By Brian Sherwin, Myartspace.com, 15 Oct 2008
Brian Sherwin: Hollis, I first learned of your work during the announcement of the results of the myartspace New York, New York Competition 2007. You were one of the 50 finalists of that juried competition. The jury panel included James Rondeau, Frances and Thomas Dittmer Curator of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, Jessica Morgan, Curator, Contemporary Art, The Tate Modern, London, and Steven Zevitas, Publisher and Editor of New American Paintings. What have you achieved since that time? Can you discuss some of your recent accomplishments or exhibits?
Hollis Cooper: Right around the same time as the competition, my work was accepted into the Drawing Center's Viewing Program. I have also been in a few shows here in the Los Angeles area, showing both installation and paintings. Mostly, though, I have been in the studio working, and my work has been evolving at a good rate.
BS: You received your undergraduate degree with high honors from Princeton University, a Post-Baccalaureate certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and an M.F.A. from Claremont Graduate University. Can you briefly discuss your academic years and some of the influential instructors you had?
HC: I feel fortunate that I was able to have a broad liberal arts background. At Princeton, I was an Art History/Studio Art combination major, and minored in Latin/Classics. I also took classes in Architecture, Philosophy, Near Eastern Studies, and History, among other things. I had access to a great number of professors who were leaders in their fields, and it was truly an amazing experience. The fine art program at Princeton is relatively small, but it's well-funded, and gives students access to NYC artists and critics that would otherwise be out of reach. I worked with John Obuck, Lisa Yuskavage, Jim Seawright, Nancy Princenthal, and Charles Hinman as instructors, as well as had studio visits with artists like Frank Stella. The visiting artist lecture series was pretty spectacular, too.
The Museum School was a totally different experience, since the school is so much more intentionally unstructured in its approach. This lack of structure allowed me to branch out into other fine art disciplines, such as sculpture and glass, without being bound by a certain medium-specific course of study. I would say this experience was a major contributor to my cross-disciplinary approach to creating work. The school was a much more self-driven program--while you were enrolled in classes, your grades did not come from attending/turning in assignments for those classes. Instead, your entire semester of credit hinged on a review with two faculty and two students, who would critique all the work you had produced, both in and out of class, over the semester. While being perhaps untraditional, it was really a sink-or-swim method, and forced you to establish good working/studio habits.
Claremont Graduate University was a good place to enter the Los Angeles art scene--I think going to graduate school in the location where you want to stay and work makes a big difference. At Claremont, I worked primarily with John Millei, Rachel Lachowicz, David Amico, and David Pagel. I think one of the most influential aspects of the program was simply building relationships with other artists--creating a group of peers that would last outside of school.
BS: Hollis, you were born in 1976 in Jackson, Mississippi. Since that time you have lived in New Orleans, Houston, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and California. Have your travels influenced the direction of your art?
HC: I think moving so many times has given me an appreciation for the different types of work being made in different areas of the country. Houston has a huge number of artists, galleries, and museums, and a lot of support for the arts, and I had a lot of exposure to that growing up. I steadily took classes at the Glassell School of Art (which is affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts) from when I was four years old all the way to when I left for college at seventeen. I ended up returning as a teaching assistant for a couple of summers after that. Many of the artists I met in those years are still active in the art scene, and I am still in touch with some of them. Houston really has great energy when it comes to making art--I always felt that pretty much any type of project was possible there. If I ever had to leave Los Angeles, Houston would be my first choice for re-location.
In college, I spent a good amount of time in New York, and, for a summer, I worked at the Guggenheim. I could definitely feel the weight of Modernism and Abstract Expressionism in New York; as a painter, especially, I always was very aware of working within that historical tradition.
Boston definitely has its own scene as well, although it's not as well-known or as large as other art cities. The huge number of academic institutions present, though, means there are more resources than you would expect. The Museum School and Mass Art (Massachusetts College of Art and Design) also churn out many younger artists as well.
Los Angeles has really turned out to be the best of all worlds--it's energetic, more open to younger artists, and still has weight as a reputable art city. I like that the art scene is youthful--I think you can't expect anything else from an area with so many MFA programs.
Ultimately, I think there are elements of all of my travels that show up in my art in one form or another, whether in formal or conceptual. When I look back at all the work that I have made, I can tell where I was living at the time that I made each piece. Ironically, though, the main conceptual thrust of my work has to do with virtual space ... so deliberately not tied to any one physical geographical location.
BS: I understand that you are an instructor as well. You have taught in the Art Department at California State University in San Bernardino. What has teaching taught you, so to speak? For example, do you learn from your experience as an instructor and take that knowledge into your personal work? How do you find balance between teaching and your personal art?
HC: I am fortunate to teach at a school with a strong art department. Creating/revising my lectures helps keep me up to date with what's going on in contemporary art in disciplines other than painting, and in other locations than the United States. I really enjoy talking to my students about what they are interested in and what they are working on, and, in doing that, I learn as well. Because I teach an Art & Technology class, I definitely run across ideas either in class or preparing for class that end up influencing my work.
I think it's easy to get caught up in the studio and tune out everything else, and working on a class prevents that from happening. My teaching schedule is also conducive to getting work made in the studio--my time is organized in such a way that I have more usable free time than if I worked a 9-5 job, and the structure makes me more focused when I am able to be in the studio.
