Identity: Contemporary Artists Explore Individuality and Culture
Jen Tough, owner of Jen Tough Gallery and founder of the Artists Alliance, has compiled a group of artists in a visual exploration of their contemporary views on personal, cultural and national identity. The part exhibition catalog, part magazine includes works by Maryann Steinert-Foley, Tamera Avery, Paul Cristina, Natani Notah, Katie O'Sullivan, Tom Owen, Emily Wilker, Jonathan Parker, Jenifer Kent, Sarah Detweiler, Lita Kenyon, Kelly Marshall, Shannon Freshwater, Liz Steketee, Judy Levit, Suzanne Long, Sharon Paster, Laura Sanders, Gina Tuzzi, Diane Williams, Chuck Potter, John Yoyogi Fortes, Kate Kretz, Pavel Acevedo and Erin McCluskey Wheeler.
I’m honored to be included with a review of Gina Tuzzi’s 2017 solo exhibition, Guilty Pleasures.
Identity is available for purchase on Amazon.
The hot mic heard round the world.
In 2006, Donald Trump was recorded telling graphic and disturbing stories about women in a “good ol boys,” “it's only locker-room talk,” misogynistic manner and bragging about how he could do anything to women. Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, launched the Me Too movement that same year. Ten years later, both would receive extensive media attention.
Neither the life of the individual nor the history of society could be understood without understanding both --C. Wright Mills
Awareness around toxic masculinity is increasing in large part due to Trump's horrifying comments and to Burke's phrase, originally created to help women victims of sexual violence and then reignited as a slogan for the anti-sexual harassment movement. Never before in history have people rallied around women's sexual abuse issues to the extent we're seeing now, with actions ranging from debates over the nuances of what is and isn't assault to a fair number of men evaluating their behaviors and becoming better allies.
Society teaches girls that they're here for male pleasure, but it's equally important to recognize how society trains our boys to exert their desires--dominance is power and power is sexy. Add to the cocktail a few cubes of white privilege and whoo-boy, we have an intoxicating drink that some of us have had roofied.
Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape! —Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes (1968)
"You can do anything" isn't just a statement of male-perceived power over women, it's a maxim on the ideological, political and cultural belief in American power over the outsider, with the outsider being, of course, anyone not from around these here parts. It's classic movie. Good versus evil. The idea that the good guy is 1. the guy and 2. the white guy, born and raised in America, and 3. everyone else is a threat. To eliminate a threat, you must see it as something non-human: women are objects; immigrants are animals; Middle Easterners are terrorists.
I paid a visit to painter Adam Cochran recently. We first spoke in an interview in the summer of 2017, before he left to pursue an MFA at UC Davis. I was eager to find out how his art had changed over the last couple of years. We walked from Philz Coffee downtown to his studio on campus, enjoying a windy, spring day and the best cup of coffee I've had in awhile (I recommend the light roast called Dancing Water).
An exciting aspect of seeing the evolution of Adam’s work over time is not only his movement from an exploration of middle-class, white suburbia, to physical and mental torture, to his current work on toxic masculinity, but also the through lines of self-awareness. He examines how these themes relate to and inform his own childhood and how these ideas of entrapment play out in our political system.
The personal and the political is a universal theme described by American sociologist C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination, wherein “neither the life of the individual nor the history of society could be understood without understanding both." Later, feminists adopted the concept as a rallying cry to address how one's location within a system of power relationships can be traced by personal experiences. Adam’s paintings give us moments to address how experiences in our youth—television, movies, and other pop culture—are saturated images and ideas of toxic masculinity, thus making them comfortable cogs in a harmful political system.
Working in emblematic colors of red, white, and blue, Adam lays out a series of individual 22”x30” acrylic paintings on paper spaced 2” apart, creating a 158” x238” grid. Images of Leave it to Beaver sit alongside superheroes, Rambo, and icons of the classic western movie—all the myriad ways in which toxic masculinity permeates our culture, subtly and not so subtly. Adjacent to the grid are two oil paintings, each 84” x 77”. Their large size plays against the relatively small size of the paper, but is dwarfed by the grid as a whole. Similar colors are used, but this time the imagery is more intimate, more personal. You can sense that Adam is in these paintings, and indeed, images of the artist begin to appear. Suddenly we know he isn’t an outsider looking in; this is the artist in the thick of it, looking OUT.
