Philippa Snow talks to artist Lauren Cohen

We have invited LYRA’s issue 1 contributors to interview, write or do just about anything for our blog. Philippa Snow chose to have a conversation with the artist Lauren Cohen. Philippa wrote about Showgirls for issue 1.

Philippa Snow: So what I wanted to focus on were the paintings, especially those that have — I would say a dream-logic to them, but it’s almost more a nightmare-logic…

Lauren Cohen: A dark humour.

PS: Where do those scenarios come from, exactly?

LC: The older work has images that I would find on the Internet, and then I’d cut things out and paste them in, so that I had a kind of template that I worked from. Those images, I’m then painting them straight onto the canvas, and they had this background that was very ambiguous; you don’t know where the scene is. So I wanted it to be very vague, but then all of the objects and people that I put in were supposed to be re-appropriated from various sources.

PS: So you’re painting into collage, essentially?

LS: Pretty much: because what’s happening is that you’re cutting from all of these sources, and it can be other people’s artworks — which can be kind of dangerous; I mean, I don’t know if you know what’s going on with Luc Tuymans…

PS: Yeah — I was actually planning on bringing him up, although I was thinking of him more as a stylistic reference.

LS: So I could be kind of screwed [laughs]! Who knows? I haven’t been doing that in the newer work; now, it’s more of a memory kind of thing, so I think I’m doing something quite similar, but not working to the same kind of rigid templates that I was. And that was part of the work back then: the actual act of pulling from another place. When I would put it in the painting, I’d paint over it — maybe by adding patterns, or different colours, or manipulating it in some way. So now, this is all work where I’m not looking at a computer, but I’m doing it from memory. So it turns out a bit different.

PS: I was reading something George Condo had said the other day about the way that his work is received in Europe, versus how it is in the States: obviously, he’s acclaimed all over the world, but he feels as though people ‘get’ his paintings better here than they do in the U.S.

LC: I think the work I was doing when I was in the Bay area — just because it was more like Mission School work, and it was that kind of… I don’t want to say it was an art movement, but it was the style that was going on then, in that place — was well-understood in that context. Which was part of the reason why I wanted to get out of there — or not to get out of there, but to change the work, not to be so illustrative. I wanted it to be more capable of being read in different ways, and not to be so limited. But the content is what you were getting at, obviously; some of the content was perceived very differently in North America. I think that there, maybe the artist has a responsibility to explain or over-defend the work even moreso than they’ve had to do here. I think that there’s sort of a freedom here, now — that I’m able to explore any topic I want, and I don’t have to be nervous, or fearful, I guess.

PS: This is maybe the worst, most embarrassing reference I’ve ever made in an interview, but there’s this terrible film about Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick called Factory Girl — I’ve been thinking about it mainly because I read in an interview with Prince that he’d been to see it, and I just thought, what a waste of Prince’s time — and there’s a scene in it where they talk about that same idea. Edie says something about how in America, they need to know what the artist’s thinking, but in Europe they only care that he or she knows what they’re doing themselves.

LC: I’ve never seen it.

PS: I mean — it’s not very good.

LC: I had an interview at Rijksakademie, and they were turned off by the fact that I was overly nervous about some of the content of the work, and they were saying: I don’t understand what your problem is with this. They didn’t see any issues. So that was kind of an eye-opener, because I realised that I could just go in and talk about what my thoughts and my ideas were, without necessarily apologising for something.

PS: Because it can become too mathematically prescriptive, in terms of concept, when you’re assembling the work in that way. It becomes like putting together a piece of furniture. Actually, that was what I enjoyed when I was studying art, which is probably how I ended up writing about it rather than making it; because I didn’t care about the ‘thing’-ness of it! I just cared about explaining it.

Do you mind talking about your background a little? Because I find all that really interesting.

LC: Sure. I come from a small town called Danvers, Massechusets — and Danvers was originally Old Salem Village. So the Salem Witch Trials… I don’t want to say it happened there, but this was kind of the core of where a lot of the hysteria was happening. And the area where I come from, it’s a very small town, everybody’s white, everything stays pretty much the same — it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of movement, which is why I had to get out of there. I left actually when I was about 18 and went to the Bay Area.

But growing up in that place, I felt very much like an outsider. My family is one of the few Jewish families in the town; there are about 22 churches there, which means there are as many churches as there are gas stations. It’s a strange environment to grow up in. And I was really drawn to all of the witch trial history, so I was always visiting all of the sites, and learning about Rebecca Nurse, and all of these characters. In my back-yard there was a cemetery, which had I think a couple of gravestones from early settlers. My Mom was very much into… I wouldn’t say the occult, but she was very much into nature —

PS: White magic, maybe? Wicca?

