Body Body Body: In the Studio with John Copeland
John Copeland's vast Brooklyn studio is like one giant mood board, and as straight forward as the work produced in it. Copeland's unique brand of painting—marked by crudely-rendered forms, elaborate drips, and a romanticism and fullness not often attributed to acrylic paint—is informed by scraps of old magazines, music, his father's Playboy magazines from the 1960s, and an intense fondness for both abstraction and the figure.
Fresh off the heels of a solo show with Galerie Alex Daniels in Amsterdam, I caught up with Copeland in his Bushwick studio (just around the corner from Chuck Webster) to talk about nudes, his work, and have a couple of beers. Our conversation, and dozens of studio pics, after the jump.
—Evan J. Garza, Editor-at-Large
Note: Some photos are not safe for work (NSFW).
EJG: One of the things that's really exciting about contemporary painting is the line that continues to be blurred, sometimes even literally, between figuration and abstraction. And I feel like your work is totally figurative, but not immediately representational in any way. It’s almost kind of crude.
JC: I usually work from some reference; old photos, some scrap from an old magazine, some source. For the most part, there’s some frame of reference. I feel like it’s a constant push and pull and battle with just what you were saying. The more I can make them really ‘real’ and perfect, the more it bores the hell out of me. If anything, it’s taken many years to let go of that. I’m always pushing things more towards abstraction and trying to play with that line where things break up.
Where does the writing on the wall come from?
Some of them are song lyrics, some are titles or just thoughts. A lot of them are ideas for titles. I listen to music constantly, so lot of it is pulled from lyrics. Also notes to myself. The studio is basically a giant sketchbook.
(detail shot, work in progress)
We were just talking about the line between abstraction and figuration—it looks like with the works in process you start out with pencil, doing the forms themselves, but even those don’t seem figurative. They seem really abstract.
They’re pretty loose, I keep everything loose and try to have fun with it. The more information I put in at the beginning, the harder it is to let go of it. I’ll draw the kind of skeleton of something, and then get it onto the canvas, but a lot of times half that stuff isn’t even there in the end. It’s just a starting point to get the scale and the basic framework.
The one thing that seems consistent across each work are the drips.
They have more to do with the material I’m using. I take a lot of them out too. If they work, and they add to the painting, I’ll leave them… It also has to do with the mediums that I’m using. I use a lot of really fluid paint, and I use a lot of it. So, it’s just inevitable that the stuff moves around. But I work with the way it breaks up and the way it starts to pull away.
Because of the lean layer, the pencil, you have a kind of idea of where it’ll eventually go. Do you ever start in one place and end up in a completely different one?
All the time. Things just get completely painted out. Or I’ll keep one figure and change everything else. It’s mostly just getting something to start with, and then you’re just listening to the painting and what it needs. So much of it is just instinctual that you can feel what’s working and what isn’t, and having room to play with things you might not expect.
There are a lot of intense periods of work, and then a lot of just staring at [the painting]. I always work on a bunch of stuff at the same time, so I bounce around. You get something to a good point, and you need to live with it for a little while, instead of overworking them.
Much of your work that I’ve seen features human figures and interior scenes. What is it about the figure that you find really interesting?
It’s us. It’s the easiest thing to relate to. It’s just the most fun thing to paint. When I was in school, I was doing all kinds of different work. My first figure drawing class was my favorite thing that I’d ever done. I just love working with the figure. And it’s such a simple thing that can have a million permutations, both conceptually and as a form.
What’s remarkable about them is that you understand that there’s a figure there—there’s a dude with sunglasses with a beard and he’s standing there—but in terms of the application of the paint and how it’s rendered, it’s as if he’s almost swallowed up by the composition itself.
I try to play where [the images] start to break into either complete abstraction or… kind of trying to reference things that happen with purely abstract works within these figurative things… To be able to say the most amount of information with the least amount of [work], with the simplest marks. The viewer will put a lot of information in there that you don’t have to.
Have you always worked with the same type of paint application?
It’s evolved over the years. I started in a very drawing place, and over the last five years it’s become more and more painterly and exploring the possibilities of what paint does, as opposed to a linear mark making.
The stuff hung in the corner, are those individual works or is that the source material you were talking about?
Those are drawings I’m working on at the moment, and I’ve been painting on old magazine covers and other scrap sitting around.
Where do the magazines come from?
Some of them I bought, some of them are my dad’s Playboy collection from the ‘60s, which he gave me. Sometimes people give me stuff, or I’ll find stuff at swap meets or online. I feel like the more information in, the more I have to play with.
John Copeland, The Fruit of a Promise, 2011, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Steven Zevitas Gallery, Boston.
I’m really partial to the nudes [in your work] because I grew up with a lot of nude paintings in my house, and they're so significant art historically.
The nudes are hard to get away from because they’re the most fun thing to do… There’s something really pure about painting the nude form.
I love the piece that Steven has up right now. He had a great piece of yours in a show a while ago, the Sex, Drugs and Rock + Roll show. It featured a TV and maybe an old lady.
Yeah, you couldn’t tell whether there was a painting on the wall or if it was a window.
I had that exact conversation with someone at the opening. They were like, ‘It’s a window.’ And I was like, ‘No. It’s a painting.’
That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want. And it’s interesting either way.
I feel like that’s the glory of the medium of painting itself is not ever being able to tell the viewer what’s what... I feel like the paint does a lot of the work. The figure doesn’t have to be incredibly accurate. The real subject matter isn’t really these people, it’s what the paint does.
Yeah, in a way it’s all of those things. The subject matter is a vehicle for talking about painting, as much as it is about social situations. But I like that they both happen at the same time. That’s what I get off on, something being interesting on those levels, but also be satisfying on a purely [material] level… I’m always trying to keep them on that line of being ambiguous… They’re also a record of this physical process.