If they move, kill 'em." —William Holden, The Wild Bunch (1969)
By exploring the genesis of the thought processes that allow us to set up systems in our society that normalize violence and dehumanize entire groups of people--to such a degree that we are willing to call them animals, ban them from our borders, regulate their bodies, and strip away their rights--the artist is asking us to use our sociological imaginations to reflect on our personal experiences and how they relate to and uphold a toxic system of power.
You can see Adam's work at the MFA Thesis Exhibition, opening May 30 at Manetti Shrem Musuem, alongside Bailey Anderson, Julian Childs-Walker, Rachel Deane, Sarah Frieberg, and Brooklynn Johnson.
I purchased my first major artwork after seeing Gina Tuzzi’s solo exhibition, Pele and the Sensual World, at the Jen Tough Gallery last year. Much of Tuzzi’s work spoke to me, but in the end, I settled on the piece that I came back to time and time again: They Say That I Don’t Mourn Because They Don’t See Me Cry (La Luna Para La Llorona). La Llorona refers to a woman cursed to eternally wander and weep, looking for the children she murdered. I write more about the mythology of La Llorona and this painting and why it has haunted me in a personal essay that I'll publish next month.
I first encountered Tuzzi’s work in the gallery’s 2017 Guilty Pleasures group show and again later at New Lands, a pop up exhibit Tough held in the Dogpatch, San Francisco, which teased some pieces that would later appear in her solo show.
Tuzzi works in oil, acrylic, and mixed media to create vibrant, delicious deity pop art on paper and wood panels ranging in size from 26” x 36” to two 58”x 36” panel paintings of Tina Turner that, apropos of the diva, dominate the room.
Tuzzi’s mouth-watering, taffy-colored palette draws you to her work, a mystical pull toward the goddesses and women dominating each canvas. Coupled with album cover references, it’s a confectionary treat for the senses, evoking nostalgia without sentimentality. Part of what keeps Tuzzi’s work grounded is the elements she includes—birds of prey, archetypical goddesses, weeping women, divas—and the subject matter she paints. Tuzzi incorporates Christian folklore, spiritual, pop, and women’s culture to address how it feels to be a woman in today’s world. Her work is autobiographical and historical, highlighting an ancestral lineage of a communal female experience.
I considered the moments where bursts of emotionality were pacified, suppressed or tampered down gracefully as a sacrifice of emotional labor for someone else’s benefit. I imagined these collective feelings welling up inside, pressurizing and boiling deep within us, not unlike a dormant volcano. --Gina Tuzzi
An admitted audiophile, Tuzzi uses music as further inspiration, both visually and devotionally, by replicating album covers and placing them atop some of her paintings like altarpieces or prayer cards. Her paintings include text and lyrics that one could read as indulgences: repeat them for remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory that these “destructive” women inevitably suffer.
Tuzzi’s work allows for the reclamation of female power. It allows you to own the wholeness of womanhood without apology. From the declaration of “I regret my life won’t be long enough to make love to all the men I’d like to,” to Patty Smith’s “she is sublimation,” Tuzzi tells us to cheer up, sisters, and rise resurrected.
I planned an entire UK visit centered on the fact that Jenny Saville was having a show at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I’d been posting about it on social media for months. Along with Saville, I added Dorothea Lange, Chantal Joffe, Annie Swynnerton, Tacita Dean, Julie Becker and others to the itinerary, intent on making a grand, whirlwind tour of women artists in six days or less. I’ll confess that I didn’t make it to every exhibit I wanted to see, and I’m heartsick over it. I’m heartsick not only because I don’t have the luxury of traveling the globe whenever I please—I assure you, I do not—but mainly because solo shows and retrospectives for women are still a rare occurrence, and the opportunity may not present itself again (and sadly, often not in the artist’s lifetime). Take Saville, for instance. The British painter has been on the scene for twenty-five years—her graduate artwork in 1992-93 was astonishing and put her on the map—but her NOW exhibit is her first to be held in Scotland and only her third in the UK. Then there’s Annie Swynnerton of Manchester. Swynnerton was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1922, and yet it’s taken nearly a century for her work to receive another retrospective.
