that's supposed to be good and realizing what's bad about it and trying to fix that. Or not. If it's just the way it is, then that's the way it is. Sometimes.
What's the one thing in your studio you cannot live without?
Without? Besides the paint and the materials?
What's your favorite tool or something that you feel like you cannot be without, this one thing?
Probably...I hate to say this, but my phone, because my phone has become...it's an access to my reference material and it plays my music. It can keep me company in an odd way and I mean, I hadn't really thought about that, but that's another opposite. I'm working with this old material but I'm also working with something that was just invented, and it seems to lend itself pretty well to my environment. I don't struggle with it being in my studio. I actually find that it really helps me.
Do you have a certain playlist that you listen to if you're prepping a canvas as opposed to when you're in the action of painting?
I wouldn't say I have a playlist for that, but I do have certain artists that I will go to depending on mood. I mean, generally speaking, the music kind of becomes background noise, but it still informs the mood that I'm in. So if I'm listening to something sad, I'll probably start painting something that's not that happy. Songs and artists relate to things that have happened in my life so when I play them, it brings back those memories and feelings, so I can relate to that. I'll play something upbeat if I'm in a really good, happy mood and I just want to do a lot of crazy stuff and something more somber if it's the opposite.
How do you begin a piece? Do you have rituals?
I find that the more--
And can we add on to that how you find the inspiration for a piece?
Chuck Close said something like amateurs wait around for inspiration, and the pros just get in and do it.
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” -- Chuck Close
I think that's a pretty famous quote these days, and I think there's...that's a beautiful quote because it's so true. So, I don't sit here and look for inspiration, I look for...the themes that I'm working on, then you find the inspiration. You say, "this is what I'm working with, this is what I'm interested in right now, and what is going to help me express that interest?" If I'm researching this with my paintings, what am I going to do? When somebody writes a thesis they read so many things, other theses, and it gives them avenues to go down the thought process and questions they hadn't thought of themselves and it's sort of the same thing for me, so if I'm starting a painting, I usually flip through some reference material that I gather.
I'm always collecting images that for some reason kind of strike me...maybe I don't even know why--screenshot it on my phone or rip it out of a magazine or whatever I have to do, and they just kind of go into a pile. I just flip through them and if it grabs me again, maybe that's where I start. Drawing that out and painting that out kind of gives me a structure to start from, but it's never the finished piece. Because as I'm doing that, as I'm working on that, just the act of painting it, a mistake that I make in the line or something will kind of lead me somewhere else. It gets my mind sort of thinking randomly, random thoughts, and kind of like when you're in the shower and something just comes to you, you kind of zone out a little bit as you're painting something that's not too precious, something that's just an idea, it leads to other things pretty easily. Then, layer upon layer, sort of builds up that idea and at one point your painting sort of tells you what it's about, and that's when you decide this is what I'm doing, and then you just zoom in on that and just push that as much as you can. If it's telling you it's about a happy, blue shirt then you need to do everything you can to make that happy, blue shirt as happy as it can possibly be.
How is your creative process changing, or has it changed?
Oh, it's definitely changing. I used to start off with just drawing an image and/or appropriating an image or whatever I had to do, and project it onto a canvas and trace it out and do paint by numbers and fill it in...it just wasn't interesting enough in the end. So I had to start figuring out what makes it more visually interesting to look at. That leads to experimentation and looking at art as much as you can to see what other people have done, so it's much more an experimental, physical process now than it used to be. I've begun including sanding and scraping and that never used to be part of it. As the paintings have gotten bigger, they've become physical because they have to be. Painting fast as opposed to painting slow. So constantly trying to paint anything I can think of. Keep growing.
Do you have a favorite color?
Yes. Blue was my favorite for a really long time and recently, I think it's sort of morphed into maybe orange? Which is completely different, but...I really got into the combination of orange and green, the secondary colors for awhile, and I still love that combination, so I've been putting a lot of orange in my paintings. Maybe orange for right now.
What are you working on now?
