An exclusive tasting of her new food paintings that will debut at Freight & Volume in NYC this March 2017
Natalie Westbrook, Founding Editor, Lookie-Lookie
Cruising down I-95 from New Haven to Manhattan (no traffic!), I had my ear pressed firmly against the middle of America’s chest. I listened to the beat of popular radio, immersing myself in the classics—Tom Petty, Bob Segar, then the romantic Take My Breath Away theme from the film Top Gun. I headed to interview musician and artist Jennifer Coates in her Brooklyn studio, and I fantasized about what it would be like to finally see her paintings of American comfort foods in person after drooling over them on social media for months. As a painter, food blogger and former junk foodie turned food allergic, I see in Coates’ paintings an evocation of desire, passion, and my own relationship to “the goo of paint” (the title of an article she wrote this year for Modern Painters), and ultimately to consumption. I catch the end of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, and for once her music resonates. Visions of Coates’ paintings of pancakes, ham, and mustard drizzled pretzels dance in my head and I go hungry. It’s a 2 hour drive, not a road trip, so I press on with a banana in hand, passing up the gas station snacks and golden arches. For all of the passion and desire associated with food and its image, I'd later be surprised to witness that Coates’ representations of gooey marshmallows and icing are indeed crusty. Painting strategies that I had anticipated were nowhere to be found- no Vermeer highlights, no Will Cotton camera light reflections. Coates unapologetically coats the canvas with pure matte acrylic, a texture reminiscent of Kraft Singles cheese slices and the wrappers that encase them. There's attraction, then repulsion. Coates’ paintings have it all.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the car ride and between songs, I listen to a female caller share her affairs of the heart with a misogynist shock jock DJ who advises her to “stop feeding her man.” His analogy for playing hard to get is that after “having cake all day” her partner’s appetite for cake will wane—he’ll want something (someone) else—“a hamburger” maybe. I thought of Timbaland's 2009 song "Carry Out" featuring Justin Timberlake, both men dressed in fast food uniforms surrounded by women who they attempt to seduce in their music video with a long set of catchy euphemisms. With Coates’ work in mind, every love song on every station became a crass ode to food. Greatest Love of All, Whitney Houston. Close to You, The Carpenters. You’re the Inspiration, Chicago. Love, long-distance, heartache, break-ups—this is the soundtrack for America’s relationship with comfort food: how we crave it, and how it’s just so bad for us. I stomached Sia's Cheap Thrills as I stewed over thoughts of Wayne Thiebaud, Dutch still life paintings of grapes, Arcimboldo, and Costo. I took the exit ramp and I figured the Costco across the street from Coates’ studio provides for her a bottomless cornucopia of still life objects. I couldn't wait to ask her about it, but I’d be blindsided to learn she doesn’t work from observation at all.
She greeted me cheerfully, in a sunlit and tidy space filled with food paintings large and small. Her packed storage rack of menu options could easily compete with Costco’s stock room. I reveled in sending her a written list of works I needed photographed for this publication, like a ridiculous phone order for Friday night delivery: “taco, cotton candy, two cherry danish…”
Natalie Westbrook: This is a fantastic studio space. It’s a great building- I don’t think I’ve been in this building before. When I walked in I was hit hard by the smell of donuts downstairs.
Jennifer Coates: Yes, there are all kinds of little food places down there—it’s kind of crazy—I have to very much resist. There’s this amazing meat place—they cure their own meat—it’s farm raised stuff and really good.
NW: It’s a smorgasbord of aromas.
JC: It is!
NW: It’s Saturday morning, so the donut smell is most prominent. I remember seeing an image of a painting of yours, of a donut.
Coates rummages through her painting racks and pulls out a real gem.
JC: There’s a vortex of sprinkles.
NW: I’ll confess I stopped at Costco across the street to use the bathroom. That place must be like your personal gold mine. I envision you grabbing armfuls of Oreos and bread loafs to come here across the street and build yourself a still life. There’s something that feels very mimetic in your work.
JC: That’s funny. I actually don’t work from observation. I work more from how I imagine things taste. I have these experiences of the things I’m painting, like that for instance (she points to a large painting on the wall), a casserole with cheese sauce. I hate cheese and I’m lactose intolerant. But when I paint it and I get this slimy cheese taste in my mouth, I think "yeah! I got it!” So there is this weird kind of revulsion, as I try to coax it into existence from my imagination. I look at pictures but I don’t really paint from anything in particular. I’ll have to look at images of shells and sauce in order to see exactly how they open and close, but other than that I make it up.
