There is often far more to visual art than viewers can catch at a glance; the seemingly straightforward often encompasses complex systems of thought and cultural reflection. This is especially true, perhaps, of contemporary artist Kristen Cochran. Her recent work, a performance of the artist’s body connecting to nature, has an approachable visual aesthetic, and yet her impulse to create this work—and, inherently, the greater meaning behind it—contains political undertones regarding the lack of systemic support structures for artists. In this interview, Cochran discusses this new body of work in juxtaposition to her experiences as a working artist, and she offers some thoughts for artists on working within and moving through this system.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Would you mind sharing about the inspiration behind this particular body of work?
Kristen Cochran (KC): I’ll first mention that this body of work was based more on an impulse to physically interact with these beautiful, massive, highly textured, natural forms. It was a subtle, doubt-filled impulse. When I think of inspiration I think of some sort of divine clarity and sense of knowing. This was different. I had a desire and then acted upon it.
These images document actions that occurred in various locations while I was in Wyoming as part of an art residency. The first group of images was taken in the Blue Horn Mountains on a hike with my fellow residents (who became my photographers!), and the others were taken at a national park at the base of Devil’s Tower—this massive monolithic rock formation that is full of mystical import, especially for Native Americans in Wyoming.
I entered the residency in a state of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual depletion. This work relates to that state of depletion and to the desire to collapse, rest upon, and surrender to something more stable, solid, fundamental, primitive, and wiser in years than myself. My intention was to conform my body to the contour of the rock—to be completely slack—which wasn’t that easy to do, actually.
Formally, I was aiming to portray a symbiotic relationship between my body and the support. This was not a long-awaited project—I was playing, experimenting, and testing an impulse on the hunch that there was something important in this somewhat ridiculous act.
TOJ: When we initially spoke together, you mentioned Richard Serra’s props and Charlie Ray’s planks as akin to this search. Were those influences very present as you followed your impulse? Were those relationships you recognized later?
KC: I had been thinking about their prop and plank pieces for another body of work prior to going to Wyoming, but I wasn’t thinking about their work directly during my process of acting these images out. I quickly saw, however, that they related. Props and planks, tension creating form, interdependent materials—these were some of my conceptual interests in the works of Serra and Ray.
TOJ: The relationship is certainly apparent and yet it’s fascinating that in this series your response occurred in nature rather than in dragging items to a gallery. Was this kind of response new to you?
KC: At this scale, yes, it was a new experience for me. I have intervened in the landscape a number of times prior to this—actions in dilapidated lots in Dallas and in New York City—but never in wide-open landscapes where I felt my relative smallness and never in such beauty!
Even in the studio, though, I’ve had this growing impulse to bring the grit inside of the white cube, to see these four walls as containers for chaos, to mess the containers up with beautiful piles of detritus—the cube of the art institution being one of those containers. I’ve become obsessed with construction sites all around this city and have had ideas in my head for years now about interacting with these mountains of disrupted soil. My earlier paintings and drawings always had a relationship to landscape and movement, to permeable boundaries and ideas of containment and chaos, so it is interesting to see these themes materialize in new ways.
TOJ: Where does that obsession come from?
KC: I think there is something in my psyche that is drawn to these liminal places. Construction sites, abandoned lots, piles of matter waiting for purpose—they all share states of flux and potential. I suppose I identify with their cyclical import in that these sites embody deconstruction and reconstruction. They are sites in states of transformation. The raw materials have not yet been categorized, contained, or set in a fixed state. In my mind, they have aliveness, even if that aliveness is a waiting-to-become sort of aliveness. In this way, these sites are charged metaphorically for me. I relate to them personally and professionally as my life—and life—is flux, is change, and is potential.
Sometimes I find that fluidity invigorating and exciting; at other times, it’s terrifying and I want a clear container to structure the flow. This is where the grid has shown up in my work. In this particular body of work, I am pretty much off the grid. If I think of the grid as providing some sort of structure, then being out in the wilderness equals unboundaried freedom. In that unboundaried state, I gravitated toward the solidity of the rocks. Perhaps their solid nature allowed me to play.
?TOJ: I experience both intrigue and disturbance in considering that the gravitational pull toward those rock structures serves as a relief for you—is relief fair to say?—and yet those rock structures are filled with holes and imperfections. They really do not appear to be something to lean upon or to contour oneself to.
