Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NYC
On a sunny Monday afternoon I had the pleasure to sit down with Artsicle artist Rachel Cohen in her studio a few blocks from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. Influenced by a love of literature and training in Art Therapy, Rachel's high energy canvases scream "this is bullshit!" What, you ask? Read on.
Can you talk a bit about your upbringing and how you arrived as an artist in New York?
I grew up in south Florida in Miami, and then moved to Boca Raton. I always made art growing up, and was really into art in high school, did a lot of portfolio work. I wanted to go to art school, was discouraged from going to art school as an undergraduate. I ended up at Wesleyan, and was fortunate to arrive at a College with a great art scene, where I was able to continue to make art independently. When I graduated, I didn’t make art for a while. I worked at a desk job, wanted to cry every day, cried a lot of days. Eventually, I got back into making art, and just realized how happy, and sane, and stable it made me. That’s what inspired me to do art therapy as well, I thought it was a good balance to be able to make my work and to be able to help others as well. I had graduated from Wesleyan in 2006, and in 2009 began some pre-requisite work at Columbia, I also used this time to take some art classes to get back into art making.
In fall of 2010 I started my degree in Art Therapy at Pratt. Pratt’s program is almost clinically based in how much it calls on psycho-analytic theory, there is art making involved, but it is a very different kind of art making, which is something that I am interested in studying. I am interested by the split between art therapy, and the idea of art, and what art means- I’m actually writing a thesis on that right now. So it’s a lot of psychology work, but also some sort of coursework on properties of materials, but not like an art school class- it’s very different from that.
Is that approach reflected in what you’re working on now?
Actually, yes. I’m really big on rebellion right now, to put it bluntly. My processes have been really rooted in self exploration, based on an art therapy education, but have also been grounded in rebellion to the idea of art therapy as separate from art. My first semester I was told by professors that when text and words are used in art that means, interpretively, that there is a lack of confidence in the image. I use a lot of text, I studied English, so this idea really got to me. It really bothered me to hear this black and white interpretive stance on art, so this year I’ve really been working on how I can bring this text back into the process work that I’ve been doing.
What’s your most current project?
So this is the way I work- it starts big, and then I work it down. So I started this (see: Barbara Streisand piece pictured), which combines kind of spontanaeity and intention, and this was kind of a mapped way of working out everything that I wanted in one image. It’s huge, its not done, its kind of all over the place, but I’ve really sort of found a focus in it for some smaller pieces that I’m really excited about. The smaller pieces are what I’m working on now, and I’m really into it- I feel like they are everything come together that I’ve been working on for the past few years. A lot of the prints that I’ve done have a similar sort of process with a spontaneous image, and then text over it and doing that in print actually helped me to get the paintings to this place too. It’s really sort of been 2011 that got me here.
What’s your process like?
I don’t really start with ideas, though I generally have a conceptual basis in mind. In this case, what I’ve been working from- and this is where the Barbara Streisand idea comes from, is the idea that this is B.S.. The idea of B.S. has really been my conceptual starting point- a lot of it rooted in the art therapy versus art idea that we were talking about, mixed in with some other things, just feeling like this is all kind of bull shit. Then I started working with some spontaneous ink and water, ink and salt, ink and different objects, seeing what happens, letting the bullshit happen, and then making a form out of the bullshit. The words come as I’m working- its a spontaneous thing- I’m not so big on the planning. It’s a mix right now, between conceptual and expressionist way of working.
So you’ve said in your artist statement that your work is meant to be a sort of “self portrait of the moment”, how does that work?
So I have some works on paper, where I was working in this ink first, seeing what happens, and then expanding on it. And what I found was kind of rooted in studies as well, the way I would respond to the spontaneous ink image, and it would help me understand where I was at psychically, physically, and mentally. For instance, some of my past work has used lots of color, lots of movement, and they were created at a warm weather time when things were going really well, as things are getting colder and a little darker the color and motion in my work tends to fade. Not that I would ever say that I interpret my work in an art therapy kind of model, I don’t do that to anyone’s work, I do think that work says a lot, probably more to the artist than to the viewer at times. Anyways, I can sort of see where I’m at personally based on what I’m making, and based on what comes out of the process.
