Yvette Cohen is an artist who sculpts paintings … or does she paint sculptures? Her work www.yvettecohen.com is clearly more than paintings that are hung on a wall, but are they actual sculptures? Fortunately, we don’t have to spin our wheels over this matter much longer because Yvette is here to explain herself and her work. Here’s our cool chat…
“…I think that if the work is so obvious, it’s dead. I like there to be some mystery so it makes the viewer think, and in that way, experience the work. After all, there’s no absolute explanation. I can’t even explain everything to myself. I’d be bored if I could.”
MICHAEL: Hi Yvette, I really like the 3-D nature of your work. I would think that you really have to be on your game though because the work is more than mere paintings. They really are paintings masquerading as sculpture - or are they sculptural works posing as paintings?
YVETTE: Hi Michael, First of all, I want to thank you. This is kind of fun. I think your question captures the main essence of all my work. I’m always very aware of a dense space that my images occupy. I think of space as this infinite air that is tangible, not a void. I think of the volume of a thing. I want to create an entity, a being that takes on a life of its own and not just sits on the surface of the canvas or paper. I push my mind beyond the walls of my New York City studio to experience open space.
I guess whether they are paintings or sculpture depends on the definitions of each. They’re paintings because they’re mostly made of paint, although I do use wooden dowels to further define the shape and as a slight support. In sculpture, the actual surrounding space is part of the piece. In my diptychs, triptychs, etc., the space surrounding the actual volumes is as important as the pieces themselves, so that the entire wall becomes the canvas. I made a diptych titled “Eye-to-Eye” for an installation in Cassina’s SOHO location. I had two pieces facing across from each other in a somewhat square space. The space between the two pieces was activated. I guess that might make them more sculptural. Anyway, I think like a sculptor, but I love that my materials in drawing and painting are so much simpler.
MICHAEL: So, you don't only create multi-dimensional paintings, you activate the space that they exist in. That's a tall order. I would think that the viewer needs to be in that space for it to truly be activated, No?
YVETTE: You’re right Michael. One can get a sense of the work by viewing it online or in print, but of course, it's always better to see the actual work, any work. Surrounding space is an integral part of my work. The paintings are not isolated elements. When the paintings are on a wall, the wall takes on a depth and is somewhat negated so that the pieces appear to float in open space. When diptychs and triptychs are on different walls or on the floor, even more space is energized. Because my paintings work together to take over entire walls and spaces, they redefine the environment and can only be really experienced by viewing them in situ.
MICHAEL: Of course, observers will form their own views of your work, but what's the meaning behind your work for you personally?
YVETTE: In doing the work, I feel that I’m dealing with wide open space. I don’t just mean that literally. On one hand, I feel that I am embracing infinite air in this limitless world. I’m standing on a windy beach as the waves roll in or standing on a hill in a vast landscape. Simultaneously, I’m aware that I’m not in control of this limitless world and so the unknown tugs at me. This is both exciting and frightening. Exciting because what will develop might be an exhilarating surprise, like nothing that has ever existed before. And frightening because maybe, it just won’t work and it will be a piece of crap. I tell myself that this unknown factor is inherent in creativity. If I put my ego aside and allow the work to evolve naturally, my emotions will be more of excitement than fright.
MICHAEL: Wouldn't this be a different world if we ALL put our egos aside? Truly. Do you think the fact that you're in jam-packed New York City plays a role in your work? Or would you be doing what you're doing even in Iowa? New York has no space and places like Iowa have nothing but space ... Theoretically.
YVETTE: New York City feeds me energy. Regardless of wherever I was, I would want to package open space. The sites that inspire me are as disparate as a Block Island coastline, Favignana, an island off the coast of Sicily, Volterra in Tuscany, etc. etc.
MICHAEL: Doesn't it get beyond tiring having to explain your work over and over and over again? Especially to people who are new when it comes to contemporary art? How do you approach this?
YVETTE: People have very different levels of appreciation. I’m rarely asked to explain the work when they see it. They usually volunteer what they think and how it makes them feel. I don’t like to explain too much, otherwise I feel like I’m explaining the life out of it. I remember when I moved into my studio years ago and an artist in my building passed by. I was working with abstract shapes and markings. He saw a small photograph of a painting I had done that looked like a realistic landscape, but it was really made of tons of gorgeous abstract marks. He reacted with, “If you can do this, why are you doing this?” referring to the abstract work in my studio. I’m still in shock, and didn’t say much in response.