NW: There’s a strong illusionism in your work despite the fact that you’re working from imagination. I feel like the work is just so spot on in the visual notion of capturing these very familiar foods, so it’s really interesting that your process is not about looking but about kind of imagining something through your other senses.
JC: It’s definitely a bodily kind of relationship. Paint has this connection to bodily fluids. I like the idea of there being something desirable and delicious about the food but it’s also bad for you and there’s a vomit side to the food preparation. I’m trying to embed that in there, to make the food seem holy but also a little bit like “ewww, I don’t know if I want to eat that."
NW: You’ve definitely tapped into a type of food- the standard American diet one might say, that’s marketed to appeal to all of us. The first time I saw an image of your work, I thought: if you’re painting this, (which I had assumed was painted from life), then you should get to eat it.
JC: No, I don’t! (laughs) I mean I do eat some of these things. I definitely love an everything bagel—that’s one of my favorite things to eat. And if I eat something like that I do notice how it’s sitting in the foil or how it’s packaged. But I’m more interested in food styled images, images that are designed to make you want to eat the thing. There’s something iconic with all of the different shapes that are associated with food. Like the sandwiches with the slice down the middle, that starts to have this weird powerful symmetry to it. I’m trying to think about what are the origins of these shapes and trying to make them have an ancient, iconic, devotional object feel to them.
NW: Absolutely. That certainly comes across in these. Going back to what you were talking about with the bodily fluid relationship… I’m looking here at the drizzle of mustard on pretzels that is handled like a drip painting. I see your danish painting over there too. In both paintings you’re applying a gestural, expressionist mode of painting literally on top of a mimetic mode of painting.
NW: It seems that you’re interested in the canvas as a window for depicting the food but you’re asserting the surface as well.
JC: Yes, definitely. I think about the foods as an opportunity to paint in a bunch of different styles. Like the mustard on the pretzel or the icing on the Danish—those are the Jackson Pollock moments—they allow me to be playful with my paint handling. The center of the sandwich has been referred to as a zip painting recently. They’re the “greatest hits from Abstract Expressionism,” but via these food preparation moments.
NW: Yes. I keep being drawn to the cream cheese in the bagel that you were talking about. I have fond memories from when I first moved to Manhattan of grabbing an everything bagel every morning. You’ve applied the paint with great impasto for the area of cream cheese, and you’ve really exposed the materiality of the paint in opposition to the meticulous rendering of tiny seeds, which must have been done with a size 0 brush.
JC: Yes, I use this little watercolor brush. I had a friend in here recently who calls this “Bacterial Pointillism,” which I really liked.
NW: Yes, I read the catalogue on your recent collaborations with your partner David Humphrey, and Dike Blair referred to your work as “the bulimic Georgia O’Keefe.”
JC: (laughs) Yes, I love that! Definitely.
NW: He talked about how in your work you’re referencing the gut or the inside of one’s body. I was thinking about digestion. There’s something for sure grotesque here. I think the idea of desire is forefront because the particular foods are so recognizable and marketed to us through desire. But the grotesque is also significantly at work.
JC: I hope so.
NW: This macaroni painting here definitely feels disgusting to me.
JC: Yes, I think to myself about this painting, “wow, you really went there!” It’s one thing to paint the casserole 12 x 16 inches, but to really blow it up... I wanted to achieve what I call a "cheese flash"—it’s cheese but it’s also a cheesy light effect, a Turner-esque cheese flash. I really worked on that to get it to glow.
NW: It definitely glows.
JC: Toxic nuclear meltdown casserole.
NW: The idea of melted cheese really comes across in your handling of the paint. Here again there’s a gestural application of paint on top of the more representational mode underneath- the representational mode being the pasta noodles, and then the cheese on top—well I don’t even know how you applied the paint for that. Are you working with various mediums? Are these acrylic?
