Serena Cole

Oakland, Painter // May 2012
I’m fascinated by the idea that we all want to be someone else, but the person we want to be also wants to be someone else.

Serena’s studio is in her Oakland apartment, a modest space that she has efficiently rigged to accommodate her needs. She’s set it up so that her studio takes up most of the apartment’s square footage, but she keeps things flexible with furnishings that are easily moved and rearranged. I’m always impressed with resourcefulness and am appreciative of the kind of ingenuity that comes out of necessity and that manages to circumvent a set of limitations. In fact, the idea of limitations kept coming up for me in thinking about Serena’s artwork because her pieces are very much visually dictated and confined by her reference material. Her work directly appropriates the fashion imagery of advertising campaigns and editorial spreads, highlighting the patterns and tropes used to elicit desire and encourage consumerism. In taking on this imagery, her work attempts to examine what is revealed about our collective psychology, the culture of consumption and escapism, and the complexity of fantasy. In our conversations, she acknowledged that she isn’t so much trying to create something new, but instead aims to deconstruct already existent imagery in the appropriation of it. But this is a slippery slope— in being so tightly tethered to the aesthetics of the fashion world, Serena’s work runs the risk of coming off as analogous instead of questioning. Serena is aware of this risk— in creating art within a framework already heavily loaded with well-established associations, value, and perimeters, she knows the trick is to get the viewer to recognize that there is actually a lot at stake amidst the glitz and glamour. At one point during our visit, we ended up sitting on the floor amidst pages and pages that Serena had torn from fashion magazines, examining and discussing (often unsettling) themes in the images: the death drive, the seduction of destruction, the pleasure of masochism. She spoke passionately about how magnetic and yet troubling a lot of fashion imagery is, and how curious she is about what it reveals about us, as individuals and a culture. Serena’s work certainly is beautiful, but there is a particular darkness to its luster and if you give it a bit of time a haunted eeriness comes forth, creeping in, slow but steady, that speaks to the more difficult and layered ideas seething beneath its surface.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I make drawings and paintings with watercolor and colored pencil, but I like to use a lot of other materials like gold leaf, photo transfers, ink, gouache, acrylic, etc, etc. I also just got some glitter (!) and have some weird interest towards oils right now. I am a media nerd— I love finding new things to use and fitting them into a painting as seamlessly as possible.

In some ways I have been painting the same thing for the last 10 years or so since I learned to draw with colored pencils: imagery made to sell us things. But it goes back even further. I have almost exclusively drawn the human figure since I was a little kid. My current subject matter of fashion, however, is problematic in its immediate association and repulsion of both the academic and the intuitive. What I should say is that I paint things that I find so beautiful I can’t get away from them, and I use appropriation of advertising to discuss the deeper meaning of these images.

Looking at the much bigger picture, I think all of my work is about unhappiness. Fashion is a world driven by feelings of lack and inadequacy, the desire to be someone else and the fantasy of what that might look like. So ultimately, fashion is unhappy, and it functions as a mirror to ourselves and reveals deep-seated anxieties. The imagery used to sell fashion is powerful, and I think people are often swept away by the fantasy it conjures. I’m fascinated by the idea that we all want to be someone else, but the person we want to be also wants to be someone else.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I am very lucky to have the perfect job for an artist straight out of grad school. I work as the 2D Studio Manager at the school where I graduated, California College of the Arts. I work full time with benefits and have my own office, and am off for two months in the summer. I manage the undergrad Painting students, and work closely with the Painting department, so I feel I am directly contributing a lot of positive things to a place I care about. I think I actually work too hard, and my art can sometimes suffer from the time I spend working at the school, but I am trying to figure out the balance. There are so many great things about working at an art school: access to the facilities, meeting interesting visiting artists, and exchanging really fruitful dialogue with both faculty and students.

I also teach night classes at the Art Studio at UC Berkeley, an extension program, so I am getting my foot in the door being an instructor. I teach the basics of drawing and painting to hugely varied groups of people, and it can be really challenging, but also rewarding to see them get excited about making art and improving. So, on a lot of days, I feel like with my art practice I have three jobs.

What do you read, listen to, or look at to fuel your work and find inspiration?
I make myself read a lot of classic literature because I feel everything stems from the past and I want to be aware of what is being recycled in our popular culture. Some books are totally wonderful, and some I trudge through for years. I am currently reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, but I also read super light fashion and art magazines all the time, like Another Magazine and Wonderland.

I hardly ever pick up any new music, and listen to the same old assortment of records on my turntable when I am at home making art. I tend to select a pile for the day based on feeling. I will pair Nick Cave with Bauhaus and The Cure or Cat Power with Bat for Lashes and Elvis Costello. There is something really wonderful about the glamorous angst of goth and some punk that really lets those emotions rip and helps me get into the zone.