It’s true that some people are only comfortable with familiar imagery, but I think that if the work is so obvious, it’s dead. I like there to be some mystery so it makes the viewer think, and in that way, experience the work. After all, there’s no absolute explanation. I can’t even explain everything to myself. I’d be bored if I could. I laughed tonight when I opened a Baci chocolate, the ones that come with short quotes in the wrapper, to read, “The unknown always seems sublime” quoting Tacito, the Roman historian.
When I meet people, they’re always asking what kind of art I do. It’s difficult to give a simple description that captures the essence of the work in just a few words. So I stumble over a few words and sometimes the message peaks their curiosity. As artists today, we are always asked to articulate what we do in artist statements. That can be difficult, because my medium is visual and not words. But writing an artist statement sometimes gets me more in touch with the work. And that’s good.
MICHAEL: For some reason, many people, even today, still distrust contemporary art. They think it's bullcrap. Your thoughts?
YVETTE: Contemporary art refers to such a wide array of images and concepts. For some people, it’s synonymous for “anything goes,” so that sometimes, I’ll see something in a gallery that I just don’t get or the work is so weak, it’s aggravating to have wasted my time. I think that if I, as an artist, can’t appreciate the work, the non-artist can’t relate to it in any way. If you’re talking about people who don’t get any contemporary art because they need to have something familiar, realistic or figurative, there’s nothing much to say. Art is not as concrete as 2+2=4. Yet, this is what some people need. So I might say to them, “Whatever you feel about the work is OK. Do you really need to understand it to appreciate it?” Some people don’t realize how integrated and fundamental art and culture are to our everyday lives.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
YVETTE: As far I can remember, I was always drawing or doing some kind of art. When I was nine or 10 years old, I got a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Set. Thinking of that takes me back in time. I checked on Amazon. The sets are still available. I was always aware of myself doing art without actually labeling myself, artist. When I went to university, I debated majoring in math or art. That’s when I decided that you never know what happens in life, so I may as well enjoy the next few years and chose art. I majored in graphic design, deciding it was somewhat practical. I guess I felt guilty about just going into art. At school, I signed up for as many fine art classes as graphic design classes.
My parents weren’t artistic, but they never got in the way of my art. They even helped me out when I moved to New York to do art, although my father had always hoped I’d go into the family business or become a lawyer like he had been in Egypt. Yes I was born in Egypt. We were deported as French nationals when I was three. After a few years in New York, I decided to make greeting cards, thinking that I would make greeting cards three days a week and do my art three to four days a week. It’s not the way it worked out. For the next twenty years, I was managing my card company with six to eight employees and a bunch of independent sales reps. I guess I was lucky that I wasn’t making tons of money, so in 2003, I had no qualms about closing the business and doing my fine art full-time.
MICHAEL: Wow, so you're actually a business-minded artist. It's rare to find an artist who has an actual business background. How would you say owning and operating a small business in the past has served you now as an artist? What advice do you have for artists or anyone running a small business?
YVETTE: My advice is, “Do your research, thoroughly.” Running a small business is so much more than knowing your product or service. I’m not really business-minded. I got into the greeting card business because of my love of design and art. I wanted to redefine what greeting cards were. I was more concerned with creating unique and special cards as opposed to looking at the bottom-line, which of course is money in a business. I approach selling my art very differently than I did my cards. In business, you can offer deals, discounts, send out tons of catalogs and do whatever it takes to get your product out there. In promoting my art, I'm more discreet. I have a website and when I’m in a good show, I get the word out in an email blast. I’m sure that who you know makes a difference. I could use some good advice and a few big name collectors for credibility.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world today and how it functions? Do you feel part of it or alienated by it?
YVETTE: The art world is a very disjointed animal. There’s a small part of it that makes all the noise with the million dollar sales at auction. Then there are the multitudes of artists who work hard with different degrees of integrity and intellect, all determined to generate a fresh and compelling experience. I’m one of the multitudes.
MICHAEL: I could go on and on Yvette, but I'll make this the last question. Where do you want to go with your work in the future and what does art do for you?
YVETTE: I want to do work that resonates on all different levels, whether they’re individual drawings with subtle intimate marks or powerful geometric shapes in a site-specific installation. I want to balance a calm, centered feeling against a strong, powerful presence. And, I want to learn to work with this challenge in a positive, energetic way.
I believe that everything we do is autobiographical. This contrast and ambiguity, of calm versus strength, is me. I painfully question everything. And I question the significance of doing my art. Yet, I keep on doing it. I need to do it. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. I need to constantly have a vibration of anticipation of what I might come up with.
MICHAEL: Thanks Yvette. Great chat.
YVETTE: Thank you Michael.
Check out Yvette Cohen at www.yvettecohen.com.