Studio Visit with Jennifer Coates

 Installation view in Jennifer Coates’ Pennsylvania studio. 


A Studio Visit with Jennifer Coates

This past year, I had the pleasure of visiting Jennifer Coates in her studio in Sunset Park, where I was introduced to her visually dynamic, strange and extensive painting strata.  Since we are both interested in the weird and the wonderful in terms of painting and consciousness, we became fast friends.  Under the surveillance of bears, this summer Coates completed over seventy new paintings of America's favorite iconic snacks in her studio in Poyntelle, PA.  An accomplished writer and musician as well as an artist, Coates has exhibited at Arts and Leisure, Valentine Gallery,  Kinz + Tillou Fine Art and Feigen Contemporary.  Her painting, PB&J, is currently on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Her most recent brain-child, a group show entitled The Swerve, co-curated with Lauren Adams will open at Ortega y Gasset on January 23rd. 

Caroline Wells Chandler: Your previous paintings have cast a wide net of ideas and subject matter: castrated cabbage patch kids receiving public spankings from an authoritative bunny for all to gander, cosmic consciousness floating above landscapes in crystallizing geometric fractal rainbow clouds, strange smells, paint as skin disorder, remixes of Druid architecture, plant wisdom and lore, to name a few... But most recently you have distilled your alchemical vision to iconic paintings of food.  Tell us more about the relationship of food, paint, and cosmic consciousness in your work. 

Jennifer Coates: The first painting you mention was from grad school at Hunter in 1999. It was an elephantine figure with a huge ass bending over to receive its punishment. Its torso culminated in a purple puddle. The onlookers and bunny were in acidic yellow, there was this putrid glow permeating the painting.

 Jennifer Coates, Pink Ass, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches 1999

At the time I was obsessed with drawing and painting cellulite-ridden asses and more generally, subjects that were being humiliated in some way. I eventually decided to abandon the figure and allow its residue to haunt the swelling and fissuring of abstracted landscapes and warping geometric nets. Its presence remained but more as an anthropomorphized wooziness. From there I turned to ruins and gardens as sources and metaphors for painting. The ruin both makes and unmakes itself the way paintings can, and the garden is the bounded space of order, separate from the uncontrollable wildness that exists outside it. I experience a painting, even during the most insecure, unknowing, or messiest moments, as a zone where control, command, or cultivation is at least a possibility. As I husband the planar receptacle of muck that is the canvas, I want the paint to stand in for as many things as possible. Whether it’s skin infections (our bodies’ way of making abstract paintings), geological phenomena, weather, rot or mustard, this is part of the alchemical magic of paint, its ability to be many things at once, from pictorial to automatist. For me the recent food paintings are a way to reference the human from many different vantage points, all contained in straightforward, often symmetrical, iconic compositions. Some of the foods appear to be decomposing or are already in the process of digestion or regurgitation.

 PB&J, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2014 

Most of the foods I paint are processed, items of convenience, or food that embodies the dizzying array of choices that we have as American consumers. Yet all these foods contain within them certain engineering logics, a deep history of decision making that goes back to the Neolithic and Paleolithic. A candy bar, seen in cross section is not arranged in a hut-like, huddled jumble by accident. The disposition of the peanuts, say, in a Snickers bar, in relation to the strata of nougat and caramel, and their orientation to the surrounding framework of chocolate, is in my mind a descendent of the passage tomb. Even in our most debased moments of unthinking consumption we are tapping into primitive urges to invoke meaning and psychic protection. When I am painting food I am thinking of sacred rituals in the caves, ancient geoglyphs, but I am also thinking of digestive disorders, bacteria, aerial views of terrain, dark matter and when I was a kid in the suburbs and I could covet candy without feeling like it represented something evil for the planet. 

CWC: What are the shapes of your finger prints and how does their topology inform your work?

JC: I have one finger that is deformed from an accident when I was 5. I was playing unattended in the basement of a day care center where there was a toy slide. My finger somehow got caught in the hinge and part of it came off. So that fingerprint, my left index finger, is the important one as it is strange and scarred. Victor Hugo communed with spirits and among many of the entities he says he was able to communicate with, one was referred to as the finger of death. The mutant shape of my finger of death is the site of sense transmission and it assists me with my apocalyptic worldview.