I saw some fantastic work by male artists on my trip. The frustration, however, is that their work is typically always on display and accessible. It’s in the permanent collection. Women artists tend to have temporary exhibitions. And so one saves and saves and takes planes and trains to lay eyes on a painting or sculpture done by a female artist.
The first time I saw a piece of art from Saville was during a slideshow in a Women’s Art History class I took during my undergrad years in the early aughts. Propped was unlike anything I’d seen before: a large female nude with folds of fat and flesh and fingers digging into her thighs. The angle of the painting is from below, looking up at this large woman balanced naked on a pedestal too small for her body, her feet wrapping around it, perhaps for support. The angle distorts the body further, while the woman’s head is thrown back, her eyes cast down and her lips pursed and slightly open, both suggesting the demure and sexual way we’ve seen women portrayed for centuries, and conveying pain in its contortion. It is a brilliant painting. It challenges the way the female nude has been painted for centuries, nearly entirely for the male gaze. Saville takes back ownership and autonomy of the female nude and of her own body.
I knew I had to see it in person. I never thought I would.
About four months ago I got an alert on my Facebook feed about a Jenny Saville exhibit at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I felt a sense of urgency. It was now or never. So, I used the last of our savings (having been out of work for the last eight months) to book a trip, then went about researching other exhibits in the area, which included London or anywhere I could get to by train, and started an itinerary. The goal was to spend one month traveling around to see art, primarily by women artists, and staying in hostels. In the end, it was condensed to one week in London with day trips to Manchester and Edinburgh. But I got there. And when I walked into the exhibit, there she was, Propped. Across from the painting was a mirror so the viewer could read what Saville had scrawled backwards into the painting--a quote by the Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray: “If we continue to speak in this sameness--speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again . . .”
After I saw the exhibit, I hurriedly posted my unedited, unfiltered thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, as one does:
The clouds have darkened. And the neon sign on the museum reads, “Everything Is Going To Be Alright,” and the opposing neon sign across the road flashes, “There Will Be No Miracles Here,” and the Domain Da Saissac cabernet is heavenly and full-bodied like the women in Raphealite paintings, that Raphealite beauty, that every-era beauty redefined, male gaze and all that shit, but the contradictions: I find myself believing both ideas: no miracles, everything will be alright...if you clap, you can save her.
I'm currently crafting an essay on Saville’s exhibit (still processing) and hoping to include some new work by a young male artist who is tackling the subject of the perception of the obese male body.
In the meantime, who the hell am I and why am I writing about art?
I don’t write about art from a critical standpoint, but from one of appreciation and passion. I’ve no formal training and have as much academic language to describe art as I do wine, though I indulge in both of them regularly. My love of art stems from childhood experiences of lying on the carpet of my grandmother’s living room, staring at the paintings my mother made as a teenager, proudly hung on the walls. I imagined her as a young artist and admired the details of her still life, as well as the figurative painting of her and her best friend playing on a teeter-totter. Years later I would discover that her biological father was also a painter. My interest in finding out more about him led me further down the path of art appreciation. Eventually, my mother would give me a stack of letters sent between my grandmother and grandfather after he had left her and my mother to travel the world (and escape child support). In his flamboyant cursive he revealed, “I’m an artist. I can’t live a traditional life.” In a postcard sent from the 1938 World’s Fair he taunted her further by writing, “You should really see this someday,” knowing she didn’t have the same opportunities and freedom of movement that he (and society) gifted to himself.
My grandfather’s words ignited in me a question that has burned ever since: what about the woman artist?
In my play The Killing Jar, I write about two ex-patriot artists living in the Philippines—one male, one female—and how their lives, artistically and otherwise, hold similarities under differing constraints (societal, egotistical, economical, etc.). Researching for the play deepened my already strong passion for art and eventually led me into exploring the possibility of writing about it in other ways.