I have a commission that I'm working on and I have a couple of those themes, one of them is...I've been trying to explore the relationship with my extended family because I didn't really know them growing up and they're sort of circling back into my life now that they're older. And it's kind of an odd sensation to have people that I've known existed, but didn't really know, start saying really personal things to me that I don't really know how to relate to. So I'm taking old images of theirs and pictures from my dad when he was a baby and a kid in that suburban thing, and painting them layer by layer sort of in the CMYK manner, so that I'm deconstructing the image and adding color to it because they're all black and whites, and sort of inventing the color as I go along, taking things out of the image and...it's just a way for me to relate to...try to relate to them in a way I've never been able to before. And...what else am I doing? I'm trying to explore the difference between shapes and lines...just going back to the opposites again--volume versus flat--how do they interact with each other. That's what I'm currently on.
You have some pieces at Jen Tough Gallery in the exhibition "The Little Things." Can you tell me a little bit about the art you have in the show and the challenges you had creating them?
First off, the biggest challenge was working so small. Going from working on seven foot canvasses to six inches or less was a pretty big drop in size, so what would normally be a movement for my arm would cover the entire thing in one sweep. I had to reacquaint myself with painting...just moving my fingers, in a way.
The timeframe was a nice challenge. Only having a week to produce paintings for a show unexpectedly was a nice little push. Having to really sit down and think, how am I going to do this--and going back to water-based mediums because they dry faster--but how do I do what I normally do with the oils in water-based mediums, trying to figure that out. That was a nice little exercise.
And how do I make something that small look interesting? The size itself makes people walk up to it just to see it closer, but that doesn't mean that they're interested in it, that just means they need to look at it closer. So what can I do to make them want to stay close and continue to look at it, and how do I do that with what I'm interested in? I'm a figurative painter and I don't just want to paint a portrait of somebody as cleanly as I can and some dainty little portrait, I want to do it my way, so figuring that out was a nice challenge.
At this point, I ended the interview portion of my conversation with Adam and began to ask him some technical questions that were specific to my play research. We spent another twenty minutes talking, but when I listened back to this part of our conversation, I found a wonderful epilogue to the evening. I'm adding it here:
What's your favorite piece of your own work and of someone else's?
A favorite of my own that I'd say is probably always the last thing I've painted, but then within a couple months of it being done, I don't like it anymore. So that is always constantly changing, too. I think currently my favorite is probably Little Black Dog. We'll see how long that lasts. As far as other people's work, that's a really hard question. That's like, "what's your favorite movie, what's your favorite song?" I'm not sure I can...I mean maybe something by Philip Guston. I also always have a hard time remembering titles a lot of times...
Fair enough. If you could only buy one piece of art to hang on your wall, next to your stuff, what would it be?
It certainly would not be something like the Mona Lisa, and it wouldn't be based on value, like commercial value for sure, because that's a whole other issue--capitalism and art. I'd probably--it'd probably be something mid-to-late 20th century figurative art. Maybe even something more recent, maybe like a Neo Rauch. I love Neo Rauch. I love Nicole Eisenman. I saw her retrospective in San Diego and I was just--it was mind-blowing. Definitely be figurative. I can say that much.
What's your pet peeve the art world? Would that be capitalism?
And I think most artists would feel the exact same way, not all of them because there are the people who want to be the rock stars. But art and the art world are two very different things. The art world is what happens to art when capitalism becomes involved. My biggest pet peeve is this American idea that the best art is the newest art. It's always the newest thing. Just like, that's what capitalism is. And that's not true, I don't think. I mean, it's not like that in Europe. People have been painting the same crap for thousands of years. You go back to the cave paintings and it's animals and people, and people have been painting animals and people forever, and flowers--it's just like love songs. How many ways can you write a love song or a poem about love? What's important is how you do it because that's your contribution to the world and that's where the interest comes.
You try to be as original as you can and that is what you do. For me that is what's important, and for the art world it's more like they think that that's been done so it's not an interest anymore, and that's just not true to me. Just because somebody is throwing paint on the canvass that looks like my paint rag...just because it's new doesn't mean that it's interesting or important to me.
Thank you for talking with me and showing me your studio and work.
Oh, you're welcome. Anytime.
You can see Adam Cochran's work in "The Little Things" at Jen Tough Gallery through September 3, 2017.