CWC:  In addition to being revered for your paintings you are an accomplished musician and weird thinker.  I have attended public and secret lectures that you have given on bubbles, and the occult's relationship to Modernism.  Both of these talks explore the idea that there is a hidden structure under our perceived reality.  How does this idea live in your work? 

JC: I am always on a research rampage trying to make unlikely connections between things. Since I am luckily not a scholar or a scientist, I don’t have to worry about proving anything. I can just lay out my information and intuition to the best of my ability and try to make compelling stories to convince people of the plausibility or at least playful possibility of my ideas. I try to connect images together and examine them with the mind of a paranoid conspiracy theorist. In my work, this expresses itself through the references and allusions that are contained within each image. If I paint an everything bagel with cream cheese glowing from within and around it like a spiritual emanation or a halo, and it has the presence of a devotional icon and a morphological resonance with Neolithic petroglyphs, then I feel like I am getting at these hidden connections. 

Everything Bagel, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches Cinnamon Roll, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches (both 2015)

CWC: If you were a bowl of cereal what would you be and why?

JC: Sugar Smacks. Their labial shapes look like the gum in Hannah Wilke’s photographs, cowrie shells that decorate certain African sculptures, and ancient yoni symbols. They have hypnotic powers.  

CWC: What is the most mystical thing that you have experienced in life and are embarrassed to talk about? 

JC: It has to do with dreams, so already it’s embarrassing. When I was 12 I had a dream that my friend Margaret who lived around the corner made an earring out of the sword from her little brother’s He-Man action figure. The next day I went to her house and she had done exactly that. Ever since then, secretly, I have believed to a certain degree that my dreams are real. I dream about the apocalypse a lot. Just saying.

CWC: Are you a plant?

JC: I wish more than anything I was a plant. I think plants are the most sentient creatures on the planet. Sadly I am just bacteria with a brain made of meat.

CWC: Have you ever had a painting talk to you and if so what did it say?

JC: I feel like it’s possible to mind-meld with certain paintings and they reveal their secrets to you. Recently this happened to me with Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon” where I developed a theory about the sacred genital architecture of Breton women’s headdresses being the catalyst that spurred experiments in visionary proto-abstraction, and was an integral step on the way to modernism.

CWC: What is genital architecture and how can we all experience it in our lives? 

JC: If you believe Freud, and I do, there are genital expressions in our clothing, our accessories and the architecture within which our movements are circumscribed. All we have to do is be alert to it. It all stems from the descent into the caves, a re-entry into the intra-uterine safety of the womb.

CWC: What is your relationship to the cow?

JC: When I had a blog back in 2005-2007, it was from the voice of my alter ego, Mountain Man. As Mountain Man, I was a visionary outcast with a stained shirt and a lot of messed up ideas. One of which was that you could reach your arm up inside a cow, all the way to your shoulder, and discover the “loop of Jesus” which was a cosmic portal. I recently made a series of cowhide paintings. When the cow becomes a skin everything that takes place within it is like a painting within a painting. 

Large Cowhide, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches, 2014

Cows themselves are like living breathing paintings – kind of squared off at the edges, and the dairy cows have these beautiful black shapes on white ground. Sometimes my cowhides seem stained or wounded, like battle zones, sometimes they emit a pustular glow. The green in the background stands in for the pasture where the cow grazes. I was trying to get at something visceral with these paintings but also wanting to invoke the tackiness of the cowhide pattern. I’ve been thinking about the cow in relation to human history. It’s our most important and most problematic domesticated animal. Modern cows are descendant of the wild auroch, which apparently was a real challenge to tame and breed. All the over one billion cows presently on earth are genetically related to 80 or so cows that were domesticated in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. Cows have made a huge impact on agricultural productivity around the world, not to mention their impact on global warming – we use up a huge amount of natural resources to farm them and transport their byproducts. They’ve been used for meat and dairy, but their carcasses have given oil, fat, bone, twine while their hides have given leather for clothes, shoes, primitive shelter. The other thing that is interesting about cows is in a theory put forth by Terence Mckenna, my hero, and the ultimate example of how to think as a psychedelic person. He said that cows and early hominids wandered the savannahs of Africa in tandem and that since psilocybin mushrooms grow in cow patties, the origin of human consciousness was spurred by the ingestion of these treats in the cow poop. I believe him. WM


Caroline Wells Chandler


Caroline Wells Chandler is an artist, writer, and eccentric living in Queens, NY. He received his MFA from Yale School of Art. He enjoys getting weird and weirder with the best artists in New York.

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