By the way, my mother’s figurative painting went to my sister.
She gave me the still life.
I still sit and stare at it.
I was greeted at the door by Jack and Red. Jack is artist Jeff Snell’s dog, an adorable small black lab/beagle mix, who, after sniffing me and getting a few pets in, was content to fall asleep on the couch. Red was the houseguest, a Queensland Heeler with a penchant for playing ball and being entertained.
Jeff and I stood and talked about his latest work, which is featured in the a solo exhibition show “Stacks of Facts” at Jen Tough Gallery through September 20th, while Red continually dropped a tennis ball at my feet. I’d kick it nonchalantly and he’d bring it back. We repeated this sly play until Jeff eventually put the ball away, explaining, “He’ll be doing this all night.” After that, Red settled down and Jeff and I continued discussing his evolution over the last couple years.
In 2016, Snell was working on collaging together small ¼” strips of information that he’d put together, using color and tone as his guide and placing them horizontally onto vibrantly painted canvases. “I was using stuff that you wouldn't see in fine art, color-wise.”
Snell said he started off using strips of text, but soon moved on to incorporating images and adding more contrast. Eventually the strips grew larger in size. From there, he began to think about adding 3D elements and remembered the sculptures he made in college that were installation pieces.
I read somewhere that you had experimented in working with cardboard in college and then you decided to bring it back.
When I finished those paintings I was thinking I want to make these big things again, but started making little mock ups. That's where that all kind of started. In college, I had a sculpture teacher, and I spent a whole year making a riveted steel sculpture and after I was done he came up, looked at it and--he's a man of very few words--he came up to me and said, "why don't you try cardboard," and that's all he had to say and it just blew my mind. I can cut this up with a knife, I can hot glue it and that just made big things happen fast. I started making these little sculptures that grew bigger and turned into wall sculptures--small 3D sculptures that ended up being adhered to a sub-straight that you could hang on the wall. I call them sculptures, but they're painterly.
And that became the Changing Landscape series?
Can you talk about the shift from Changing Landscapes to the work you’re doing now?
These paintings are sculptural rather than sculptures that are painterly. So that's kind of a shift. At the time, when I started using these materials, I came from this sort of whimsical space in my mind, and now those ideas have sort of flurried away; it's much more stripped down, more about the formal elements and the structure and the act of placing things rather than objects as narrative. So that's a change. I almost had to do that 3D stuff to get to what I'm doing now. Before the 3D stuff I was doing flat painted surfaces and they had textures and they had different things going on but it was still paint on canvas. Now it's a combination of paint on canvas plus the sculptural elements.
Why “Stacks of Facts?”
Well, that's the name I call the show because I see a lot of these things that are stacks of horizontals. I would start with a painterly wash of stuff in the background and then start sculpturally piecing things together...keeping it...leaving it a little rough, and it's cardboard and you see that, and I'm not trying to fool anybody and not hiding the fact that this is stuff that I either find or, like anything with the printing on the carton is obviously found cardboard, but if there's cardboard in these pieces in these strips that I'm actually putting my printed information on or painting these strips, I start with an acid-free white cardboard that I buy.
Let's say the components are not carefully chosen, but they're very carefully placed. So it's like, I'm not saying I need to see an insect and I need to see something red here, I just have this pile of stuff and I'm going through and I work fast and there's a certain pace that really works for me that I feel comfortable in, and letting something evolve fast and making quick choices works well if in the past I've done things that I've labored over and it kills it. And when I'm done, I'm done.
In my opinion, when we the viewers look at art, we take from it what we need and there's nothing specific, necessarily, that the artist is trying to say to us that we have to figure out. That said, what do you want to evoke in the viewer or have them walk away thinking about?
I think a couple of things. One is purely visual. There's this certain tonal quality, areas of rest and a lot of areas of contrast, so there's a pop there. I would love people to recognize this visual play and these cues that are happening within the piece, where you're echoing something or letting something reverberate. I would love for people to pick up on different things--some humor, as well. I'll just throw out little bits and pieces of information and people can run with it and either expand on it or not, and every narrative is correct no matter what someone comes up with.
