MINI VISIT, COADY BROWN
Baltimore, MD. August 2018
Can you talk a little about your path after leaving the MFA program at Yale?
Right after I graduated from Yale I moved to LA. I knew I needed to get some space from being in grad school, and Yale and New York are very intertwined. I’d lived in New York before Yale and loved it, but I felt like moving there after Yale would be a continuation of the same thing and I just needed some quiet and space in my head. Grad school was great, but the first year and a half was really hard. It wasn’t until the last semester of school that my work had started to come together and things were finally beginning to make sense to me. When school ended, I knew that in order for the work to really develop into what I wanted it to be, I needed to work at my own speed. I didn’t want pressure to produce something to fulfill obligations I had in New York. I picked LA because I didn’t really know anybody. A few of my really good friends who I met at the Yale Norfolk Program in 2011 were moving out there too, and a great friend of mine (Aaron Fowler–an amazing artist) had found this huge warehouse space. It wound up being 50 cents per square foot; it was a 2700 sq ft space. It had offices too. You could live there, but it was technically commercial. We built it all out. I had a 700 sq ft studio with 24 ft walls. It was the studio I’d hoped to have when I was like 60, so I wondered how was I getting this now?! But it all came together and it was awesome. I was able to really focus on the newer elements of my work and flesh them out a bit.
It wasn’t until the end of grad school that my work became very predominantly figurative. There was a lot more abstraction. I would have a studio visit and I would say something about the figures and the visiting critic would say, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d point out the arm here, etc–they’d tell me I was being so vague. The volume was turned to almost zero. I was told: If you really want to talk about these things to your audience, you need to crank that up. So I really focused on that. What kind of images am I trying to make? What am I trying to say with the work? What are the figures doing? How is this all adding up together to make the images that I want to make? I really spent that time in LA just painting. I was nannying a little too, but I was pretty broke. I knew I wanted to paint as much as I could and work (at a job) as little as I had to. I didn’t have a kitchen so I was just eating out of a crock pot. I had a great time, but I also realized that LA wasn’t exactly for me in that I just didn’t feel very connected there. I love the beach, I love it as a city, but being there made me realize how East Coast I am. I was starting to get studio visits with spaces I was excited about, but they were all for the most part New York-based spaces. So I was like, well, why am I in LA?
Then I got into Skowhegan and got a job offer at the University of Vermont in Burlington. So I thought, Ok, these are two things that are pulling me back to the East Coast. I’d only been in LA for nine months, but I knew deep down it wasn’t for me. I used those two things as a way to cut off my time in LA and make my way back to the East Coast.
Going to Skowhegan was great. I actually got waitlisted the year before, so I could have gone right out of grad school, but I’m SO glad I didn’t. I’ve realized it’s really important to have breaks between things and not just going straight into one thing from another. I felt like a year was a nice amount of time to be away from an institution. I love institutions because you get to meet amazing people and have different conversations and you get outside of your own head for a little while, but I also find them to be a little distracting. Skowhegan is a nice balance of being semi-structured and also open. What I also learned about myself, which I always kind of knew but didn’t want to admit, was that I get distracted easily. If there’s a party–I’m going. I’m not a super social person, but with the people I connect with I am. I’m not the most comfortable at openings–I don’t love that stuff. But a dance party? I’m there.
So I was at Skowhegan for the summer and then I started teaching in Vermont in August. Skowhegan was really unproductive for me, because I was really just into the party culture there. They stress that it’s not about what you do or make, it’s about what comes afterwards so just let it be what it’s going to be. I went in there thinking I was going to make nine paintings–which I don’t even know how I came up with that number. I said to myself, I’m coming here and taking time out of my schedule in order to do something. But qualifying what doing something is or being productive is a whole other thing. And they warn you by saying not to come in with a game plan. Don’t come here to make work for a show. Don’t do any of that because you’re going to regret it. You need to come here and be open to what this place is and let your practice be permeable and maybe change or maybe you spend the whole summer making prints when you’re a sculptor. But, I was like–whatever, they don’t know me. They don’t know that I can come in here and slay! I had this hardcore game plan for the first two weeks. I knew a lot of people going into it who were already there, so it was an easy social transition. But, I had my headphones on all the time. People would be hanging out and talking–during the day I’d be like, Don’t talk to me. But by the second week, it started to crack. I really got into just hanging out with people there. They have a whole house that’s dedicated to parties, so that became a space I was obsessed with. I was a dancer growing up. I was a Hip-Hop dancer for a long time–before I was a painter. So it’s definitely made its way into my work. It comes through a lot–this fascination with nightlife and how people give themselves permission to be more open and explorative. The dance floor and those kind of micro social interactions. I’ve always been interested in that. So, the fact that there’s this whole house for parties–wow, I thought, this is great for my work so I have to be here all the time! I quit painting after a little while. I wish I had just gone up there and focused on drawing for nine weeks instead of trying to replicate my studio at home…But now I know. Thinking about going to residencies, shorter-term residencies, in the future–if it’s a month, I’m just going to draw. But I definitely learned the hard way.
