Gregory Coates’ bold and colorful installations raise questions rather than offer explanations. Through his abstracted forms and unabashed use of alluring colors he creates “social abstractions” which can be read as affirmations of life – beautiful and poignant at the same time.
AS: Gregory, thanks for taking time to interview with Art Spiel. Let’s start with some personal history – where were you born, grow up, reside?
Gregory Coates: I was born in Washington DC, 1961 and I grew up in the N.E section of Washington, DC near the National Arboretum. I grew up in the inner city very near the Federal Park. My wife and I lived in NYC for 25 years until we got gentrified out in 2002. Consequently, we purchased a building in Allentown, PA that we converted from commercial to mixed use to accommodate our needs and we are still working and living there.
AS: Can you share with me some major events / milestones in your life that had a significant impact on your art?
Gregory Coates: In 1996 I had a residency in Capetown, South Africa as part of the Triangle Artist Residency. During my arrival I lost all of my critical art supplies. This made me depressed for 3 days, but then I realized that not having my supplies forced me to start from the beginning rather than mid process. In other words, I questioned myself and questioned the idea of having materials that I felt would give me success. I threw out my crutch and began to reexamine my approach. I found new available materials such as coffee for stain, dirt for texture, and palm leaf for surface. The results freed me from myself and allowed me to invent.
At the end of my time in Capetown there was also a milestone revelation. When we were leaving the residency, a local young artist asked a European artist if he would let him have his sculpture. The Dutch artist answered. “Sure. What art are you planning to make with it?” To my surprise, the African Artist said: “ I am gonna make a home out of the materials and live in it.” This was an eye-opening experience – to witness the actual need of poor people versus art made by the more privileged. It reiterated my personal leanings to recycle materials or use discarded materials. I found it to be a moral obligation.
AS:You said in an interview for ArtPulse that you like to define yourself as a painter that is interested in “actual space” as subject matter. Can you tell me about your journey from figurative painting to sculpture / installation / assemblage?
Gregory Coates: The Journey from figurative painting to non-figurative was a long one. I really loved the movement of oil paint, the smell, and the ritual. I painted figures who were some type of victims of the system – the homeless, sex workers, drug addicts, and racism. But in some ways there was no satisfaction in the dark places that it took me emotionally. Nor did I find that panting about it helped. I had already started to include cardboard as surface or hose as line when I hit this wall – I just lost interest in painting. I asked my wife Kiki how can I continue on. She was eloquent and said: “what do you enjoy most in your work?“ I answered that I liked to construct the canvas and prepare the surface. She said “that’s your work. It’s about Making.”
So, I began to make art rather than paint. I collaged more, and more became assemblage – juxtaposing materials, cooking down work into what became amalgams (one of my first one person shows was called “Amalgams”). And then I toned it down and focused on one material. The material became the subject matter. Bicycle inner tubes, tape, commercial shrink wrap and feathers became conducive to the “making” of art. Along the way, I began to understand that in my former art life I painted an illusion of space, and now I was able to use actual space to make atmosphere and evoke emotion. Of course I continued to be a painter but I gave myself permission to be inspired by the material and later, to step out of the picture frame into installation.
AS: What is your typical day at the studio like?
Gregory Coates: Typical day in the studio is putting wet paint on material and organizing my drying time, walking Lincoln, and talking with Kiki.
AS: It seems to me that process is very important in your work. Can you talk about it, for example – how do you start, how do you choose your materials, what gets you going?
Gregory Coates: Kiki makes fun of me because I keep moving the furniture. When I ask her if she likes it she laughs and says: “why should I, you will move it again tomorrow or next week.” There are many references here that can be translated into my work. For one, I tend to deal with what’s there and make it into something. Second, I like to be physically in the work. Touching and placing is important to me. When I move furniture (mind you, most stuff we have is on wheels), flow is important. Atmosphere is important. And because I am gonna move the furniture around again, you can say I do act intuitively – try this, try that, don’t get too attached to one thing.
AS: In a preface to “Gregory Coates: STRUT,” your 2006 show at Magnan-Metz, art critic Franklin Sirmans said that your work hints at and/or shuns any form of narrative. Recently I noticed more direct references to “life” – especially in your titles, series like “Loaded”, “Afro series.” Can you tell me about that?
Gregory Coates: I It is true; I am not a story teller. But I feel the work I make tells “the story” on its own. I have always had a conversation or narrative about humanity in my work, something I call Social Abstraction That particular show “Strut”, for example, is named because of the consideration of stylistic differences. A strut has dual meaning – it is a support but it is also a way of walking. The work in the show – bicycle inner tubes hanging off the ceiling reaching to the floor (like a strut) but not holding anything; feathers which are elusive and light yet adhesive on the picture plane, and plastic wrap which is translucent yet solid. The story told: take a closer look, don’t judge don’t assume. And in reference to strut as in walking, be individual, be what you want or what you can be. All of this is social commentary – I just prefer to be questioning rather than explaining.
My work always includes a kind of contradiction, a way to look at it in several ways. My titles can be taken literally or not. Sometimes I am a little more obvious with my titles because I want to be clearer that my work does not exist in a vacuum but it is part of me, my life, and the world I live in.
On a not so subtle note, back in 1985 I made an installation in Dusseldorf Germany, (curated by the Paul Pazzoa Museum at Kasematten II), that was in protest of Reagan’s Arms Race and lack of art funding. It included a shopping cart stuffed with intercontinental ballistic missiles made from carpet tubes, parked on top of my 10ft x 10ft square abstract painting. To add atmosphere, I spray-painted a mural of the Statue of Liberty on an ICBM. I was younger then.
AS: For me the power in your work comes from its inevitability – simple and complex, literal and sublime. It seems to me that your site specific projects, like the installation you created outdoors in Switzerland, provide you with a particularly stimulating playing field. What can you tell me about your approach to site specific work?
Gregory Coates: Etty, thank you, and I must say your work is stimulating to me also, I find it food for thought. My approach is to consider presence and absence. I converse with an environment and relate to the space. Then I react with the material.
I am working on something I call Protest and Pleasure – it can be considered social abstraction. I feel it’s important to create beautiful images and ideas which act as affirmations of life. From this power we can find strength to highlight what needs our attention.
AS: Your work converses with several 20th century artists and movements in thought provoking ways. You said in your interview with ArtPulse that you are after making an iconic Coates. Can you elaborate on that in art historical context?
Gregory Coates: I guess it’s a fine line. I pride myself on not being “labeled,” especially as an artist of color. On the one hand if you keep traveling across several art historical movements you never feel you fit anywhere, on the flip side I am proud of that too. I am not done exploring and asking questions of what’s there and what may be. You can’t do anything with neon and not have to deal with Dan Flaven, you can’t do anything with Fur and not evoke Oppenheim, so for now I claim Feathers and bicycle inner tubes.
AS: We first met at the SVA summer residency. You are one of the most supportive and insightful artist / mentor I have encountered. What can you tell me about your experience as an educator?
Gregory Coates: Etty, I like to say thank you for supporting me with this interview, it’s important to be considered for what I do. My philosophy is to listen to people. Allowing them to speak helps their growth develop. I have been a good listener, and today you are doing the same with this interview. In my past, I had a few artists who engaged me in conversation – they took me seriously and that helped me develop.