I read a quote, and I just looked it up before you came, by Einstein: One of the most beautiful things we can experience is the mysterious. I'm just paraphrasing, but the crux of all meaningful art and science is to approach something that way and look for the mysterious, and if you sort of give up on that approach, then you know, life is dead. So there's something mysterious in all of these. Do I want to be there or not? Is it scary or is it kind of fun or…People are all going to have different reactions and feelings and see different things.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. —Albert Einstein
So there’s no specific theme to “Stacks of Facts?”
No because I've stripped all that down to the bare elements of visual impact. It's more about that, more about me enjoying the process and just being honest with myself on where this is taking me, and who knows a couple of years down the road where that will take me.
I admire someone who can work on a series of paintings for 20 years, doing a very narrow concentration of work but they just delve into that really deeply, and I'm doing that but my concentration is a lot wider, I'm allowing myself to meander a little further.
Is that a conscious choice? The evolution from the political statement in Changing Landscapes to what you're doing know, the stripped down, more about process--
No, it's just how it's always been. A lot of times these are unconscious decisions; we just follow what feels right. I could do a ton of work on current politics, we all could, you could write until you die just about one week's worth of news, but I'm going to leave it to someone else because I really think people can look at things and they can add politics, they can add sex and violence wherever they see it.
What I'd like to see is something rough, but it has everything I need. It's a lot more exciting to me than typical landscape. There's a lot of run-of-the-mill work out there that just bores the hell out of me. There's not a lot of art that I see that I like.
What artists do you like?
It's always tough to just pick a few artists that...but you know, Mark Bradford had a show at MOMA several years back that blew me away, and he was just doing these really large paintings and he insisted they were paintings, but they were essentially collages. They're built up layers of information with textural bases and then he would sand down and expose these different layers, and they had a real feel of arial maps, at least that current body of work, he started somewhere else. So there you go. It's morphing, blurring the boundaries between painting and objects. I admire work like that.
There are some people who are doing work that's just kinda out there, like Howard Sherman. He's literally doing these clusterfuck pieces on the wall of ripped and painted paper, and I mean some of these things look hideous and some are stunningly beautiful. And he's just doing it. There's work that's a little challenging to most people that I admire. And I when I go to museum or gallery show I really take it in and get burned out really fast. Sometimes I don't want too many influences and just try to get what's in my brain out.
What surprises you about what you're doing right now? What have you learned new?
I don't know if it surprises me--it's sort of an obvious thing--sometimes no matter what genre you are creating, you have these things that you try to accomplish, but they're elusive and you know what you're doing wrong, but you don't know what to do right to find it. So when I do things, I find that my best work is simple. I stop when I'm 70% there. I take the dogs out or something, and I come back and I'm like, screw it, it's done. So the simpler I am, the less I think about it while I’m working on it, the less I care about the end result, as long as I'm in a zone, then it works out. But that's easier said than done.
I just hope that when people see this show, they appreciate just the directness and the honesty and boldness and the energy of the fact that I'm not taking it so damn seriously. I'm very serious about my art but I'm not--let's face it, I'm making paintings, not saving lives--
It's not precious--
It's not precious and that's very poignant because I've always said, this stuff is not precious and that's something that really bugs me when you see artists that say, "oh I can't part with that, I can't sell that, I can't get rid of that, my work is so precious to me, it's my baby." That tweaks me when people are like that. That's just a stumbling block, that's just an attitude that's gonna keep you from growing.
Do you listen to music while you work?
All the time. I'm listening to everything from Charlie Parker to Tool. I listen to mostly beebop and Jazz. I love fifties and Sonny Rowlands and Charlie Parker and all the classics in jazz, especially sax, and then I really like Deaftones and Radio Head and Perfect Circle and rock. I'll put it on shuffle. That's what I like, a jumble, it's not the same thing all day long.
What is your arts education and background?
