A couple of years ago, while we were walking through the de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Ryan Cobourn said to me, “Your interviews with artists should be more informal and rambling. You should do them, y’know, over beer.” I dismissed the suggestion at first, but eventually understood its wisdom. For Cobourn, it is in those spaces of time — the experimental and playful in-between — not just the precisely intentioned moves, where connection and revelation happens.
His painting explores these passages and gaps, spaces of longing. Forms suggest interlocking segments, but never come together fully; the curves of hips and elbows lean in toward one another. The references remain just out of reach. There is a physical, tactile play between overlaying and exposing that can feel by turns agitated, melancholic, or tender.
For the past several years, Cobourn’s work has been based on landscape imagery; the new work is more abstract but contains figural references. Last month his work was exhibited at Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York; he currently has a solo show at Bryant Street Gallery in Palo Alto, California. He is also exhibited by Ann Connelly Fine Art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He previously showed with Fischbach Gallery, New York. Cobourn was the curator of the 2009 Painting Center exhibition “Twenty-Five Painters Under Thirty-Five.”
* * *
Jennifer Samet: You grew up in the suburbs in Delaware. Was there anything about your childhood that inspired you to become a painter? How did you get to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia?
Ryan Cobourn: There wasn’t a lot of high culture; it was baseball and Bruce Springsteen. Art was comic books and cartoon strips, and Norman Rockwell prints. I had never been to a lot of museums. As Homer Simpson would say, it was very “upper-lower-middle class.”
In high school I went to the summer program of the Maryland Institute College of Art. The people there were like no one I had met before. I was drawn to the energy of the city.
I started out doing illustration at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. But once I started working in oil, I realized I had to switch to a painting major. That was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make advertisements; I just wanted to make my own stuff, and if I had to work some other job, work at the post office, I didn’t care.
Growing up, I was told that I got bored easily. Painting is the one thing I never get bored of. It is always changing, always elusive. So it just became a fixation. It really is the muse.
JS: And, despite not going to museums, did you draw as a kid?
RC: I always drew. I drew comics and cartoons, copies of Garfield and Spiderman. My grandmother still thinks my Spiderman phase is the highpoint of my artistic career.
I start every studio session by drawing. I see drawing as additive and everything is fair game. So I’ll draw anything – from doodling cartoons to copying a Cézanne painting.
JS: Yes, I think of you as omnivorous in the way that de Kooning’s paintings reference popular culture and advertisements as well as the figure, but are still about abstraction. In that sense I see the baseball and Norman Rockwell childhood as part of you and your work.
RC: Yes, but those elements are reduced by the time they get to the painting. The paint becomes a filter. We live in a world now of “over-sharing” with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. I don’t think I could make figurative paintings specifically about a certain event. But I can make a painting that is a memento.
The abstraction is layers of veiling on top. I want people to see the painting first. But I need to have a reason to make it. It might be a very personal event, and it might be a take on a classical myth. It is where the painting has a kind of resonance for me. Nobody else needs to know exactly where it comes from.
I had an epiphany after making the more landscape-based body of work last year. I was sitting in a backyard, by a pool. I got to this point where I decided I wanted to make paintings that were not just about nature, but about other things going on in my life.
That’s how I made the painting Kicked It in the Sun. It is an abstract painting that was based on that specific moment. There is a specific kind of light; there are elements of the pool and the trees, but it is about things going on in my life.
JS: Why do you obscure the representational elements?
RC: I find that way of painting more interesting. There are a lot of contemporary paintings that are graphic or an easy read. But that’s not what painting is about. Painting is a slow read.
My painting The Swan is about veiled or subliminal communication. I was interested in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, where it is the motion Duchamp is depicting. The figure is barely there.
Also, I was thinking about Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan at the Museum of Modern Art, which I consider one of his best paintings. You feel like you know what it is about—it’s about sex—although it doesn’t make any sense. He paints the act, the gesture, not the objects. You can’t tell what is the woman and what is the bird, what are the feathers, what is a heart. It is phallic and it is Sapphic.
But I noticed, there is a window at the top. It reminds me of the de Kooning Woman paintings: there are often windows in the corner. When in doubt, put a window in! So, Twombly is locating the event in an interior, but it’s not enough to give you everything. He collapses 2000 years of myth and imagery. He throws it all in a blender and it becomes this explosion.
It is like the Three Bathers by Cézanne that Matisse owned. Matisse looked at it every day and he said, “I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely.” That is important. There must be mystery: is that a figure, or is that a tree? In abstract painting you don’t have illusion—like illusion of space—but you have allusion. Allusion is way more interesting to me than anything else.