JC: Yes, these are acrylic, and sometimes I’ll use a matte medium or gel gloss medium just to get a more viscous feeling to the paint. But it’s just acrylic paint. I like to build up the surfaces in certain paintings. It’s an opportunity to just really play, and let it do what it wants to do naturally. I’ve had conversations with other painters who are really… It’s interesting, there are people who feel very strongly against acrylic paint. I mean, it wasn’t something that I realized—how strongly some painters feel like, “That just looks like acrylic. You can tell. It looks plastic.” To deny acrylic paint it’s place in history is really annoying to me. I mean I love oil paint. I used to paint with oils and I’m behind that. But to me, acrylic paint is really interesting because it is synthetic. The history of synthetic pigments originated in the 19th century. Scientists were trying to discover new dyes for the textile industry and they were synthesizing chemicals from the sludgy run-off of coal factories. There was coal tar that was the pollution excreted by these factories, and it turned out to be really malleable. Medicines, synthetic chemicals and pigments were all developed like crazy in the 19th century. I think about that a lot in relation to allowing acrylic to have it's rightful place. It’s a different history, connected more to industry. To me that’s interesting in relation to the food—mass produced food. The synthetic nature of mass produced food lends itself to acrylic.
NW: There are more chemicals in a donut than there are in a tube of oil paint.
JC: Yes, exactly. I went home to my parents and they had parmesan cheese in one of those Kraft cans.
NW: Oh the can! The shakeable can!
JC: I’m like “You guys, the cheese has more in common with the can than it does with cheese. You can’t eat this! I will not abide by that!" (laughs)
NW: That’s a great example.
JC: I can show you- I’ve got a s’more back here. (She pulls out a large painting of a s’more).
JC: Yeah, I had a visit with someone who said, “You went too far with this one!” and I’m like “No, I did not! I did not go too far!"
NW: It’s by far the most expressionist piece in the studio.
JC: I like to allow myself a continuum of different types of mark-making, different approaches to paint. Not every painting has to contain every approach. But I like to know how extreme I can go in any one direction. Like, to go completely full on Abstract Expressionist, and then tighten back up in another painting to the “Bacterial Pointillism” or these gingham tablecloth backgrounds which I love doing.
NW: As I’m seeing these in person for the first time, I’m fascinated by the fact that these are not done by looking or through direct observation. As a digital image and in person they visually are so striking and recognizable and iconic as the visual representation of the “thing,” and I’m starting to understand that you’re achieving that through this other process—through using your imagination and memory. Your process of switching between different modes of painting is akin to the combining of various flavors and textures within a given food. Here you have the marshmallow, and it’s just so spot on in its ooze. Oozing out of the rigid graham cracker.
JC: That was a fun one. I started with the little guys (points to a group of small scale studies of s’mores hanging on the wall). Some of the little ones just scream to me “I have to be big!” Some of them I feel wouldn't work as well. But it’s really fun scaling them up and letting them get a little bit out of control.
NW: It’s hilarious to see these two different sizes of paintings. The little ones seem like “personal pan pizza” or “individual serving size,” whereas the big ones are “family size.”
NW: It’s also funny seeing you be able to carry the large ones around the room by yourself. They’re as big as your entire body. That’s pretty big for a single meal, dessert or snack to be blown up. It’s quite a fulfillment of desire, or hunger. It’s still small enough to wrap your arms around and hug if you needed to.
JC: Yeah, you can hug the s’more.
NW: (laughs) I see the light blue background that makes the marshmallow feel like a floating cloud in the sky.
JC: Well yes, exactly. I’m so glad you said that, because that is the whole reasoning for me putting these different shades of blue in the backgrounds of a lot of my paintings. I was just imagining them in the sky, different times of day.
NW: They feel like thoughts or dreams.
JC: Yes, mental spaces - portals.
NW: But when you do have a hint of checkered tablecloth or checkered tabletop surface like you do in some of the pastas and sandwiches it’s kind of like “dirty diner.”
JC: The red checkered gingham pattern is the first thing that led me into painting food. My work was more abstract before, and about three and a half years ago I had this painting that was a generic, architectural, warping grid with all this toxic spew on it. I was like ugh, it’s not specific enough. I needed an anchor back to reality. I had been looking at pictures of a friend’s vacation in Iceland, and their snacks by the side of the road with this sublime incredible primeval landscape, and I realized 'oh, that’s the direction I want to go in.' I wanted to anchor the sublime back to something stupid, something everyday, something that’s taken for granted. So I took that warping grid and I painted gingham pattern where the grid was. I thought this is so cool because everything that happens on that very recognizable— and you immediately know what it is— it’s a tablecloth, it’s a picnic blanket— everything that happens on that gingham is now food. It’s not just a stain painting. It’s not just Expressionist painting, but it’s linked to something specific. So that was the way I got into painting food.
