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

December 1 sees the culmination of the Brooklyn Museum's Go project. In September, the museum organized two borough-wide open-studio days, featuring over 1,700 artists. The public was invited to visit the studios and nominate the artists they'd like to see in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum. Ten artists made it to the finals, then curators from the museum selected their five favorites for the exhibition. The lucky handful are Naomi Safran-Hon, Oliver Jeffers, Adrian Coleman, Yeon Ji Yoo, and Gabrielle Watson.

The Village Voice interviewed two artists featured in the show—Oliver Jeffers and Adrian Coleman—to get their take on painting, Brooklyn, and what influences their work.

Ireland-raised Oliver Jeffers is best known for his illustrations for children’s books. Lately, his paintings, which feature more complicated themes, have thrust him into a new spotlight. The Voice visited his studio in Boreum Hill.

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.

VOICE: Four of the five artists selected for GO Brooklyn are painters—why do you paint?
JEFFERS: I use several different mediums and painting is one of them. But it’s something that I really enjoy—the act of putting paint on a canvas. I like the way it reacts. There are a lot of happy accidents that occur whenever I’m painting. But often for me, I’ll come with the concept of what my art’s about, then decide on the execution that will best support the work.

What are some things that influence your art?
I became friends with this professor of quantum physics. We made a project together where I made paintings based on mathematical problems we talked about together. Quantum physics has become a major source of inspiration for me.

You have a bunch of paintings that have numbers on them—what’s the relevance?
Those are pantone numbers—the universal color-recognition system. The first time I used them, it was actually as a comment on the conversation I was having with the quantum physicist. I have no training in mathematics or science at all, so I was coming away from these conversations with my head spinning. Is there such a risk of over-dissecting something? So I made a painting of someone with all this additional information in it that we really didn’t need. The physicist sort of saw the humor in that, but agreed it is a relevant problem. Ever since then, I’ve used the pantone numbers—I’ve used them a few different times as a way of overanalyzing information.

Your painting American Matter features your neighbor and friend, Ouiji. What’s the story behind this work?
I moved to New York five years ago, at the height of Obama’s first campaign. Coming from Northern Ireland where there's about as much racial diversity as—Catholics and Protestants. That’s it. You hear the word "melting pot," but someone said that isn’t really accurate at all—New York is more a salad than a melting pot. Melting pot means everyone is the same, there's homogenization. Whereas with salad there are hundreds of tiny ingredients that make a whole. Racial issues were right at the surface and possibly more obviously for me as a person coming from a place where there was no diversity at all. I know Ouiji, and he runs the Brooklyn Circus clothing store down the street. This painting was about being an individual inside of a system—basically, uniformity and identity. The race issue was still very much an issue in the U.S., and on one level Ouiji will always be seen as an African American. But he’s also the most stylish individual you will ever meet. There were these two massive ends of a spectrum at play. I find this fascinating. I’ve gone on to make a lot of paintings about that—being a part of a community while also being an individual.

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Adrian Coleman uses watercolor to depict urban decay and gentrification. Though he lives in Prospect Heights, he sometimes borrows his friend’s studio in Fort Greene to show his art. Besides painting, he works as an architect and produces music.

VOICE: What about painting resonates with people so much?
COLEMAN: That's something I kind of struggle with. Maybe it’s because painting is very direct. There isn’t a lot of un-coding that has to take place.

You do a lot of things. Why the painting, music, and architecture?
Maybe it's a way of dealing with my own neurosis—I just need to stay busy. I get a sense of satisfaction. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of this show, but painting isn’t something I necessarily did for recognition—it just gives me a sense of calm. It’s one of those things you have to do or you start to feel out of sorts. Other things—music and architecture—I don’t really think of as that different. It's all part of the same thing. Architecture is something I do because I wanted to paint and draw, and I needed a way to make money—it comes after the painting.

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.

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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