Are you creating something to express what you’re feeling, or are you sending a message- or is it a combination?
Exactly. It’s a combination. And it took me a while to combine the two. At first it was like I had the expression part, but I don’t think that it was fully realized until I could kind of add some of the statement to it.
So is “this is bull shit” your art world commentary?
...it’s a little bit of everything. Sure, it’s rooted in the art world, and art therapy, but also the economic crisis, and all of this government garbage that’s going on. Part of what I’m writing on too is the idea of outsider art, and how it has been treated over the years, both by art therapists and by fine artists. I’ve just been really bothered by all of this categorizing and all of the bullshit that goes along with it. My relationship with art therapy is complicated; I got into it seeing it one way, and the field is so broad and means so many different things to so many people, its almost like you have to tell me your definition of art therapy for me to tell you if I agree with it.
So...what’s your definition of art therapy?
I work in what’s called the studio model, and that’s exactly what it sounds like, where people come and work and make work. I am also a firm proponent of showing that work. I’ve put on a couple gallery shows for the people I worked with last year, and the place I’m at now does a lot of gallery shows with that studio work, and I’m totally for that- the idea of furthering the democracy of art. It is so hard to find a way into art, unless you fit a certain narrow model...so that’s my definition of art therapy. Especially today, when so much of the conceptual and post-modern stuff that’s out there, we shouldn’t really be adhering to boundaries so rigidly.
How does it manifest that an artist is overlooked as an outsider, as opposed to coming through formal channels?
So this reminds me of the conflict when I was deciding between an MFA or a degree in art therapy. Talking to people and hearing the split between people who tell you nobody will take you seriously without an MFA, and people who tell you that MFAs are bullshit. Myself, fortunately I have had a lot of opportunities to pursue art, but there is such a barrier to people who don’t have a college education, and who don’t have a high school education, often through no fault of their own. Trying to break into the art world without these credentials is hard.
What is the organization that you currently work with?
It’s called L.A.N.D. Gallery in DUMBO- it’s really cool. We’ve got about 15 artists with developmental disabilities who come every day Monday through Friday and they create work. It’s also a gallery space, which is open to the public, so people can come in and interact with the artists and buy work. Just recently one of our guys was featured in Paper Magazine, he sells his cards at Opening Ceremonies in the Ace Hotel. There’s a lot of good stuff going on for them and with them, and I think they are a really good example of what outsider art can be. The work they do is so amazing- really awesome. But, the only reason they have this opportunity is because of community art centers, and mental health programs- and that's great, but this is the only program like it in Brooklyn. It’s a hard thing to do, and that's really unfortunate because it’s a really great organization. There’s a revenue generating side to it when work is sold, there is a 50/50 split between the artists and the gallery, so there is an element of self funding, and it is also supported by the City, and federal programs.
(The L.A.N.D. artist mentioned is Michael Pellew, he also created the masterful Jackson’s Christmas on Rachel’s bookshelf pictured above)
You’ve mentioned that you have a literature background- how has that appeared in your work?
A lot of the text that ends up coming out is literature based- that piece (which says WANG, pictured), came off of “Bang” which comes from T.S. Elliot. So it sort of goes back and forth from being inspired by literature, and incorporating it. I really love 20th century modernism, have always been obsessed with T.S. Elliot; depending on where I’m at mentally he resonates with me a little be it more. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking key words from the text, or key ideas from the text, sometimes its just working from an inspiration from how I feel based on the text, but it manifests in a lot of different ways. The prints especially came from T.S. Elliot.
I noticed the gear taking up half your studio... are you an avid lacrosse player?
No- that’s my partner (read: boyfriend). We share this space. He runs a lacrosse website (www.laxallstars.com) - he actually works in the living room, but I’ve allowed him some storage space in here because I have so much space in here...it seemed unfair.
So what inspires you to produce in the first place?
Um...life? There’s definitely an element of responsive art making, where if I’m having a really shitty day I’ll come into the studio. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and realize I need to go paint, so there is definitely a responsive drive. But then there’s an added element of once I get into something I really want to see how far it can go, and just continue pushing it. In the past weeks I’ve gotten that feeling, where I just have to create.