NW: You were thinking of landscape before you were working with food, and now do you continue to think of landscape? Do you think of these as portraits of food?
JC: I think of them in a really spatial way. I’m trying to open up a sense of space within them, even though they are in some cases flat and silly shapes. Here, I was trying to imagine the taco as a sunset glowing. And the corn texture is there, but it’s maybe atmospheric. There is a sense of a more cosmic space. I’m just trying to play, to use the food as a portal.
NW: Right, absolutely. This ice cream cone, with the mint chocolate chip certainly feels like another cosmic space.
JC: I could’ve painted fewer chips, and you would’ve known it is mint chip ice cream. But I really like to have a moment in each painting where it carries you away a little bit, and it’s maybe a little disorienting and hints at another type of space.
NW: It’s interesting that you’re achieving that through primarily compositional strategies, the paint application, and texture, because your color palette is fairly local. It seems like you’re working with a one to one relationship with color. Is that important for you? Is that one of the keys for our recognition of the familiar?
JC: Absolutely. The cotton candy painting here… when I finally realized that feels like cotton candy, it was about the color and the subtleties within the pink.
NW: I guess so many of these types of foods that you’re painting are manufactured, and the color is already quite cosmic. The strange blue green of the mint chip ice cream. You already have artificial, sometimes even neon color found in the source. You’re not using a neutral palette. That yellow mustard certainly jumps out from across the room.
JC: It’s really fun when I realize “ok, the pretzels look like pretzels, now it’s time to put the mustard on!” It makes me laugh when the paint is coming right out of the bottle, and it’s the same exact thing as if you’re putting mustard on a pretzel. I get my chuckles from that.
NW: Well that’s the more performative part of your process, against the more labored under painting. You’re performing a Jackson Pollock-esque role, as you mentioned before.
JC: Totally. I’m going to pull out another one where I did that.
(Coates pulls out a painting from her rack and unwraps it from the plastic).
It’s another danish. A cherry danish this time. It’s a little terrifying putting the icing on, because I just did all this depiction, and I’m not sure it’s going to work out. But it’s exciting at the same time. I’ll also unwrap the blueberry danish for comparison. Flavor comparison.
NW: I’m thinking about when you perform that gesture and drizzle of the paint. That action in the painting process is identical to the action of icing a real danish, and yet that moment in the painting process is the one that abstracts the image the most. It’s a weird duality at play. These danish paintings are bringing back memories of my very first job, which was in a bakery.
JC: Did you ever decorate cakes? My friend Caroline Chandler is really obsessed with cake fails.
NW: I love Caroline, and his cake fails as well.
JC: I love Caroline. I started getting into it, and they’re incredible. I started finding these awesome cake fails with text on them. One of them I have to do a painting of. I really have to. It’s a heart shaped cake with a whole bunch of little glittery sprinkles, that says in aqua “thanks for the sex.” It would be such a funny way to get text into the food paintings.
JC: Something I was experimenting with a little bit this summer was finding anthropomorphic foods so I could start getting figurative with the food. I can pull that out to show you. I was looking at these popsicles that don’t always come out of the package the way they’re advertised on the front of the popsicle. So this is a Scooby Doo popsicle that’s melting. So now I can just paint this weird primitive mask, but it’s a popsicle, it’s still food. Then I did a Spiderman one that I don’t think is quite as successful.
NW: Oh I love that one!
JC: I feel like I need to rethink the eyes. I don’t know.
NW: These popsicles are so interesting because we’re recognizing the food- the popsicle, and we’re recognizing the image of Spiderman from popular culture as well.
JC: Yeah, and I thought that was funny. There’s something to me that felt almost political about making the red white and blue. This failed icon of American pop culture and consumption. I have weird ideas about popsicles and portable foods— that they’re related to portable rock art. Paleolithic people carried around the Venus figurines— which I don’t think they’re Venuses. But anyway, just the fact that we need to carry stuff around with us goes back tens of thousands of years— I’m always looking for the precedent from cave times. Sometimes I look at these charts of the Paleolithic figures, and then I’ll look at a chart of the ice cream truck menu. It’s totally the same thing! Except we want to eat our images!