I went to Maryland College of Art in Baltimore BFA. I thought about going to grad school, was accepted into NYU for sculpture, but didn't go. I traveled instead. At the time I just couldn't stomach having $50,000 debt, and now it's probably three times that. I made that decision, and I always wonder how that would have affected my life differently but then again, I've done so many different things since then unrelated to art that I wouldn't have even touched. I know so much more than if I just had done art.
What are your interests outside of art?
Being outdoors, experiencing nature. Just experiencing the wonder of our planet. Every day's different, every bit of weather and light. I see light everywhere I go and how it's framing things and coming through things and bouncing off of things. These visual treats that are just out there for the taking. I like to camp, dirt bike riding is a big thing for me. I love to ride dirt bikes--
Where do you ride?
After these fires, I don't know now, because Mendocino National Forest was my place. That was my favorite. That was the go-to, so now it's gonna be like a moonscape, which will be interesting.
In the continuing series of interviews I'm conducting as part of my research for The Killing Jar, currently in workshop with Spare Stage, I spoke with Jen Tough, owner and director of Jen Tough Gallery in downtown Vallejo, about running a gallery and curating art. Tough opened her gallery at 336 Georgia Street in historic downtown Vallejo in March, 2016.
Tell us about your background and how you came to curating.
I have a degree in fine arts. Almost immediately after graduating, I moved to Los Angeles because my sister was there with her comedian boyfriend and I didn't want to stay in Ohio. My first job was as a maid, and I couch surfed for the first 6 months. I knew I had to pay rent, and didn't want to clean ovens the rest of my life, so I decided to pursue graphic design. I pawned some jewelry and bought a little Mac Classic and taught myself one of the first versions of Photoshop on it. During the day I cleaned houses and worked other weird jobs. From there I got a job working as a studio manager at what turned out to be a prestigious design firm (Margo Chase). Climbing the ladder with many setbacks along the way, I eventually ended up being the art director for Hollywood Records, numerous magazines, Urban Outfitters and Warner Bros. Records. The last few years of being an art director I was a creative consultant for Nike and commuted back and forth between LA and Portland. This was a great gig because they gave me a ton of creative freedom. I did a lot of campaigns for new products. I also taught design for a bit at FIDM. During this span I saw a lot of portfolios and put together a lot of projects with creative people. I never lost my love of fine art, and really always dreamed of going back in one form or another. The way back was opening this gallery.
Can you tell us about the role of a curator, specifically in an art gallery?
Well, it's a one woman shop so I am the curator for each show, but I like to return the favor I was sometimes given by giving the artists a lot of creative freedom in deciding what pieces to put in their show. They truly know best. For a group show I do the curating. Curating in my gallery is simply choosing the pieces to make up the whole. They must be cohesive in theme, but also visually. My background in retail taught me a great deal about the power of merchandising. The same holds true in a gallery space. So, I always keep the end result in mind when selecting work.
What brought you to opening your own gallery?
I opened the gallery because it seemed like a natural progression for me and my combined experiences and education. My heart has always been in contemporary art.
What has the response from the community been like?
The response has been very positive overall.
I've been to the gallery. It's stunning. I run into people all the time who talk excitedly about having it here. What made you choose Vallejo?
I have pretty much always lived in areas that are "up and coming" in LA, so it feels natural to be in Vallejo for the gallery. I love that energy of building and creating things and the "underdog" spirit, I guess. The gallery space itself is beautiful, the light is amazing and the high ceilings and Victorian elements are gorgeous. I love the history of the space, it used to be the Rialto Theater in 1870 and of course it's fun to imagine everything that this space has seen over the years.
What sort of work do you represent?
Contemporary art by emerging and mid-career artists. I have a love for unusual mediums or techniques, abstract expressionism, and narrative or humorous work.
How does your interaction with an artist evolve, from your initial encounter with their work, to studio visit, and then to the realization of a gallery show?
I think it's individual to each artist and their personality, and the relationship evolves and changes to some degree just as any other relationship changes. However, their level of commercial success would never cause me to treat them any differently from the day I met them, and I respect every artist I represent or work with no matter where they are in their career. In other words, their level of commercial success doesn't change how I value them as artists or their work. It's very important to me to work with good people who are straightforward and honest. A gallery-artist relationship is really a co-working partnership, we can help each other succeed and achieve goals if that stays at the forefront. If that gets lost, the relationship can go south pretty fast.
