Rachel Cohen’s studio in Brooklyn has a wall of windows which allows the light to play off her glittery, sequined canvases, which take influence from the bright colors of poisonous tropical insects and frogs. That tension between cute and venomous makes her work magnetic with an edge of uneasiness — how close do you really want to get? Make sure to check out more at the links below!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I am an artist, educator and curator originally from New Jersey but currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY. I recently graduated with my Master’s of Fine Art in Painting and Drawing at Pratt Institute with distinction. I used to work at a Butterfly Garden in Costa Rica. I worked at a jazz club for seven years and love listening to 60s girl groups like The Supremes when I work.
A former professor once told me my paintings look like they’re in drag.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
I first discovered art working alongside my mother in her studio. She is a classically trained stone carver and works mainly in limestone and marble.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
In nature, bright bold coloration and patterning is often a signifier of seduction or a warning sign for danger. Like the juxtaposing yellow and black stripes found on a wasp, or the crimson circled abdomen of a black widow spider.
Aposematic color and patterning found in nature is often used as a signal for predators.
Like the microscopic scales covering a Blue Morpho Butterfly, sequined fabric reflects light repeatedly. The successive layers of shimmering beads lead to interference effects, depending on both wavelength and angle of observance. Women most typically wear sequined fabric, specifically on New Years Eve, for a special occasion or during a performance. The fabric is meant to dazzle the eyes of its viewer, yet simultaneously armors the body, like the opalescent wings of a beetle. Thinking about contemporary beauty standards for females and the role of color as a signifier, I am fascinated by society’s pressure on women to adorn and “beautify” the female form. This is almost opposite to the role of most female animal species in nature, which are usually much duller in coloration, compared to their male counterparts.
I am interested in the tension between paint and fabric, and how these materials compete with one another. Using a high contrast palette, touch sensitive fabrics and iridescent sequined clothing I investigate the aposematic properties of color, pattern and gesture, through a language of abstract painting. The color and patterning of my sequined encrusted chromatic paintings stem from both an observation and reflection on organisms and materials found deep inside Costa Rican ecosystems and New York City’s garment district. Using the decorative as a defense mechanism, my work reflects on the excess of contemporary culture, and dances between the natural and material world.
In the last few years my work has become much more fabric oriented. I did not use fabric in my paintings until shortly after the 2016 election. Feeling deeply disheartened by the election I began to question the power of painting and felt doubt in my decision to invest in my education. I gained weight and outgrew a vintage black sequined dress I never had a chance to wear. I couldn’t bear to get rid of it so I cut it up and started painting on it’s surface. I was amazed by the way in which the paint transformed the surface of the sequins into a scale-like material, that resembled a molting of a butterfly or snake. This intervention of my dress started a deep material investigation of paint and sequined fabric.
What is your process like?
I often sketch from life, and plan palettes based on Google image searches of tropical animals with aposematic coloration, such as poison dart frogs or tropical insects. I also spend a lot of time in the Garment district and take pictures of fabrics and patterns. I generally make my smaller works in two day sessions and the larger ones sometimes take several months to become fully realized. I like to work in series and generally work on more then one painting at a time. I am interested in nature, consumerism, feminism and materiality.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
My former thesis advisor and friend Laurel Sparks is a wonderful mentor to me. The best advice she recently gave me was to stop trying to make “art”, and instead just make. Thinking about work and making work are two very different processes.
What is your studio like?
My studio is in the Pfizer Building in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It has a full wall of windows providing wonderful natural light, which I find essential to activating my sequined pieces.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
The subjectivity of how art is judged and viewed.The challenge of looking at ones work subjectively, and being your own critic.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
Energetic, Aggressive and Colorful
What are you working on right now?
A series of eight 16″ diameter tondos, using both acrylic paint, oil ad sequined fabric.