Q&A: Oliver Jeffers and Adrian Coleman of the Brooklyn Museum's Go Project

Two of the contest's finalists talk art and Kings County

What’s appealing about Brooklyn as a place to practice art?
I like to make paintings about people who aren’t necessarily depicted commonly in the history of art. I’m particularly interested in clashes of culture and different kinds of people living in the same area and the way they mix or they don’t mix. I guess that’s a reason I find Brooklyn fascinating, because there are so many different kinds of people, and even though they live close to one another, in a strange way they don’t really cross-pollinate that much. It’s interesting, but it’s also a little disturbing. I know in my neighborhood, the only place you see mixing is the local diner. But at every other bar, you can kind of identify—that’s a Caribbean establishment, or that’s a hipster establishment. That’s a little unnerving. I don’t think it’s always gonna be that way.

Have you sold any paintings? Who buys them?
That's one of the things I find kind of funny. A lot of time I sell these paintings—they are usually small scenes from these rough areas—but the people who buy them are young upper-middle-class families. It’s really jarring in a way. I find it fascinating. It is also funny because I’m usually painting graffiti, so I’m translating someone else’s artwork in a way. The people who buy my art would never want to have anything to do with the people who tag up a building, but because I’m translating it, in a way, they want it on their mantelpiece.

I don’t know if this is for certain, but I get the sense that painting in watercolor has something to do with that. One thing about watercolor is that it has this reputation of being a boring medium—it’s very British, and there are lot of pretty pictures of hillsides and villages. They might be pleasant, but they are never really sexy or shocking—but mild-mannered. I think with watercolor people kind of open themselves up to something that they wouldn’t have before. For instance, a couple years ago I had this show in this private social club in Princeton, New Jersey. I think they took me on because I paint in watercolor. Most of the people who frequent these places are white, 60, and they come in a dinner jacket. There was a kind of strange tension between the people eating dinner there and the paintings on the walls of grungy Brooklyn. There were probably more black and brown people in the paintings than ever stepped in this social circle.

Watercolor MTA: Adrian Coleman's Subway Section
Courtesy Adrian Coleman
Watercolor MTA: Adrian Coleman's Subway Section
Oliver Jeffers, ready for the cold.
Ericka Hokanson
Oliver Jeffers, ready for the cold.

What do you find appealing about urban landscapes?
I’m interested in the way that some people are nostalgic for decrepit landscapes. Why can a painting of graffiti or an old factory or a crumbling old building be nice to look at? I’m kind of interested in the way that people have nostalgia for worn-down cities. That goes back to the issue of race, in a sense. Why do young people from middle-class backgrounds find something authentic about the rough and tumble of life in inner cities? Why do we romanticize that?

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