I found that space between things is really important. We need transitions. Transitions are important. I’ve never been into yoga that much, but yoga is all about building up to things. You can’t just go from child’s pose to full on warrior three or whatever. As I get older and have been making things for longer, I know that if I want to go full force at something, it needs to be built gradually.
What would you say your work is about?
My work, at its most fundamental level, is about intimacy and self-presentation–self-presentation in both public and private spaces. What I was getting into before about the micro-interactions of people; it’s something I’m really interested in. How intimacy, or distance, is reflected in our movements, and how when you’re in a relationship, it’s essentially about navigating the boundaries between two people (emotional, physical, psychological, etc.). If you’re painting (in a more traditional sense) you’re also dealing with the boundaries of the rectangle, and how an image fits into that. Again, back to realizing how East Coast I am, there are a lot of small spaces here. You’re constantly negotiating other bodies in tight spaces, and that’s on a very outward, surface, public kind of way.
How that blends on the opposite end of the spectrum is in the most intimate way–how you can maintain eye contact with somebody and know what that means. A gesture or touch that can reveal a larger view of your connection. I’ve always been interested in how we express our closeness, or just our feelings with other people through body language. Like I said before, I was a dancer before I was a painter and to tell a story in dance, you’re not talking. You’re using costumes, lighting, movement, poses in order to communicate; making images with bodies. That really informs my visual vocabulary. And when I was growing up I was obsessed with Missy Elliot and music videos and how in the 90s/early 2000’s they used things like fisheye lenses and wild outfits to distort reality, things were familiar, but surreal. That space of the theatrical injected into the everyday–nightlife is so conducive to that. When I was younger and living in New York, I’d just go to clubs and bars all the time by myself and see how the neon lights and darkness were so connected to the ability to transform yourself to whoever you want to be. In an art historical sense, thinking about Caravaggio or Rembrandt–light comes in and that’s God revealing some sort of truth or pointing something out. I thought about nightlife and night space as this light that comes in that more so distorts or skews things. It’s not about revealing truth, it’s about revealing some sort of undercurrent or freakiness. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video is a great example, as is Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s nighttime cafe paintings. To me they were talking about similar things, just with different means. Light is a powerful narrative device.
What do you get out of the work vs. what you hope a viewer might get?
I make my work in response to a lot of paintings of women by historical artists. When I was younger and going to the Met, I was obsessed with Matisse and Gauguin and Picasso before I really understood the politics of it. I loved them, but I also felt this really strange discomfort–again, before I really understood the politics of representation. When I was young, I wondered who those women were and if they were being painted in that way because they were told or was it a relationship…? What was that space? I had this dichotomy of loving and hating those paintings, and through all that I became really invested in the representation of women (though now I occasionally paint men). I wasn’t seeing the images I wanted to see, so I decided to make them. I wanted to make sure that I had a say in that conversation.
I hope there’s an understanding in the work from the viewer that everything is unstable, that the figure is an fluid entity. The idea of portrait painting is really interesting because there’s this crazy goal to capture this person as they are and that always seemed like such an impossible task to me. That’s why I give props to Picasso because if you’re going to paint somebody, you have to try to paint multiple sides of them. Cubism makes so much sense to me. It’s just another form of reality–that’s the reality that I subscribe to. We are not stable. There is a constant push and pull happening within us all the time. Gravity, the moon, temperature, anger, desire. We’re influenced by our environment, by those around us, by so many things all the time. We’re permeable. I really want that to be communicated in the work. The goal isn’t to capture something in its permanence. I think the only painter that’s really been able to do that is Alice Neel. It’s great, but I’m interested in something else. I like that people are something that you will never, ever fully figure out. That’s why I love cities, because you so often find yourself in these situations like public transportation where you’re forced to all exist together with so many different mental and emotional states happening all at once.
Can you talk about your current practices or processes?
I’ve been making a lot of contour line drawings to figure out the compositions of my paintings. How your eye moves around the image is really important to reading the image. What your eye goes to first, second; what it notices last. I think about all those things a lot- where’s the point of entry in the work and where is the point of exit, and how that helps narrate the story I want to tell. For these drawings I look at a lot of Art History, fashion magazines, music videos, dance performances (I spend so much time on YouTube looking at dancers), and thinking about pose, so these drawings are the culmination of planning the future paintings. After I have the drawing, I also have an idea of a color space. I’m really drawn to very garish colors that are hard to work with together. For whatever reason, I cannot not make a red and green painting. It’s horrible and I love it.