I watch WAY too much TV and am mostly interested in shows that take me away from my life and into something more beautiful and puzzling, like Lost.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
This is an important topic and at the moment I’m at a crossroads. I would say that the greatest thing about it, as well as its biggest challenge, is to use appropriation as a magic trick to show you something new out of something else. People are often distracted by or hung up on the fashion/beauty aspect of my work, but what I’m studying are the tropes and motifs present in this kind of imagery. These images ignite desire and fuel consumerism, and I am both seduced and disturbed by them. I would love to challenge the viewer to look at what I put forth and find the deeper meanings in advertising that I do, however sometimes I fail in this attempt. I would say my subject matter, especially in the uber-liberal climate, to the point of closed-mindedness, of the Bay Area has been a hurdle in asking the viewer to acknowledge their participation in consumerism.

Has there been a person or experience that has steered your work in new or significant directions?
There have been so many great artists/teachers over the years whom have taught me lessons but I would say it’s been really wonderful to talk with my friend Libby Black, who shares my desire for the same content in magazines yet uses it differently. We can have great conversations about acting on impulse and making what you love. My thesis advisor, Vivian Bobka, was super instrumental in helping me understand the deeper meaning of advertising through psychoanalysis. I also think it was really important for me in grad school to talk with my advisor, Jeffrey Gibson, who made me aware of what an impact growing up off the grid in the Sierra foothills had on my interests and art making. When I was nine years old I moved to an incredibly remote area of the Sierra Nevadas and lived in a house on 800 acres of land. I had to walk a mile everyday to catch the hour-long bus ride to school. Because of living in this isolation I began to covet any scrap of pop culture I could get my hands on, particularly fashion magazines.

How do you navigate the art world?
Having lived in the Bay Area for the past nine years, I feel that this art world is maybe not easy to navigate, but not as intimidating as say, New York. Over time I have met a great deal of people who work with art in some capacity locally and discovered this is how the whole system revolves— we meet each other at openings and at school and help each other out. I have been represented by two galleries in SF and have left them both on good terms in search of a new step in my career. I am a little worried about stagnating here, but I’m not sure there is an easy answer for how to get into the art community of another city, which is probably what I need. I find a lot of people get so frightened by the ‘art world’ but all it really is, is just a bunch of people, some who will like you, some who won’t. Some will want to make money with you, some won’t. It’s hard not to take things personally, but the best arrangement is always with people who truly support your vision and you work together to build a market for yourself. However, this economy blows and it’s making it hard to be an emerging artist for almost everyone right now. And the truth is, most of us want our work to sell, and if I don’t admit that then I’m not being honest.

Have you recently encountered an artist or artwork that you felt strongly about?
Lately I have been into color photographers who use people as their subject matter. I have seen two shows at Fraenkel and the Wattis with work by Katy Grannan that really took my breath away. Maybe it’s because they look a little like perfectly rendered watercolors, or because I can imagine how I would paint them…but they seem to evoke such a sad, depressed beauty. I also loved Rineke Dijkstra’s show currently up at the SFMOMA.

On the other side of that, work that is made that either antagonizes or ignores aesthetics is useless to me. I find that both hyper-intellectualized work and work that is based on a participation or social exchange is too trying for me. I get bored immediately. I know it’s a very uncool or old-fashioned thing to say, that looks are first for me, but it’s true.

Do you think the intellectualizing of visual art by the artist or viewer lessens its power and emotional impact?
Well I just answered that a little… What I mean is that when I was in school I realized how many different ways there were to make art. Predominantly, I felt there were advisors I could talk to who were either ‘thinkers’ or ‘makers.’ Of course, it’s not that simple and contemporary artists want to be both, but I felt that the ‘thinkers,’ (the curators and writers and historians), didn’t understand the process of the studio and needing to make even before you figure it out. To know exactly what you are doing before you do it takes the magic out of one of the last magical acts we have left as humans, and leaves little to the imagination of the viewer. Being told what you are looking at does take some of the power out of the experience.

Is the creative impulse driven by a personal need to ease pain and/or satiate desire?
I’m not sure if it eases pain but I am interested in communicating things to channel my emotions in a way that can only be done visually. My pieces are all dark, and I suppose I am interested in revealing and responding to the human condition. I am definitely, definitely dealing with desire, however. Like, in an obsessive, border-line scopophilia kind of way. I am drawn to what I desire visually and am feeding it like a tapeworm.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am currently working on a solo show at Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis in September. I like to work in series so I have been making these faces that to me, serve as psychological mirrors instead of portraits of people. I am imagining a row of them, in black backgrounds with black frames, each embodying some element of a thing I wish I was, so the act of looking at them looking back at you is a kind of gestalt/mirror stage experience. For the same show I am making a series of ads which portray figures “Left for Dead” and an installation of destructive and psychological imagery that reveals our current state as a society. Of course, talking about all of this makes me feel guilty about revealing too much, now that I’ve said what I said in that question about whether intellectualizing art lessens it power or impact.

Do you have a motto?
No one is going to do it for you.

What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Cats, the beach, and dropping watercolor into wet pools on paper.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Twisted Sisters Group Show, Dodge Gallery,
New York, NY
May 19-June 24, 2012
Through a Glass, Darkly Solo Show, Soo Visual Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN
September, 2012
Against the Grain Charity Auction, Mark Moore Gallery,
Culver City, CA
August 25, 2012
(A one-night event to raise money for arts education)

To see more of Serena’s work: