Alika Cooper

Los Angeles, Textile Artist // March 2012
I appreciate when the whole story isn’t in a film, or a photograph, or a painting— and instead the viewer is given a sense of something outside the 'frame' that is unseen, but palpable and menacing.

Alika’s studio is in Boyle Heights, near downtown Los Angeles, in a building that once housed a paper packaging and wholesale business. Her space is bright with natural light and the high ceilings give it an airy, roomy feel. Alika seemed a bit shy when we first arrived, but as we got acquainted things began to click and the conversation took on an easy, familiar rhythm. I love these moments— it makes me feel like I’ve earned something special. As Alika and I chatted, she was quick to laugh, forthcoming with her thoughts, and began to move about her studio, showing us assorted fabrics and the photography books she uses as source material. Alika’s work appropriates the photographic form by “painting” with fabric, collaging and layering various textiles to create images of landscapes and bodies. Her images often depict women’s bodies in different positions, rife with eroticism and a voluptuous sensuality. Yet this overt sexuality is at odds with the chaste and modest fabric Alika uses— quaint floral prints in temperate colors that convey an all-American sense of decency and wholesomeness. In the stark contrast between subject and materials, Alika’s work raises questions concerning female sexuality and where it fits in amidst an American landscape of Christian faith, traditional values, and white picket fences. Like her work, Alika’s voice is bold, full of subversion and bright with a playful provocativeness.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I say I’m an artist. I wish it wasn’t such an uncomfortable subject— but it is. People often ask a lot of questions and sometimes it’s difficult to explain where I’m at with my work, or to know how to characterize it in a way that’s accessible but accurate. Also, people ask questions related to money and finances— they want to know if I can pay the bills by making art, and that’s always awkward and feels invasive.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I have taken on working in a new medium within painting. I’m using new materials to approach painting in a similar way. It’s a combination of collage, and textiles (assorted found and collected fabric, such as quilting, upholstery and craft fabrics) and painting, in the sense that it’s drawing and figure based, and also has a photographic quality. I work two-dimensionally with fabric, and I’m interested in it as a medium that references body coverings such as garments and quilts. Body image and the sensual body are recurring subjects, as is open landscapes. In a way I think of the portrait/body as landscape, and the landscape as a more ambiguous line between abstraction and representation.

About a year and half ago I began using textiles. I had gone to Oklahoma to visit my family, and my mother and aunts are really into quilting and crafting, and I just started playing around with their fabrics. The first pseudo-quilt I made was a portrait of Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren embracing.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m looking at a lot of photography; mostly black and white early fashion photography out of Germany and France. Yva (Else Simon), Helmut Newton, Heinz Hajek-Halke, Brassaï. Lots of nudes in private spaces. I’m reading A Lovers Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes and Juliette by Marquis De Sade right now.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
You have to keep reinventing yourself and your ideas I work through my ideas; my ideas come through working. I make work without thinking about whether they are good or bad. Just doing the work itself often generates ideas.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I have a wonderful working space in a warehouse in downtown LA that used to be a paper packaging and wholesale business that was founded in 1933.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I think living in LA for three years now, after being in Oakland for ten years, has caused a shift. Mainly because I feel like an outsider, so it’s more natural to take some stranger risks. The disconnect between LA and the Bay Area/SF seems so unnecessarily great— it’s frustrating to have spent so much time up there, but now to be much better acquainted with LA, and recognize that there is not much interaction or dialogue between the two cities and their respective art communities.

LA has been a better place for me to be politically incorrect though, which I think has been important or liberating. The community of artists in LA is also very inspiring.

Yes, I think my work is autobiographical. The themes I’m working with and the questions I have around topics like the female body and sexuality, good old fashioned American values, idealized beauty, and the (un)reality of “The American Dream” originate in some way from my own background and experiences.

What do you want your work to do?
I like those moments in Ingmar Bergman films, where there is a collision of emotions or events, and anticipation collapses on itself. I’m inspired by the terrorization and teasing of the characters in his films. I like the idea of making the viewer feel uncomfortable. Bergman’s doubt, particularly regarding religion, pervades his work as does his exploration of sexuality and female psychology. I appreciate when the whole story isn’t in a film, or a photograph, or a painting— and instead the viewer is given a sense of something outside the “frame” that is unseen, but palpable and menacing. I want my work to be unsettling and to make people uneasy.

What advice has influenced you?
My first college painting teacher at the University of Oregon, Ron Graff, told me that painting was harder than brain surgery. Like he was daring me not to do it. I often embark on endeavors and adventures because they started off as a challenge. Later my painting teacher at CCAC , Franklin Williams compared painting to sex, he said, “you have to make love to every part” of the whole work for it to be successful.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I feel best when my routine is solid and I hit a stride. And, also when I follow my research for ideas and it leads me to somewhere totally unexpected. I thrive off of interactions and collaborations with my peers, too— the give and take of energy is rewarding.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I will be in an awesome group show at Calvin Marcus’s studio in Los Angeles on March 25th, called “The Nudes Painting Show.” Artists included besides myself are Jonathan Apgar, Andrew Cannon, Michael Dopp, Roger Herman, Becky Kolsrud, David Korty, Cyril Kuhn, Annie Lapin, Chris Lipomi, Calvin Marcus, Max Maslansky, Donald Morgan, Joshua Nathanson, Laura Owens, Mark A. Rodriguez, and John Seal.
“The Nudes Painting Show”: March 25th, 2012 7-10pm,3704 North Figueroa, Los Angeles.

I will also be in a group show at ACME, Los Angeles this July, called “Dirty Funk,” with Mark A. Rodriguez, Davida Nemeroff, Samara Golden, Paul Heyer, and Barry Macgregor Johnston.

And I will be having a solo exhibition in Los Angeles this fall 2012 at Night Gallery.

To see more of Alika’s work:
Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco
Night Gallery, Los Angeles
Katharine Mulherin, Toronto