AO Interview with Peter Coffin Regarding His Show "A,E,I,O,U" At Venus Over Manhattan
By Ryann Donnelly
Peter Coffin’s first solo show in New York City in four years, A,E,I,O,U, is on view through November 2nd at Venus Over Manhattan Gallery at 980 Madison Avenue.
Prepared in just three months, the show features several large scale sculptures: an iconic Warholian larger-than-life dog, a skeletal wooden hand forming the “ok” symbol (reminding us of Nauman’s hand series, where each hand makes a sign whose meaning changes depending upon context), to a panel holding spools and spools of satin ribbons of various widths and colors.
There are also several unassuming additions one might only find from reading the show’s checklist: a marble slab installed at the entry of the gallery and planter boxes which are hung outside the open windows. A round speaker mounted to a stand near the middle of the gallery– a piece labeled Untitled (Pet Store)– also fills the space with sounds of birds, dogs, and bubbling fish tanks.
Art Observed recently sat down with Coffin to discuss the nature of the work, which he identifies as “Idea Art”.
RYANN DONNELLY: What was your process for this show?
PETER COFFIN: I think about ideas and then consider what will work for an exhibition. Some ideas come to mind when I least expect them. I’ll write the ideas down or remember them and let them ruminate for a while—it can be months or years.
DONNELLY: Are these ideas based on images or thoughts?
COFFIN: Both. When I have an idea that’s worth pursuing I’ll usually also have an image in mind that I’ll play with for a while. An image will often be a part of that idea even before I’ve decided its worth considering an art idea. So, while we organized this exhibition in three months, about half of the works that I decided to realize were considered when we first started to discuss the exhibition. The rest had been ruminating. That’s my process, very generally.
DONNELLY: Has your process changed in the last decade?
COFFIN: Yeah. When I became interested in art again in college it was conceptual art that I was most excited about. Art that emphasized ideas was engaging to me. I thought about how ideas could be the subject of an artwork and how a work of art might catalyze interpretation and experience. Since then I’ve decided to think of it as “idea art” the way Gregory Battcock identified it. “Concept Art” seemed to be embedded in it, the idea that the concept is imbued in the work—that it’s packaged by the artist and received by the viewer– a kind of closed-circuit in which ideas are fixed. Then again, information exchanged in our world is often received passively as if it was always meant to be transmitted to us, and as if its how we’re expected to pass information along. The way it’s packaged probably influences how and what is interpreted. This can include values and opinions that we’re encouraged to adopt and we probably often do without much consideration. I’ve wondered if market has influenced us to treat values, opinions, beliefs, ideas—as things we feel we have ownership of. Art isn’t immune to these kinds of influences. I’m interested in how we generate ideas and decide something is significant or meaningful and art has a role in this.
DONNELLY: Was there an object or an idea that inspired that mode, or was it a reaction to the things that are closed or limited?
COFFIN: A little bit of both. I remember struggling with this when I was in school while thinking about what art does. There was a desire on the part of many folks interested in art to focus on ideas over formal concerns—although, I believe that formal concerns in creative expression involve thinking. Ha. I remember a strong division between the two camps. It was the formalists versus the conceptualists. I liked the conceptualists more, because the formalists were really stubborn about art tradition. I also thought the conceptualists were too idealistic. They were anti-formalist because formalism was established, and because it annoyed them that the formalists were so sure of themselves. So this seemed silly to me. Now I happen to be a liberal too and I don’t care much for the spectrum that is liberal on one end, and conservative on the other for example. I don’t really believe in the spectrum, and that my views compared to other views exist on one end or another. Its too easy. I’m more interested in how we understand something better or more broadly, without being so certain that we know the answers. I’m more interested in that process.
DONNELLY: It also seems that you don’t mind having an aesthetic attached to these objects, which are “idea objects.” The work in this show is all very different aesthetically.
COFFIN: Yeah, they have an aesthetic. That doesn’t bother me. My attitude is not anti-aesthetic, although, I am bored of style for style’s sake.
DONNELLY: But it doesn’t appear necessary to you to have a single aesthetic.
COFFIN: Oh, right. And maybe you mean a signature style.
COFFIN: No, I don’t care much for signature style. Its also too easy and its what’s expected. I guess you’d say they are different approaches. I don’t want to encourage a particular kind of thinking. And that’s what I was getting at when I was explaining how I first decided to avoid the position of approaching work in a conceptual or formal way. I don’t hope to find myself somewhere in the middle either. I don’t believe in the spectrum and I’m not an essentialist. By a “particular kind of thinking” I mean that the interpretation belongs to the viewer and I can add something that may engage what someone makes of it and takes with them but I don’t intend to determine it.
DONNELLY: Can we talk about the element of sound in your work? You’re encouraging this type of thinking, but there’s also an experiential element with sound. Is there an overall experience that you are encouraging?
