“Here’s some macaroni! And here is rigatoni…” Jennifer Coates says to me as she moves paintings around in her studio. It’s hard not to smile and feel like I’m being offered dinner as well as a studio visit. There’s a generosity and enthusiasm — and total willingness to put herself out there — when Coates is talking about ideas or sharing her work. She loves to joke about all things bodily and will talk about alien life, scatology, politics, and painting in equal measure. She is also a fierce gardener, cook, competitive baker, and musician — a vocalist and violinist in a couple of bands.
Coates’s recent work depicts food: spaghetti and meatballs, sprinkle cookies, and s’mores. Her work is about matter and viscosity, but it is also rooted in grid-like structures, repetitive mark-making, and very sophisticated paint handling. I remember being struck by her painting “BBQ” (2014), which I saw in a pop-up group exhibition — thinking it was intense and elemental, and a great painting joke at the same time. Against the backdrop of a painterly grid (a grill seen from above), was a huge slab of meat — which was also just substance: fire, heat, and red paint.
Coates has developed this interchange in all of her paintings since. Mass-produced and nostalgia-filled foods, like Almond Joy candy bars and thick deli sandwiches, are shown in cross-section. Their overall forms suggest biomorphic shapes in modernist abstract painting. They also look weird and over-the-top, gooey and oozing. Acrylic paint, slathered, smoothed, and textured, is likened to the synthetic colors and substances that are part of processed convenience foods, food dyes, and cake icing. Drips of creamy paint become syrup, pasta sauce, and melting cheese.
Coates received her BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1995 and her MFA from Hunter College in 2001. She was the subject of a solo exhibition, Carb Load, in 2016 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Collaborative work with her husband David Humphrey was shown in 2015 in a two-person exhibition, Plus Onus, at Arts + Leisure, New York. Prior solo exhibitions were held at Kinz, Tillou + Feigen (2008) and Feigen Contemporary (2006) in New York. Coates’s writing on art has been published in Modern Painters, Time Out New York, and Art in America. She’s also authored a horoscope column for the blog Two Coats of Paint and co-curated the exhibition The Swerve in 2016 at Ortega y Gasset Projects, Brooklyn, New York. She is known for her artist lectures / visual essays exploring the phenomena and scientific-social history of bubbles. A solo exhibition of Coates’s work, All U Can Eat, is currently on view at Freight + Volume Gallery, New York, through April 16.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. I’m guessing, based on what you have told me about your background, that you didn’t actually grow up eating the mass-produced foods that have become a subject of your work.
Jennifer Coates: In 2016, I had a show, Carb Load, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. My mother came to the opening. She was saying to everyone, “I just want you to know, I did not feed Jennifer these foods.” And it’s true! My parents prided themselves on their gourmet cooking skills. I learned to cook from my dad. My friends at school would all eat tuna fish sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. They had ravioli from the can. Those foods freaked me out. And I was just not cool and got teased for everything — from playing the violin to having nice, cute lunches, like a roast beef sandwich with mustard on multigrain bread.
So, I am recapitulating my sense of being an alien as a child. “I’m wrong, everything I do is wrong. I’m different from you, and I don’t understand you.” It is a comfortable perspective, in a way.
JS: Was art-making a part of your childhood? Were there artists in your family?
JC: Drawing was my thing. I drew all the time, picture after picture of wide-eyed little girls. They were like children of the corn, recurring and repeating and multiplying. In high school, I remember being miserable and thinking, “The only thing I have control over is what is on this piece of paper.” From time to time, it’s good to tap into that original impulse — when art history and contextualizing your work can start to take over. It’s about trying to make sense of how to be a person.
Recently, I found a drawing I made for my father, when I was eight or nine years old. He had sprained his ankle, and I was trying to make him feel better. So I made this drawing of an enormous hamburger with five different patties and all kinds of condiments, and his tankard of beer. It’s like you have one idea your whole life, and that’s it.
My maternal grandmother was really amazing. She took art classes starting in her 50s, and then went back to school to get her BFA when she was already a grandmother. She lived in Canada, and when I visited, I slept in her studio, with stacks of paintings. I saw her thesis show when I was in high school. She had learned how to cast in bronze, she made jewelry, and she made these ambitious paintings that were embedded with her experience of being a Jewish immigrant. She was a difficult person, but always very interested in what I was up to. It meant a lot to me.
JS: There’s something you told me a few years ago in your studio that I always think about. You said you grew up with an atheist Jewish mother and that experimenting with spirituality felt like the most forbidden thing. It was very funny. I’ve been thinking about it, since I know you explore relationships between the Occult and modernist art. You also consider your work to have a devotional, iconic quality.
