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John Copeland Interview

Written by Yasha Wallin   
Monday, 15 January 2007 07:58

Our NYC correspondent interviews this Brooklyn based painter.
I’ve been following John Copeland’s art for as long as I can remember, starting with his appearances at group exhibitions in San Francisco and then after both of us making the exodus to New York, where he has had solo exhibitions at 31 Grand and BBH Gallery. His delicate paintings and drawings have continued to mature over the years. I recently had the chance to view his latest body of work during a studio visit in Bushwick, where he has been hard at work. -Yasha Wallin

// 56 x 50". ink, gouache, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 2007

Where are you from?

I grew up in California, a few hours south of SF.

I first met you in San Francisco, how long did you live there?

I was there for few years, while going to CCAC, finished there in 98 and have been in New York ever since.

Do you paint on a daily basis? What is your studio practice like?

Yes. I'm there every day. From when I wake up till I have to go home and crash. It's real important for me to spend as much time there as possible. I'm pretty disciplined, I get up every morning, have my coffee and go to the studio to work. I don't have a particular routine when there, some days I'm drawing all day, some painting, sometimes its just making supports and stretching canvas.

// 72 x 86" ink, gouache, acrylic and graphite on canvas 2007

I remember when I first saw your work it was more installation based, with shelves and other three dimensional objects appearing next to your paintings and drawings, whereas now you’ve moved away from that. Was this a conscious decision or did the departure come about organically?

More organically, but I think that as my work has matured and changed I feel like the work is strong enough to hang clean. It all depends on the body of work and how everything works together. I like the way that sculpture and installations round out a show and will continue to do so when appropriate. I have some ideas for some larger sculptural work that I would like to pursue.

When I was younger I worked in more layers and would find the image as I built it up. These days, I generally know what I'm doing more or less before I start (of course things still change as your working on them.) I've got such a long list of pieces I want to make.

// "9 figureheads". 27 x 36.5" (9 x 12 individually). ink, gouache, and graphite on paper. 2006

There are some subtle themes that are recurrent throughout your paintings and drawings such as the faintly drawn ropes and lines depicting dialogue between your figures. Can you describe the idea behind introducing these subtleties within the work?

The ropes started with me drawing knots and forming words out of complicated tangles of rope in my journal. When I started to develop the images for that show, they developed into a one of the central elements and served a few different purposes. I like the play in meaning for them, there multiple connotations that arise from what you can do with ropes, and what they mean in the picture.

I have been playing with text and language for a long time, as things have gotten more abstract and obtuse, these forms that started as bits of seaweed in the last show evolved into fragments of speech.

// "flotsam/jetsam". 15 x 21.25". ink, gouache, and graphite on paper. 2006

In this new body of work, you use a lot of hands, specifically in “One”. Why hands?

I'm interested in gestures. There is something very primary about our hands. As with most elements in my work, it has developed, organically as you put it earlier.

You have a pretty consistent palate, using muted tones to create work that at times has an almost transparent feel to it. In “He Said She Said” was it fun for you to saturate the piece in a bold red?

Yeah, that happened late at night, it was fun to set something so bright, in the context of the other paintings. It may not stay like that, I need some time with it.

// "It's all behind you now". 89 x 51". ink, gouache, graphite and collage on paper. 2006

What determines when a painting is finished?

When it feels right. There's always push/pull, and it is often a process of elliminating anything that bothers me or feels unresolved, until the whole thing works formally and conceptually.

The human figure appears frequently throughout your work. Who do these figure represent?

Protagonists and antagonists. Vessels and metaphors. They are not specific individuals, I work pretty hard to stay away from anything too literal.

// studio shot, jan 12 2007

You recently moved studios from a more compact space in Greenpoint to new space in Bushwick – with much higher ceilings and from the looks of it more room to breath - how have you seen your work change since you’ve been in the new studio?

There is something about that space that just feels good. Been working real big. I'm trusting myself to take more chances and go down whatever path it wants to go. This is the first time in a few years I haven't had a big show to work towards, which may contribute to the sense of play. It feels like everything has been progressing at an exponential rate for the last few months.

// studio shot, jan 12 2007

// "A line for waiting 1" ink, gouache, acrylic and graphite on canvas 2007

In the studio you’re surrounded by several friends making work in a different vein than your own. Nonetheless, does any of their influence appear in your work?

Of course, we all have a real strong sense of who we are and what we do, but we all kind of spur each other on. We have great thing going on over there. It's pretty encouraging to be around people whose work and opinions you respect.

Who are your other influences?

Everything. Books, music, all the shit I see, whatever happened last night, etc. Most important are the friends you mentioned above, Fanny Bostrom, Wes Lang, Brian Montuori, Eddie Martinez, Jules de Balincourt, Mike Giant, Eric White, Ernesto Caivano, etc...

// 72 x 68". ink, gouache, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 2007

What do you do when you’re not in the studio?

I have a few old motorsickles, a couple of triumphs and a harley davidson, so I work on those which is fun... but it's hard to find the time. I'm usually at the studio.

You had a solo exhibition last May at 31 Grand Street in Brooklyn. Describe the emotion you feel in preparing for a solo exhibition such as this. Artists sometimes tell me they get a little depressed after their openings because there was so much energy exhausted in preparation up until the date and when it’s over there is a sense of loss. Does this happen with you?

Not so much. If anything, there is a sense of relief that everything is done. As soon as it's up I'm already thinking about what's next. Planning new pieces.

// "Rabbit foot blues". 51 x 44". ink and gouache on paper. 2006

Are there any specific goals that you are working towards in creating some of this new work?

How we get along or don't, social issues, conflict, how we manage to keep going, this crazy place we live in, are all things that I'm trying to talk about. Trying to laugh, have fun and move ahead with it, let things evolve.

You’re included in a group show coming up at Allston Skirt Gallery in Boston, what’s this show all about?

Eddie Martinez is curating the show. I haven't gotten the full lowdown yet.

Tell me about the ‘journal’ books that you do.

Barron Storey got me started on those in 96, and I've been keeping them ever since. Small scale intensive sketchbooks where each page is made into a finished statement. Best part of that practice is the discipline and learning to follow through with each page till it works, experimentation and play. Anything goes in those, so you learn to play with images while working hard.

Did you read last weeks article in New York Magazine on ‘Warhol’s Children’?

No, but I just looked it up. Cherry Tavern back in the day. Those were some good times.

Do you think the art world is getting too big for itself?

There's definitely plenty of people in the business that are too big for themselves.

// "They made a pencil out of pinocchio's remains". ink gouache, and gouache on paper. 2006

What was the last exhibition that you saw that excited you?

Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner. The narrative running through that show was out of control, I like things that are somewhat disjointed but make their own logic.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?

Absolutely not.

// "Nice to see you". 89 x 51". ink, gouache, graphite and collage on paper. 2006

What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

it changes all the time. but right now, "I shall be free" the way those lines spill out feels a lot like how these new paintings are coming out. fast and loose but just right.

Anything else you want to add?

thank you for taking the time to talk and look at the work!

And if your in New York go to Brian's show at Zieher Smith on Wednesday 1/17/07.

// Portrait of John Copeland

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