I recently caught up with artist Serena Cole at her light-filled, image-plastered studio in West Oakland. A lengthy and generous conversation, we discussed everything from her recent solo exhibition of dazzlingly complex figurative works on paper, to the shifts in her pictorial content following that showing, as well as her evolving relationship with the magazine format – and much more. Cole’s forthcoming zine, TAKEOVER features contributions from 36 female and genderqueer artists – and one curator.
Daniel Samaniego: Your solo exhibition Let Me Look At You (Gallery 16, San Francisco) is one of my favorites from last year: it is as if I can still feel each gaze fixed on me through gilded subterfuge. But also passing over me. What was the concept for Let Me Look At You? What is the role of the gaze specifically?
Serena Cole: Thanks so much Daniel! What a great compliment, and I love your description of them passing over you, as if through you. I am obsessed with the role of the gaze. I feel like the only way to explain a great deal of human nature is to reference Lacanian psychoanalysis and Lacan’s theory of the gaze, lack, and desire. The concept of the show is related to this- all of the figures are both me and not me. They are mirrors and gestalts, as well as crumbling versions of perfection doomed to fall short of expectations.
DS: I obsess over titles. What about you? How did you arrive at Let Me Look At You? Your title reads like a voyeur’s monologue, but also implies permission is at stake…
SC: Well it’s such a funny thing to say- It implies that we ever ask permission to look at people when we really don’t. We rudely stare or steal glances of strangers. I feel looking at someone is very vampiristic, but we all do it. It’s taking something from someone. I am on the receiving end of this as a woman every day, even when I look like shit. I feel the presence of a gaze of almost every man of a certain age, sizing me up. At the same time I also feel that impulse to look, to be a voyeur. We are never always a victim nor always an aggressor. I think that’s what my work is about. The title implies that it may be you, the viewer, asking permission of the subject to look, but it also alludes to the fact that the subjects in my paintings will be looking at you regardless of how you feel about it.
DS: Protect Me From Myself is such a stirring piece. I love the sort of ‘overdetermined’, symbolism as well as the integrated dualities within the character. Can you expand on this work in particular?
SC: Thank you! I originally wanted to call it “Protect Me From What I Want” but I didn’t think I could/should rip off Jenny Holzer. Protect Me From Myself is a different but equally reflective statement to me. It is a reference both to how I feel, but also how the figure feels. I mean, she’s totally losing her shit, choking herself, and aggressively holding a knife, but also trying to conceal this by pulling back the cloth to sort of pass as normal. Don’t we all feel like this at least some of the time? Also, as a woman in society we are not supposed to have angry impulses or be violent, which makes you want to be violent.
DS: Can you describe your process of collecting reference material for new work? How has that process evolved in the last few years?
SC: My process has not changed much over the years. I have a two foot stack of accumulated beautiful and creepy pictures from high end magazines mostly of things that I might want to paint. It doesn’t stop me from obsessively buying more. I feel like the world has so much in it that I have to limit what kinds of things I use in order to keep myself from going crazy, like limiting a palette so as to not muddy the colors. However, I do feel that there is a lot left out of conversations I want to have about our current political climate and fashion culture is falling short of letting me have these conversations. I have begun researching images akin to feelings: bullfights, bombs, witch-burning, rapes in historical paintings, etc. I hope to find a way to use them to tell a better story of how I feel as a young American woman right now.
DS: Whether curating an exhibition of drawing and painting at Oakland’s magazine boutique, Issues (TEAR IT OUT, 2013), collecting fashion magazines then subverting them through drawing and painting, and now an independent zine, your relationship with magazines continues to take new form: What are your thoughts on the magazine as cultural object or visual artifact?
SC: I think it is fascinating that a magazine is generally a mirror of the reader’s interests and fantasies. It tells a great deal about what particular portions of society long for. I was arrested once and on the desk of the community service secretary was a Guns and Ammo magazine. I remember a realization I had, which was that what you gravitate towards looking at tells a lot about you. I don’t know anyone who reads Guns and Ammo, but I bet it was pretty normal for that group of employees. It was really fascinating to me to think that someone who arrests people might also fantasize about violent weaponry.
So for me, the fact that there is so much darkness in contemporary fashion magazines tells me that a very large part of the population is, at least on a subconscious level, drawn to the images of death and sadness that I find in all my magazines.
DS: Besides amassing a trove of resource imagery culled from magazines and internet searches, it was fun to see you are also a collector of other objects and ephemera: tapes, plants and books. How do you view collecting in relation to your painting and drawing?
SC: I do like having a pattern that changes ever so slightly yet is related to the rest of the piece. I let each square of something belong to a whole, but have a small amount of difference is color or texture within each part. That seems to be what a collection is about.