JC: Yes, when I was an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a friend of mine was involved in a born-again Christian community. Sometimes I went to church with her. I didn’t know if I believed all of it, and I wasn’t necessarily attracted to organized religion. But there was something so ecstatic, which was attractive to me. And yes, I would worry that somehow my mother was going to discover me saying, “Praise Jesus!”
I liked how the ecstatic reorients you to the moment you are in, and wakes you up. My mother saying, “God doesn’t exist… and tell your friends,” just didn’t do it for me. I think anything that makes you feel liberated, in terms of how you see reality, is a good thing. A whole world opens up when we really look at all the things that we put on our bodies, and put in ourselves. I’d rather have that be magical than neutral.
JS: At that time, when I visited your studio, you were making abstract paintings with a lot of pattern and tessellation. When and how did you move into the food-based paintings?
JC: Around the time you visited, I was probably working on “Picnic” (2014). It was a skeletal black warping grid with stuff oozing out of it. I was frustrated with it and didn’t want to be in this nebulous architectural abstraction anymore.
For a few months, I was background processing, trying to figure out where I wanted to go with the work. I had a couple of experiences that affected me. I visited Nicole Eisenman’s studio. She has known my work for a long time. I saw the painting “Under the Table 2” (2014) in the studio, which shows a huge cutaway of salami, and people hanging around the table. There are flecks of fat and meat in it. I was amazed by the painting, and Nicole said, “You could have painted those dots in the meat.” I thought, “Wow. What would it be like, to go from what I’ve been doing, to painting salami?”
Then I came across an image of a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, “Cash Register” (1961). I thought about how it was completely of its moment, but it also looks like it was dug out of the earth. It was like an ancient sculpture.
I also saw photographs of a friend’s vacation in Iceland. There were beautiful, primeval landscapes, and images of him and his wife, sitting at picnic tables, eating little snacks. Little by little, something started to cement in my head, where I thought, “I can talk about the sublime – this radiant, transcendent presence that I’m trying to coax out of paint, and also anchor it back to the everyday.”
I decided it would be really exciting to go back into the black grid with a gingham pattern. It didn’t change anything about how I was painting. But I named it, and made it specific, so that anyone looking at the painting would read it as a picnic blanket or tablecloth. On this particular surface, everything that happened on it or erupted from it felt food-oriented. A stain wasn’t just a painterly stain; it was a barf stain or something that spilled over. That was the beginning of the food.
JS: It seems that your concern in these paintings is to establish an equivalence between the paint and the food substance. Is that accurate?
JC: Paint can do what it wants to do, and the references can be multiple and diffuse. If I am doing a spray of paint, it is icing as well as a Jackson Pollock move. The food often just stages an opportunity. Is it going to be a Pointillist business, or a zip down the middle, or Abstract Expressionism? It became a way to have a lot more fun.
You also begin to think about all the weird decisions that go into preparing foods. There are aesthetic decisions that are not just about nourishment. You want things to look a certain way, or have a certain ratio of liquid to solid. That struck me as exciting to explore.
When you are spreading something on a piece of bread with a knife, you put it on in a special way. Some kids like more peanut butter, and some like more jelly. There are always aesthetic decisions. And I thought, “Well, that’s funny. Maybe making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a painting indoctrination experience.”
JS: I wonder why, if you are in search of the spiritual, your subject was mass-produced food. Aren’t they kind of polar opposites?
JC: Embedded in it is a critique. These processed foods are toxic — for us and for the planet. If you buy a Danish, you get a plastic-encased thing. You open it up, and the thing inside has more in common with the packaging than it does with something from your grandmother’s kitchen. How did this food become what it is? It is now made from synthetic chemicals, but why is it the shape it is? The Danish is a spiral — an ancient shape. So, for me, it’s a way to meditate on both the mysterious and toxic nature of processed food.
JS: What kinds of discoveries have you made as far as relating food shapes to symbols and forms?
JC: They are theories more than discoveries. I am sort of a conspiracy theorist-type person. I love this idea of, “Guess what?! This thing that you are so used to and never consider is actually the bearer of ancient ritual religious behavior.” I love making up stories about where things came from and finding deep-time precursors — shape rhymes throughout history.
It is interesting that as human beings we’ve been attracted to certain kinds of forms and shapes and behaviors. We tend to say, “It’s just decorative,” but what if there is something in our anatomy that draws us to similar patterns?