Last summer, I was hit by a car and stuck in the hospital for two days. While I was there, my grandfather died. I wanted to make a painting that was dedicated to him, but not a narrative. He was a pilot in World War II. When he got back from the war he basically dedicated his life to family and the church.
When I got back to my studio, without even realizing it, I was looking at pre-Renaissance paintings, and the first drawings I made were of angels. World War II Flying Ace eventually emerged, which was related to angels and airplanes and flying. I would paint in and paint out those T-shaped forms. But, the painting feels like flying, like an aerial landscape.
JS: You engage certain qualities that are not valued in the contemporary art world – the slow read and allusive qualities being examples. Also, you place value on the reductive elements of making paintings – erasure and scraping down. Can you talk about this?
RC: I have tried to make thick paintings and, as much as I love Milton Resnick and Leon Kossoff, in my own work, if it gets like that, it has to be scraped down and built back up. There is an interaction, rather than an accumulation.
A lot of this one-shot painting idea started with a misunderstanding of Matisse. People don’t realize that his assistants would scrape those paintings down at the end of the day. They look like they were painted in five minutes, but they were painted in five minutes over the course of months, tons of sessions. He put a lot of work in to make it look like it wasn’t a lot of work.
JS: People often look at your work and talk about de Kooning, Guston, and Mitchell. What is your response to that, and are you looking at now?
RC: Whenever you make a painterly painting and push the paint around you’re going to run into those guys. But the two painters I look at the most are Cézanne and Soutine: Soutine because of the energy and directness, and Cézanne because of the patience and construction. What I’m doing now relates to the late Bather paintings, which are very abstract and synthetic.
Cézanne had to get past Impressionism, so he went back to Poussin. For me, to get past gestural painting, I have to reconsider what it means to use figurative elements or still life or landscape to make an image.
It is like how Clement Greenberg criticized de Kooning for being a late Cubist. De Kooning responded, “The way I do it, it’s not like Cubism; it’s like Cézannism, almost.” Cézanne was about fitting things in together. I’m interested in that too. People would probably be surprised to see how I paint. I start very slowly and deliberately and build it up into those forms. And they start crashing into each other. They’re a lot less gestural than people might think. I’m more focused on color and form and tight construction.
JS: You also pay a lot of attention to the material aspects of your paintings, and mix some of your own pigments and medium. Why do you do this?
RC: Yes. That is the other problem with contemporary painting. A lot of people know how to make the image, but they don’t know how to make the thing. If you were a clockmaker, you would know how to take a clock apart and put it back together. But in art school, you aren’t taught how to make pigment. You go to the art material store and buy the stuff. You never understand how the thing works, or how to get what you want out of it. You see paintings going for six figures and they’re painted on pre-stretched gessoed canvases.
When I make a white paint that is a mix of lead and titanium, I get this creamy body; it is loose, closer to the consistency of yogurt. I have this theory that in Rembrandt’s day, paint was looser, because it was ground by hand, not pressed by machines. The stuff that comes out of machines is really stiff, so you get this hard edge.
JS: You are a great photographer, but I wonder what your feelings are about the relationship between photography and painting.
RC: I have never worked from photographs. That was the hardest part about studying illustration. The teachers told you to work from photographs and I just couldn’t do it.
I remember my teacher was telling me about a magazine cover he did – he built a still life, took a photograph, did preparatory drawings from that, and then did the painting. I asked him, “Why didn’t you just paint the still life?” And he said, “I don’t know.” My mind just shut down. I was like, I’m done with illustration.
I never work from photographs, because they provide too much residual detail. The metaphor would be if you asked me, “How was your day?” and I just handed you The New York Times. That was the day, but it was way more information than I took away. I think it is important, as a painter, to “misremember,” to get things wrong. Photographs are part of the noise, but the iPad is probably more important for me. I download thousands of images.
This is the information age, and there is a convoluted quality, information stacked on top of each other. There is a busyness in the new work that reflects this. I want the paintings to be hectic. The big gestures are an accumulation of the tinier gestures. There is a shifting that happens, almost like a pixilation when you enlarge an image.
But, I don’t want them to look computerized. I want to make a painterly equivalent. I want them to look visceral and felt and lush. Because that is lacking in contemporary art. I remember early on, having this idea of what I wanted a painting to look like that I wasn’t seeing in the galleries. That’s why I make the stuff I make. I was interested in this idea of gestural paintings that are not systematic.
I always paint the hell out of the thing, push up against how painterly it can be. It is about that engagement with the medium, with the natural ingredients, oil and earth. To me, that is the perfect rejection of the contemporary, cold, intellectual, technological aspects.
I’m not interested in making a commodity; I’m not interested in working with acrylic. I’m interested in making oil paintings, because, as a painter, that is how you reengage with the world. The gestural quality is the haptic sense, the sense of touch, the personal.