Artist of the Week: Barnett Cohen

Barnett Cohen lives and works in Los Angeles. He received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and his BA from Vassar College. He attended The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2012. His work has been exhibited at The International Center for Photography (New York), Cathouse FUNeral (Brooklyn), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), A Gallery (Seattle), Human Resources (Los Angeles), Venice 6114 (Los Angeles), Cirrus Gallery (Los Angeles), Beverly’s (NYC/Miami/Mexico City), Galerie SEE Studio (Paris), and Above Second (Hong Kong.)

What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I am a member of a collective (the other members are the amazing Jules Gimbrone and the incredible Kang Seung Lee) named PSSST. We are in the midst of opening a space in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles; the space is also called PSSST. The space, once finished, will be a 5,000 square foot warehouse that is architecturally tailored to present a diverse set of exhibitions and performances. It will also house a studio residency program that provides selected artists with the time and space to develop new work. Our first exhibition is slated to open in October. It will have taken us two years to get there, from locating a building, to working with an architect (shout out to Daveed Kapoor), to developing our programming schedule, to you-name-it. I am also a contributing writer for Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles (CARLA) founded by the one and only Lindsay Preston Zappas. It is an online contemporary art magazine and quarterly print publication. The first print issue drops April 24th with a big party at HRLA. I’ll be doing a regular piece entitled NOT ANOTHER STUDIO VISIT where I meet with artists based in Los Angeles and shoot the shit about their lives and their work. My first interview will be with the internet’s own Devin Kenny (a.k.a: Devin KKenny, Darren Krutze, and Ellsworth R. Kelly.) and it’s gonna be dope. Other than those exciting endeavors, I am making work in my studio and letting it take me where it wants to go.

How did your interest in art begin? My mom is a graphic designer. When I was growing up, I would hang out at her office after school and make stuff. We are talking pre-internet, so it was all markers and foam core and xerox machines and an Omnicrom 2000. I spent a good deal of time making dye-transfer text pieces and copies of my face and ass. Touch became integral to my process of making then, and it informs my practice today. I count my blessings that I was born with parents who encouraged and supported my many creative impulses and that I was born before screens were ubiquitous. 

What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other artists are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? Apart from the obvious challenges such as student debt and poverty, I see the privileged and patriarchal structure of the art world and market as a problem that is not going away. It is not a challenge. It is not to be overcome. It is here to stay. Straight white male and therefore privileged artists—of which I am one—always get a free pass. A free pass on mediocre work. A free pass on not having to explain our work in relation to our identity. A free pass on INSERT YOUR OWN BLANK. What I never see or hear is my fellow straight white male and therefore privileged artists acknowledging that this is actually a problem (why bite the hand that generously feeds you, right?). That job is left to the Others. Groucho Marx said it best: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member” and PSSST is a direct response to this unthinking system. Our mission, as a collective and as a space, is to give underrepresented artists opportunities to work and to exhibit.

What’s your favorite thing about your city? Los Angeles is the weirdest city in which I have ever lived or visited and the only way to experience the weirdness is to walk. New York City (Brooklyn specifically) remains the love of my life, but NYC/BK has nothing on LA when it comes to weirdness. Put it down to the steady supply and availability of hard drugs. Put it down to the well of narcissism at which most of Tinsel Town drinks. Put it down to the boosterism myth of self-(re)invention. There is a strain of authenticity in LA, an unchallenged belief in the self and the now, that I have only experienced here.

If you hadn’t become an artist what do you think you’d be doing? Stand-up comedian.

Tell us a joke. I am funny but I have nothing on Jerrod Carmichael. 

What is your snack of choice when working in your studio? My studio is in Highland Park. There are a lot of vendors in the neighborhood that sell large plastic containers of fruit–mango, jicama, coconut, pineapple, oranges, papaya, watermelon, and cucumber all mixed together–spiced with lime, chile, and salt. That is what I eat. My favorite vendors are located at 56th and York and on Figueroa between Roselawn and 56th.

What are you listening to right now? We are Miracles by Sarah Silverman.

What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? Video. Pencils. Markers. Drywall. Hydrocal. Wood. Latex. Silicone. Archival paper. Light switches. Outlets. And on the rare occasion found objects. I operate like a self-employed Hound Dog. I get a whiff of an idea and follow it. It usually takes a long time between me smelling the idea and me actualizing it to completion. I dance back and forth between the idea and what it looks like. I need to see the work to understand the idea and I often revise the idea and return to the work from a different vantage point. It is like writing, and it is no coincidence that I work with text. I edit and write and edit and write both in literal and figurative terms. And, as we all know, the work is never finished. It is merely abandoned.

If you had to explain your work to a stranger, what would you say? I try to stay out of the way if I can. However, for the purposes of this question, I would tell said curious stranger to look at whatever piece is before them and to look at it for ten minutes. Just look at it and breathe and stop thinking. What I am suggesting may sound too prescriptive, if not a bit meditative, but all the signs and signifiers are right there before the curious stranger. No one piece can provide context—personal or political—and I am operating under the assumption that the curious stranger is actually always asking for context and not meaning; we have the cult of personality to thank for that (mostly). Yeah sure, the curious stranger wants to know what the piece is about but more importantly, how/when/why did I make it. I once saw Paul Auster give a talk and members of audience asked him if he used a pen or a pencil and on what kind of paper and at what time of day did he write and I kept thinking, “JUST READ THE BOOKS PEOPLE.” I am lucky enough to have parents who dragged me to museums when I was a kid but it always maddened me when my parents—my father in particular (he is a history buff, but he doesn’t look like one)—would head straight for the headphones. It was as if he preferred context over the visual. I cannot help but imagine my father as the curious stranger.