What is the process you go through in choosing artwork and building an exhibit?
I think that varies a lot depending on a group exhibition or if I'm looking to represent an artist. If it's a group exhibition with a theme, I will stick to those guidelines I've established surrounding that theme. If I'm looking at work by an artist I'm considering representing, there are a ton of factors that go into that decision process, because it's not just the work, it's the person behind the work who I'm looking at. An artist can have very interesting work, but if they are arrogant, don't want to work very hard, or are looking at our relationship as self promotion only, not sales, I don't want to work with them. As far as choosing art and art alone .... I could give a bunch of art speak, but that's gross. It really comes down to my gut if I'm honest, and there are a lot of moving parts with that I guess built on experience, taste, sale potential, marketability, or my just my "eye". It's always a tricky balance of showing work that will sell (otherwise I can't pay the rent and keep the gallery open), and strong contemporary (potentially historically significant) work. There's a sweet spot between those places I'm always looking for.
What are the strengths of your venue, visually or conceptually?
I think the strengths are the beautiful space and light and the up-and-coming vibe of Vallejo. I think art patrons for the most part like the "new." And Vallejo has that in spades.
What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
Money. Money. Money. Not enough money to do what I want to do to grow the business is a constant challenge.
And the usual challenges we women face in the world.
Can you speak further about what are some of these challenges are for women?
If you have an opinion, often it's attacked or you're called a bitch for being straightforward or standing your ground, whereas a man would be praised for being "strong." It's always a tightrope walk it seems, and every encounter has to be measured in a sense.... and we must tread carefully if we are going to disagree or say no to a man. We all know this "maneuvering," but at times it's so damn exhausting. Also, just not being taken seriously and generally disregarded as "less than." And being an older woman has its own set of challenges, we often become invisible, which can be good and bad. Some of that unwanted attention is gone, which is a relief, but it's often traded for total invisibility. We're just not as important or valuable in society as older women despite having more experience than others younger than us. I think the Bay Area is particularly plagued with ageism. Hopefully this will slowly change.
Hopefully not slowly.
What do you want people to know about your gallery?
That the gallery was created first and foremost as a way to honor the work and artists shown in it.
What work of art most affected you personally and why?
Wow... there's been so many I don't know if I could give a short answer. My favorite artists are probably a better way to answer this.... Off the top of my head (too many to list): Joseph Beuys, Jenny Holzer, Robert Gober, Franz Kline, Kiki Smith, Diane Arbus, Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Bradford... on and on....!
What new challenges do art galleries face and how do they maintain relevance in the new digital environment?
Art fairs and artist direct sales to collectors are I think are the biggest factors in causing upheaval and change in the traditional gallery business model. Really, the exhibition space is not the money-maker any longer for a lot of galleries. You have to branch out to other revenue streams to remain viable and keep doors open. I'm starting an art workshop side business in conjunction with the gallery that will have some of my artists as teachers (plug: It's called Zinc Art Workshops so go check it out!). I also am doing two art fairs this year.
Can galleries still compete with direct online sales from artists? How do you see the curator/gallery/artist relationship evolving?
As far as competing with artists for sales, some artists are capable of direct sales, but some aren't, or don't want to take that on. The gallery model is still the best model for a lot of artists. The downside of online sales only is the lack of in-person exhibitions and the social aspect of openings and events, which builds community. But I've seen some younger artists really do very, very well selling directly and cut out the gallery middleman. I think that's great, and there's room for everyone.
Can you tell us about the current exhibits and what’s coming up?
October is Jerry McLaughlin's solo show called "Savage Beauty" in the main gallery space. In the Inner Gallery in October it's Larry Mullins's "Paintings." November is a juried group show called "Guilty Pleasures" in the main gallery.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'm so grateful for my artists trusting in this crazy start-up gallery in... Vallejo!
Thank you, Jen!
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.