COFFIN: Yeah, most of my work is meant to encourage some basic experience. And, I say “basic” because its meant to catalyze an experience. It is my hope that it will also engage people to become aware of what allows the experience to be meaningful. With the piece that transmits the sounds of a pet store into the gallery in real time, I hope the experience will encourage the very basic consideration of transference—what we do when we imagine another place and project the experience of it. We can imagine what its like in a place where we’re not and that is a creative act. I chose a pet store, because it’s a kind of place you might stumble across and enter when you’re walking down the street. A pet store is a place you enter because you’re curious to see parrots repeat things you say, or a hamster running in a wheel, or fish swimming around in a tank. When I first started to think about being in a pet store, I didn’t want to just reproduce that experience in the gallery, but instead encourage the imagination of that experience. This is an important destinction. Its about trying to make the connection between where we are and the present mindset we may have in a place that’s not a pet store—and another very different place, like a pet store that we can imagine pretty easily. Putting something like a pet store in a gallery is a certain kind of installation art that is meant to give us this ‘pet-store’ feeling. It becomes more about what a gallery is or is not and the expectation of that. I am interested in encouraging the use of the imagination and an awareness that this itself is a creative act. This involves a kind of participation that’s less passive and for the same reason involves a different kind of self-reflexivity and awareness.
DONNELLY: I was wondering if you could talk about some of the elements I noticed on the checklist after seeing the show that I might not have identified as work otherwise. The window planters are one example.
COFFIN: There are invisible artworks in the exhibition. Some are hardy noticeable. We sometimes put them on the checklist and let people know about them or else just let them be. I think that these kinds of artworks are very important and there are plenty I know nothing about. I’d like to tell you about one of these. But, one more thing I wanted to explain about the pet store sound work is that as I noticed that it was interesting to think about and imagine the experience of having been in a pet store, it was the experience of imagining what its like that excited me. I wanted to fill the negative space of the gallery – a place we come to with expectation about art and a readiness to interpret in a certain way, this time to encounter sounds that would probably engage us to imagine the pet store with the sounds of birds chirping, fish tanks bubbling, the front door bell ringing, and cash register et cetera. A gallery afterall is a place where we usually experience art visually. And the sounds of this piece trigger colorful imaginings. What a word–imaginings. Other subtle and hardly noticeable works were the marble ledge that I had installed into the wall. I removed part of the wall and put a really nice marble ledge in that fit perfectly with the exposed structure of the wall’s interior. I left the raw components of the wall, including the metal studs and plywood that support it. There’s an aroma to the piece too. It’s called “new car smell,” and it’s a spray that people buy at automotive shops for folks who want to sell their car and give it a convincingly new car feeling. The idea to imagine that you’re in a new car when you encounter the smell of a ‘new car’ even if you must know that you are not, is interesting. Associative influences are pretty effective and smell happens to be the closest sense to memory. I thought it’d be interesting for folks experiencing the piece to consider how their thoughts are influenced if they encounter this.
DONNELLY: And how did you start working with Adam Lindemann?
COFFIN: Adam approached me about doing a show together. He’s been interested in my work and asked me if I would like to show new work for an exhibition at his new gallery, Venus Over Manhattan. I agreed, and we organized the exhibition together. This happened in a short time. Three months. I enjoy working with Adam because he’s enthusiastic about art and he’s easy to work with. When we discuss art I can tell that we think alike. Although – or perhaps I should say, because he’s a collector his motivations for opening a gallery are different from what you might expect. The art seems to come first. His gallery is not guided by profit or the representation of the artist. I think that he intends with his gallery to create a new model for commercial art galleries and organizing good art exhibitions. He is currently organizing a solo exhibition with an artist who works with a small Lower East Side gallery and there is no competition for the control of that artist’s work as you might expect if any other gallery organized the same exhibition. The next show is a Jack Goldstein exhibition that will include some rare works and performances. Adam’s got some great ideas for exhibitions that will be significant. It’s an interesting project.
DONNELLY: Are there any particular artists that you two found you share an interest in?
COFFIN: We both like a lot of the same artists. Adam introduced me to William Copley’s work and I’ve turned him on to some artists whose work I like. Adam sometimes works with artists directly and I think that he admires the way artists operate. He seems to trust art. More important than the value that may come with the ownership of art as a collector and now the ownership of a gallery in which he can organize exhibitions, is an enthusiasm and interest to work with art. There are different kinds of art galleries, and his, I hope will continue to develop as an “art-first” or “artist-first” gallery. You can peer into some galleries and get the sense they’re trying to sell the work first. For his second exhibition curated by Matthew [Higgs], Adam gave the sales proceeds to White Columns, because he recognizes its a non-profit that encourages art and supports artists. Adam is known for being able to fund ambitious projects and can support an exhibition like this while some galleries don’t have that luxury. But, many of those that do may forget what its all about. So the mission with this gallery, it seems to me, will be to have the art remain its focus. When Adam approached me I was a cautious as any artist should be when a gallerist approaches them but I was welcomed with, “do whatever you want. I trust you.” It wasn’t like the gallery gave me a blank check—I had to work to make this exhibition come together but it was built on an initial trust of the art itself. I think that I mentioned that its possible that in time this gallery project will influence the way people think about how galleries operate. It’s possible. The currents that inspire and support good art will always exist in places where we might not have thought to look even if its a blue chip gallery that may decide to celebrate new or old art that has little promise of profit. While the market still influences too many poor decisions about what is significant, interesting art is being made by people who follow their convictions incidentally managing to support themselves how they can and sometimes with the help of a gallery who will show it.
The after party in an empty space next to the gallery after the Peter Coffin opening at Venus Over Manhattan
Regarding the show’s title, A,E,I,O,U, “Vowels are fundamental sounds,” Coffin explained in an article in T Magazine. “Just reading the vowels has an effect like mouthing the words to a song without the consonants. The vowels are ethereal and consonants are anchors.”
The exhibition runs through November 2nd, 2012.