Lately, in lectures on my work, I am making connections between pasta shapes and entoptic forms. Entopic phenomena are the result of your visual cortex seeing your neuroanatomy. Experiments, like the ones that Heinrich Klüver did in the 1920s, have shown that people under the influence of certain hallucinogens draw specific patterns and shapes. The shapes are categorized and called “Klüver forms.” Similar kinds of forms and shapes can be found in petroglyphs and early Paleolithic art.
When I was doing excavation into the bagel shape, I saw images of yoni carved stone forms found in Israel eight thousand years ago. They are thought to conform to fertility or female genitalia worship. They were circular shapes with a hole in the center and a slit down the middle. For me, that’s all I need. You get a bagel, but it’s a bearer of this ancient ritual, affiliated with matriarchy and female shamans.
JS: So when you say they are theories, you’re not necessarily tying to prove them? I know you are interested in the work of Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist and mystic. How did his work influence you?
JC: When I come up with a theory, it’s not verbal — it is visual. I lay out the pictures.
I want to trust the visual part of my brain — the part that is intuitive, and has shape recognition and pattern recognition. I’m trying to prove my theory through images. My hope is that if you are allowing yourself to think purely visually, you can be very thorough and engaged with what’s around you.
I got into Terence McKenna through the painter Steve DiBenedetto. His lectures are archived online, and I have listened to them constantly in my studio for years. McKenna changed my way of thinking. The desire to dig into history, improvise, and make up a story came from him. McKenna read everything, but he plays with all of the information and ideas. He’s not beholden to any of it. He wasn’t a scholar or a scientist. He just says, “Here’s what I think.”
JS: It seems as if you make a lot of painting jokes in your work. The sprinkles or dots can be abstract ellipses. Are you interested in Pattern and Decoration artists, or Op Art? Who are the figures in art history you are talking to the most?
JC: There are a lot of painting jokes. There are all kinds of moments where I think I can pretend to be this or that artist. It is very satisfying. With the bread and the popsicle paintings, I think about Rothko and Color Field painting. How can the popsicle be radiant? I’m thinking about a color relationship where the paint isn’t just naming something, but also transcending itself.
As for Pattern painters, I’ve always liked James Siena’s work a lot. I like Bridget Riley, but I would want to pee on it. I always want to do something to mess with Op Art.
Turner is somebody I come back to over and over and over again. The moments of light in his paintings are the most impressive and the most physical, but they are also the most ethereal — barely there. It is abject light and also transformative. I love that you can have something be really mucky and crusty, and also a ghost.
Hopefully, what comes across in my work is a kind of heightened devotional object that has a radiant presence. I was thinking about sacrificial stone altars. The slab, where an animal is getting killed with a knife, is like the first abstract expressionist painting. So making a sandwich and spreading substances around with a knife is like a weird descendent of the sacrifice. Peanut butter and jelly can look like bodily fluids or innards. It is gooey business.
JS: Do you see your paintings as feminist in the sense that they are acknowledging this kind of messiness? It is what Mira Schor talks about in “Figure/Ground” (1989), which is an essay you have cited as an influence.
JC: When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with Kiki Smith and body art. It was the early 1990s — that moment when body art was prominent. I took a feminist art history class at the University of Pennsylvania. I came from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where you draw from life and study anatomy. That art history class showed there was a way to use the body to communicate a political, feminist message. That concern with how the body is fragile, and breaks down, and there is pee and blood — I was really into that. And that interest has never left me.
So for me, paint is very bodily. As much as it sort of organizes itself to be a depiction of something, it’s also always restating itself as this amorphous pile of goo. What’s a more amorphous pile of goo than the innards or a decaying corpse? I was trying to paint a sandwich, but then I said, “It is a fucking bloody vagina.” That’s what it is. I want it to look like that. If someone sees something that’s embarrassing and kind of weird, a stain that’s wrong, then I feel good.
I’m really excited about those moments where it becomes unruly and messy, anti-logic or anti-gravity. In his book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt discusses ancient Greek and Roman atomistic theory. The idea was that tiny particles shower down in the cosmos, moving in parallel lines. Every now and then, one goes out of its path. That is when things interact. It is that interruption of the pattern, and that interaction, which causes things to happen. Evolution happens. Systems self-exceed. Things progress when there is a mistake. So, I prefer the mistake.
The thing that makes many artists interesting is how they re-tool the past. They confuse our relationship to what we thought was familiar. You have to trust that part of your brain — the part that goes, This, on top of that. Something erupts from the matrix and the orderly. Then, all of a sudden, everything is exciting.