DS: You’re as much an obsessive of canonical painting as fashion. I perceived an equal interest in Bronzino or Holbein as a Kate Moss portfolio. How do you equate or order one with the other?
SC: I do love the entire history of portraiture and get a lot more out of looking at Bronzino and Ingres than looking at a lot of art I see today. I believe there is something untouchable about the magnetism of a portrait- we are always looking for a way to relate to what we see, and the easiest way is looking at another facial expression. In my interest in fashion, I actually don’t care much about the models. I don’t like painting Kate Moss because everyone recognizes her as Kate Moss. I prefer the anonymity and chameleon-like nature of most models, so that I am able to lay my own decisions onto them. At all times, I think I am challenging myself to participate in the world of the master portraitists even if I can’t really get to that level. I use the inspiration I get from the other-worldly beauty of models as a basis for the only thing I have ever wanted to paint: the figure.
DS: Drawing from still life and your observation-based performances at the cemeteries are new to your work. What’s going on there? While studying your drawings of forgotten bouquets, I kept thinking of the M83 song Graveyard Girl…do you know it?
SC: No I don’t know that song! My interest in the cemetery flower paintings comes from simply being inside the spectacular cemetery near my house in Oakland. I go for walks there when I need peace, or I need some exercise, or when I need to look at something beautiful soon or I feel like I’ll just fucking die. I don’t know if the paintings do anything for me in the end, but they are fun to paint. They are mostly about the voyeurism and appropriation of taking pictures of other people’s flowers left for their loved ones. Once the people leave, the flowers start to fall over and become their own sculptural form. That appeals to me and I am only interested in them when they are half dead. They seem too happy and trite when they are fresh.
DS: I’m excited about your forthcoming zine, TAKEOVER. What can you reveal in advance of the release?
SC: Thank you! The zine is a compilation of artwork and thoughts from 36 female and genderqueer artists and one curator. The impulse was simple: female and gender non-binary artists never get enough exposure, and we are all feeling incredibly angry, weird, and hopeless since the election. I decided to promote the artwork of several talented people and to ask them to also contribute text about some aspect of being a female or genderqueer on this earth. The results are so much moving and more poignant that I ever could have imagined. It’s like having an amazing conversation about being a mom, an artist, an employee, and so on all at once with everyone else in the zine and the reader at the same time.
I am excited about it and also frustrated that to do something well, it can take longer than you want it to! I hope to have it out in the next month. It will be available at stores like Issues in Oakland and I’ll post about it on my website when it comes out.
DS: We spoke a bit about the shifts in your imagery in response to the election, the Trump administration, and the escalating socio-political crisis. What is the potential of art or the artist in these trying times?
SC: I used to be more politically active but over time I grew quite disillusioned about my ability to affect change. It also felt like once you committed to a cause, you had to commit to all causes, which is both contradictory and also impossible. I stopped fighting for things. Now, years later I am watching our nation erode every day. It’s a time to be angry. It’s a time to speak out. And while I think overtly political art is often overdone, I think about what Nina Simone said: “It is the duty of an artist to reflect the times.” I feel a moral obligation to make more searing and pointed work. I do not believe that I can change the world as an artist, but as artists we can make work that reflects our perspective and unites us against the tyranny and ridiculousness of the powers that be.
DS: You’re also an art educator for students of all ages, teaching a full range of courses in drawing, painting and mixed media. Maybe its an unanswerable question, but i’m going for the big one: As an exhibiting artist, educator, MFA alumnus, and woman: why is art education more important now than ever?
SC: I went to public school but now I teach at a private one. At the school I teach at, the high school students are required to take a year of art, which just makes them more interesting people in general. I have the opportunity to teach them about things like what the NEA is and why it matters that it’s being cut. I also get to teach them about Bad Brains and gold leafing, which is a plus. I think about how lucky I was to be given the great formative education I received at my high school, considering the amount of money most people now have to pay for these things. I don’t know how a high school-age kid would get through this life without a means to express themselves. Art education is incredibly important and should be accessible to all. Otherwise we’ll just be a sea of banality without a means of finding other weirdos to support.
Serena Cole is an artist based in Oakland, CA. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. Her highly detailed, labor-intensive colored pencil and watercolor paintings incorporate beauty, darkness, and psychology. Her work has been included in exhibitions at Phillips de Pury, New York, NY; Soo Visual Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA; Mark Moore in Culver City, CA; and Roberts and Tilton at Domestic in Los Angeles, CA and included in private collections around the country. She is represented by Gallery 16 in San Francisco, CA.
Daniel Samaniego’s hyper-detailed drawing installations are a meditation on queer persona. He received his BFA in Painting and Drawing in 2007 from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and an MFA in Painting in 2011 from the San Francisco Art Institute. Samaniego has been an Artist in Residence at the Vermont Studio Center (2014).
All images courtesy the artist.