NW: Those charts are visually stunning.
JC: They are! They’re amazing. When I do slide lectures about my work I have this other theory about the origins of pasta shapes being from entoptic phenomenon, in that Paleolithic people took plant hallucinogens and hallucinated these specific kinds of abstract shapes that show up in a lot of the caves. And so I have a chart of the entoptic phenomenon— entoptic means 'erupting from the eye’— and then the pasta. See? Because they’re the same. There are parallel wavey lines, there are little spirals, there are circular shapes. That’s my theory.
NW: I have to hear your theory about the Venus figures.
JC: The fact they’re even called Venuses really bothers me. Because they might be related to fertility, but a lot of these body shapes are not pregnant women. They're older women with big bodies, like a matriarch type. I actually read an article the other day that backed this up. There was a figure that was excavated from a site in Turkey, Catal Hoyuk, which is a Neolithic settlement that’s pretty incredible. She’s a big woman—big boobs, big stomach— and finally someone was saying they think she was a Shaman, an older woman. Male archeologists have been ascribing meanings that are not necessarily accurate.
NW: Right, it feels wrong.
JC: It feels wrong. Yes. I think they were worshiping elder women who were matriarchal shamans and leaders in a pre-patriarchal culture.
NW: Are you thinking about gender at all as you’re working with a history of painting that includes the male vernacular of Expressionism?
JC: Yes, definitely. When I first started making art in undergrad, my hero was Kiki Smith, and I loved body art, early 90’s, female, abject stuff. That’s still in me, an attraction to the bodily. I talk about this in my article The Goo of Paint.
NW: I was thinking about how food and desire are inextricably meshed. We all get hungry. We all have to eat.
JC: What’s popping into my head is that I had a studio visit with someone who was looking at the small paintings and saying they are nostalgic, or they represent a desire for something that never was. That there’s this promise of childhood. Some kind of childhood desire for these comfort foods, but that actually there’s something embedded in it that’s a tragedy. There is no memory there. There is no happy childhood. There is no delicious comfort food. Because it’s toxic, it’s bad for your body, it’s bad for the planet. So I don’t know, I guess that’s how I’m thinking about it. I like that idea that you can have something that would draw you in to say ‘Oh yeah, this is the food that I want to make me feel better', but at the same time it’s evil. Evil business.
(Coates pulls out the two largest paintings from the racks).
JC: This past summer I got it in my head that I had to make two 8 foot cookie paintings. So I was looking at pictures of animal crackers and animal cookies and then looking at ancient images of little animal figurines, and they’re exactly the same. It’s wild! If you look at animal crackers and then the figurines you see we still have the same things around us, it’s just that they’re expendable and digestible. I wanted to explore an anthropomorphic angle on food. There’s another cookie over there that’s a bear. This one’s a lion. I was thinking about Paleolithic caves—animals in caves— and how I could imbue the cookie with some ancient, symbolic significance.
NW: Simultaneously these cookie paintings certainly evoke childhood and the nostalgia you mentioned. It’s great to see these at such a huge scale. These are the biggest that you’ve worked?
JC: Yes, I actually injured my arm from working on them! And now I have tendinitis— from a fucking cookie.
As Janet Jackson says, “That’s the way love goes.”
Jennifer Coates is a writer, musician, curator and artist. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally, including shows at Feigen Contemporary, NY; Arts & Leisure, NY; Sanctuary, Pittsburgh PA, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. She has curated exhibitions at Ortega Y Gasset, NY; Jeff Bailey Gallery, NY; and Ursa Major Arts, MA. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, NY Arts Magazine, Flash Art Magazine, and Art F City. Publications of her writing include Modern Painters, Art in America, Time Out New York, and The Brooklyn Rail. Coates will have a solo exhibition at Freight and Volume this coming March. The exhibition represents a series of “firsts” for the artist: her first solo showing in NY since 2008, her debut of her food themed paintings, and the exhibition will be accompanied by the first catalogue published on her work.
All images courtesy the artist.