LC: Let’s say that she has books around the house; she used to have a number of potions. She was exploring things that were unknown to me, and to many people. And I think as a result of all of this, I had a very open mind about these kinds of subcultures.
PS: And then later, you were at the RCA with somebody who’d been exorcised.

LC: Yeah, I was! I mean — my Mom had a Ouija board in the house, and I was always really curious about it. She always had stories about it: she’d always say “don’t touch that, it’s not a toy, it’s not a game,” which to me was like when somebody says “don’t touch the stove,” but you know you’re going to do it anyway. So I started doing auto-writing as some of my earliest work, and using the Ouija board, and it occurred to me in the back of my mind that this might be actually quite serious — that I might be actually talking to people I don’t know. Or some that I do know: I thought that my Grandfather came through once, saying ”don’t do this, you’re inviting these things into the house.”

So because of my Mom’s fear, I had a lot of fear. It’s really interesting: in my dissertation in grad school, what I wrote about was the connection between the old and the new in that town; that my experiences of doing all of that, while I was very bored, in an atmosphere where things were very…

PS: Repressed?

LC: Yeah — I felt compelled to do something that shook things up. And that was what was going on, I believe, with people like Ann Putnam, and all of the little girls she was accusing: they were seduced by this woman, Tituba, who lived in the Parris family homestead and who came from Barbados and was doing things like fortune-telling, and other things which were not puritan-friendly. So those girls were very much going crazy, and looking for excitement. And I feel that very much happened to me when it came to thinking about these dark kinds of things.

PS: Growing up in a town that small, where did your cultural influences come from, aside from the occult?

LC: There were some people in the family who were artists, but they were more in the style of Andrew Wyeth, and not contemporary art. So I guess in high school I was taking a lot of art classes. But when I was in college, that was when I really started to make work, or to think deeply about it.

PS: Was there any painter in particular who was a formative influence?

LC: I think all of the early ones were people like Wyeth, or Winslow Homer, or Singer-Sergeant. And then, as I started getting older and learning about other artists I was into people like Matthew Barney — a lot of painters who were making work that was very narrative, using figures and objects. Marcel Dzama, Amy Cutler. Dana Schutz, at that time, I was obsessed with.

PS: You mentioned that you’ve stopped being as interested in making work that’s narrative, or figurative.

LC: Yeah, that’s been more recently. I still have figures in the work, but I’ve also started getting more into objects, and patterns, and textiles, and thinking about the process that I go through with the work. While I was making this work that was stop-motion animation, I got really into quilting, and weaving; this idea of very methodical work with your hands.

PS: There’s been a really renewed interest in women making work of that type lately — knitting, weaving, quilting, and so on. Women’s work. I guess it’s the idea of reclaiming something that’s seen as inherently feminine as an activity.

LC: When I was in grad school and made the giant quilt piece, I was thinking so much about where I grew up, and the background I come from, colonial New England, and all of this — and I wanted to make work that was painting, but in response to the animation I was making. So I thought, maybe I’ll deal with patchwork, and I’ll do one canvas. Because the animation itself is like one canvas, except you don’t get to see the painting; what you see is the screen. So I wanted something in the space that actually was a painting: something that people could look at, and occupy the same space as. I’d just been at the Anni Albers Foundation in Conneticut, for two months — for September and October, it was a residency — and you can go into the archives there, you can look at Anni Albers’ work. It was so cool, because you get to see all of the detail, and the actual fibers, and everything.

So: I can’t weave, and I don’t even know how to use a loom, but I started to do painted weavings. And they’re really — in some ways, they’re not like hers, because they’re made with a different process, because I was taking the strips of raw canvas, and I was stapling them to the stretcher bars, and I was painting them in all these different patterns. What was interesting about my time there was that I discovered that Josef and Anni had visited Mexico many times during their marriage; maybe a total of 20 times or so. And I’ve been to Mexico myself, maybe six or seven times — and I’ll continue to go. So I have this kind of strange connection to them. And in my painted weavings, the actual pattern and the colours, the influence of Mexico is there. Within the past couple of years of going to Mexico, I’ve picked up all of these embroidered pieces by artists who live locally in the place that I go and visit: maybe about 28 embroidered pieces, and I know exactly who’s made them, so now whenever I go back I’m able to have a relationship with these artists who are there.



Lauren Cohen (b. 1985) is a fine artist, born in Danvers, Massachusetts and currently living and working in London; educated at the Royal College of Art, her work — which encompasses painting, animation and installation, but which is often characterised by an interest in invented narratives and dreamlike scenarios — has been featured by publications including It’s Nice That, Boooooom, and Saatchi Online. In 2013, she was featured in the ICA’s annual Bloomberg Contemporaries show.

Aside from contributing to various magazines and journals, Philippa is a features editor for Modern Matter and Kilamanjaro magazines and the co-editor of the (brilliant) Hexus, a diminutive journal of experimental horror writing.