BS: Tell us about your art. Perhaps you can tell us about the process of creating your paintings and installations? The methods you utilize and so on?
HC: My work is actually a hybrid process of computer generated images and traditional painting. All my source material is architecturally-based, and comes off the internet. It then is distorted, processed, and reprocessed by me, resulting in a collaborative outcome. With digitally-based work, I think there’s a little bit of fear about the absence of the "original mark," but my images are reworked by myself so many times (within a single piece) that they lose that initial sterility.
I begin with tracings of online depictions of 3-D space, and then use Adobe Illustrator to twist and distort the forms until they take on the appearance of a new type of space. Illustrator makes it very easy to start a design small-scale and then bring it up to almost any resolution. For my installation work, this is very handy, as I can work with a drawing that's less than a foot across, and then once I'm done, scale it up until it is 22 feet long, without losing any detail or quality.
Then, ironically enough, to transfer the print-out to PVC or panel, or whatever surface the drawing is going on, I use carbon-paper. Hand-tracing the drawings, though, lets me make editing decisions, and rework the lines so they have a little more of an organic feel. The drawings are then re-traced in marker, and then they're cut out (if done on PVC) and painted.
Because this process really works better large-scale than small, I also have been doing collage-based painting, where I will print out the drawing directly onto watercolor paper that's coated for inkjet printing. Then I cut out the drawings and collage them directly onto the painting that I am working on. In both cases, though, the imagery is assembled modularly, so I am making creative decisions all the way until the end.
BS: What themes do you explore with your work? Can you tell us more about the thoughts behind your art in general? For example, is there a specific message or idea that you strive to convey within the context of your art?
HC: I am predominantly interested in ideas about space, and how we define and relate to that concept. My work bridges multiple definitions of space – from conceptual ideas of space, such as color-space or space of imagination, to representative/perceptual space (using conceptual space to represent some notion of physical space), to actual three-dimensional physical space. Because of this, my work tends toward the architectural, since it is an easy reference point for most viewers to grasp.
I use architectural diagrams as a main element in my work because we are so culturally attuned to them as indicators of "space" that they do not require a lot of additional explanation--even when the type of space they actually represent (abstract, perceptual) is different from the one they purport to represent (concrete, three-dimensional). I intend for my work to be a flow from this more abstract space (perceptual and psychological space, space of color) to the physical: in the installation work, this occurs by breaking the traditional painterly frame and making the architecture of the room not as something that is (or should be) invisible, but an equal element in the work’s construction. I achieve an erasing of figure/ground within the work by activating the entire architectural space around it.
The ideas behind the installation pieces put the "traditional" paintings in a more problematic place, but my attitude towards them is that they are the inverse of the installations--they frame a view into space, as opposed to bringing that space outward towards the viewer. Also, our cultural familiarity with the idea of the painterly window--or the more recent idea of the screen and user interface--makes these confining borders relatively invisible, so the paintings are able to take advantage of both framed and unframed attributes, allowing for tighter control over design, but also giving a freedom and flexibility of psychological movement through abstract space--of color, perception, idea--as the elements are delineated from the physical environment in which they exist. I realize that ultimately there are still constraints, but they keep each piece as something digestible and discrete.
In both the paintings and installations, I work within a multi-dimensional approach, making the work harder to see as a view into or out of a single type of space, but instead different spaces that are folded and spliced into one another. In the end, though, the strong formal considerations in each piece make it so that whatever form it takes, the viewer is always still aware that they are looking at a painting.
BS: Tell us more about your influences? For example, are you influenced by any specific artist or art movements?
HC: I have a lot of influences--17th century Italian Baroque art, in particular. I spend a lot of time looking at Baroque ceilings. I also have a background in interactive design, so I have been influenced by the concept of the digital user interface and ideas of usability. I am also interested in contemporary immersive art spaces, like those of Charlotte Davies.
In terms of other contemporary artists, I look towards those who are working with similar ideas either of space or hybrid practices: Kevin Appel, Frank Stella, Fabian Marcaccio, Jennifer Steinkamp, Eberhard Havekost, Benjamin Edwards, Katharina Grosse, and Sarah Morris. I am also interested in contemporary German artists who are dealing with spatial breakdown – such as Frank Nitsche, Christian Hellmich, Corinne Wasmuht, and David Schnell. In addition, I've been influenced by the works of International Style architects like Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, as well as contemporary architects/firms such as Zahad Hadid, Asymptote, and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.
BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?
HC: I am currently finishing an installation for an upcoming show. The installation work is becoming more broken-down, more (re-)processed, and the forms that I have used for my visual language are distorting and changing as well. The installations only get made, though, when there is a space to show them in, since they are site-specific, so I am also concurrently working on a new body of collage paintings.
BS: Can you give us more information about any exhibits or upcoming exhibits that you will be involved with?
HC: I will be in a group show called "Infrastructure" at the Wignall Museum at Chaffey College in a couple weeks.
BS: Speaking art and exhibiting... do you have any concerns about the art world at this time?
HC: In terms of the art world in general, there are always trends of what’s "in" or popular at the moment, etc, and while I do pay attention to what's going on, I try to take everything with a grain of salt and not get too caught up in it. In general, I just try and make work, and show it to as many people as possible. So far, my work seems to resonate pretty well with people, and I have had a good amount of support from gallerists, curators, other artists, and the public. I can’t really ask for much more than that.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?
HC: No--thank you for your interest in my work!