It’s been kind of interesting just working in black and white with this new series of drawings, and thinking about value because it’s such a different ball game. Color adds so much emotion to the work. I’ll usually try to set up a painting with some rules, or a certain color space, but typically by the end it’s kind of whatever happens, happens. My paintings don’t always come from drawings. I like to mix it up; maybe 70% of what I do in the studio comes from a drawing and is planned insomuch that I know the composition. And then 30% of the time I like to be a little more loose with it. I love being able to just put paint on the canvas and see what happens. I work with oil and it’s so easy to just move things around for a while. I can get an idea of what’s happening just from using the brush, so I try not to be too formulaic with how I build a work because that can become too narrow of a road. Since all I make are paintings, and I’m not an interdisciplinary artist, it’s important to continue to challenge yourself and throw wrenches in your practice. You can’t get too comfortable in one way of working because you’d get bored. Even if it’s technical, or if I’m recognizing a pattern in my work, I wonder how can I do the opposite. For example, if everything is happening in the center of the painting, how can I make a painting where everything exists on the periphery? I also find if you try to work more intuitively then some unexpected things can happen that you can later build into the work.
Recently, I was just messing around on the canvas and realized it was starting to look like stained glass. It really struck a chord, because I think about light so much. How light affects the body. We are no different than plants, we respond to light! Stained glass is so connected to spirituality and death and all these complex topics I want to eventually explore in my work. It’s really important for me to keep things open in a certain aspect, in order to let the paint be spontaneous. Sometimes things start with patterns–I’ll know I’ll want a certain pattern because it’s an optical print, and I want an arm to seem extra long, and the print helps with that illusion, and then the painting kind of builds around that. Sometimes I’ll know I’ll want it to be a bedroom scene, or this scene outside or at a table, and then that’ll be the catalyst for a painting. Paintings are typically built around a pattern, scene, narrative, or color relationship. It doesn’t always start with a set idea, it can be begin as purely formal, and then the work follows its own path.
What are you thinking for the immediate future of your work?
I’m going to a residency in October for seven months at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. Seven months is a very long time; it’ll be the longest residency I’ve been on. It’s on the beach, which I love. They give you an apartment, studio, and stipend. You can bring your partner (which I am). It’s a very intensive situation. It’s ten visual artists and ten writers, so it’s very small and isolated. I’ve never been to Provincetown, but I know that during the summer it’s a great gay beach town. It shuts down during fall and winter, though. It’s kind of dead, so that’s why the residency is supposed to be very productive. I’ll have to find a gym! My plan is to arrive with drawings of the paintings already worked out and I’ll be able to just dive in and start painting.
I’m going to have a solo show in this space that I’ve shown at a few times. It’s called 1969 Gallery and it’s in the Lower East Side. Basically, I want these seven months just to be focused on this show. Putting together a show is a newer thing for me. I’m not great at it. When I’m making a painting, I’m so hyper-focused on that and then to step back and try to think about how this relates to that and how do I make a more broad body of work that connects and speaking to the same theme is something I’ve not done much. I’m trying to think of size and scale a lot more. I usually tend to work in a more manageable size just to be practical, but I want to make some larger paintings at the residency. The larger paintings might just be simple images, sized up. You usually associate a large painting with a lot happening in the image, but I want to think more about the impact of a gesture and if that’s small or made large and how that can serve as an important moment in a show. It feels like I’m putting on a theatrical performance, like when you turn a corner and see a certain thing, and what the impact of an image can be. I’ve thought about that before with studio visits, but how you think about the space of a show is really exciting–the reveal. The space is very long and has two rooms. It’s a nice size, not too big. I like intimacy when I’m seeing the work. The paintings are a lot to see in person. They’re pretty intense, so they need a lot of space to breathe.
That’s going to be a big chunk of time (at the residency), and after that I’m unsure. I’ve been floating around the past four years. I don’t feel like there’s one place I know I want to be where I want to make work. For the next few years I’m just going to be flexible with where I am and just try to travel more. I always have my mother’s basement to come back to! I like making work in different spaces, but part of me also fantasizes about if I’d moved somewhere right out of grad school and stayed I would have had a solid studio for a while. I haven’t had the same studio for more than a year and a half at a time, and I’m sick of moving. But I’m trying to embrace it all now and see what comes down the line, what opportunities unfold or don’t. And just go from there.
What do you have coming up that you’d like to promote?
In March, I’m going to have a solo show at 1969 Gallery, it’s in the Lower East Side in New York.