KC: I like your words intrigue and disturbance. And yes, I think relief is an appropriate word for what my body and soul needed. And what a funny choice for a resting place: t?hese volcanic rocks are deeply pocketed. They offer a pretty inhospitable resting surface for vulnerable human skin. So that is disturbing. And absurd and dumb and perverse—my hands were all torn up from all of the rock climbing and hoisting myself up and repositioning myself.???
TOJ: On initially reading these images, I think it may be possible for a viewer to become stuck in seeing them simply as body performances or as only having to do with the relationship between body and nature. Yet they contain so much. The more you share of your experience in being with the rocks—the physicality of the approach, the climb, finding a niche, repositioning yourself, repeating and mending—the more it seems to symbolically parallel the experience of being a contemporary artist.
KC: I think the process in this work mirrors my experience as an artist. Yes, they could be read as simple body performances, but in my mind they are much more symbolically complex. ?????It is difficult to find reliable and consistent support structures for artists. That has been my experience. And I do not think that I am alone. This doesn’t mean that I have not had opportunities to share my work, but I certainly think contemporary artists are working within a flawed system.
Most artists I know work multiple jobs. Yet if they are serious about their art praxis, to use a very highfalutin term, that alone could easily be more than a full-time profession. I believe that artists can be potent cultural contributors, and yet to do this well requires resource—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and material resource! Most artists I know feel pressed for resources. The? cultural contributions of artists typically function through emotional and intellectual import rather than through some quantifiable socioeconomic function. As a result, the work of artists is not perceived by most people as essential to the edification or the furthering of culture. Therefore, in this undervalued state, the majority of artists must work their asses off—excuse me—to continue to do their work.
Before I come off as whiny and entitled, this reality is true for the majority of Americans who work hard to put food on the table for families and have little left over for the future. My frustration is not only for artists! It is a fatigue that many folks experience as they chase dollars. For artists like myself, who are mostly interested in communicating to others through the visual and material means of art and who do not solely make discrete, commodifiable objects, sustaining studio work depends upon other jobs that bring in income.
I could also talk about the turn that is happening in academia. The fact that academic institutions are employing a greater and greater percentage of part-time, underpaid, over-worked adjunct faculty sans health insurance gets my blood boiling. I know there are positives to every negative that I’ve mentioned here, but the reality is that our educational system is supporting high salaries for administrators and puny ones for educators (especially adjuncts). This undermines the teaching potential and quality of life for adjunct faculty and their students, who pay higher and higher tuition rates. Indeed, low resources for adjuncts often correspond to a lower quality of education for their students. These systems are unethical and broken.
TOJ: In light of the difficult system within which you see artists working, have you also seen places where artists have been supported well? What words could you offer for any type of system reform for emerging artists? Or—given what you have experienced so far—do you have any advice for those newer to the game?
KC: I want to stress that I have had opportunities to consistently show and share my work since I finished graduate school three years ago. In this way, my professional career is growing and I’m grateful for that. The challenges seem to be in the area of sustainability. For those artists, (like me) who do not have spouses, parents, patrons, gallerists, or inheritances to help defray the costs—time, money, space—related to creating art work, be they objects or ephemeral environments, it is quite a challenge. Of course, everyone has challenges, but I think that artists are particularly stretched, often managing multiple jobs while needing time and space—soul, mental, and physical space—to create work that is meaningful and thoughtful.
I don’t know what to say about system reform. I think it’s such a loose, scattered system to begin with. I think that working alongside others and sharing resources in a shared studio or living environment is helpful; seeking out paid residencies that afford artists the gift of time and space to think, unwind, and create new works is also a great thing. Grassroots efforts to support the funding of creative projects and to offer opportunities to show work have become more common, which is very encouraging. See FEAST in Brooklyn or Sunday Soup in Portland as examples. Having open studios, making aesthetic interventions in public, using social media, repurposing materials, and sharing space and materials with other committed artists are all ways to support a sustainable practice until you find that benefactor. And rest. Rest is crucial.
TOJ: That certainly is a lot to manage. Are you currently showing your work or do you have any upcoming exhibits?
KC: I will be showing work in the Texas Biennial 2013 at the beginning of September, in a two-person show at the Dallas Contemporary Gallery 2 with Lucia Simek, and in a group show called Amarillo Entropy at the Power Station that is based on Robert Smithson’s land works and his engagement with Amarillo, Texas. After that I have my sights set on something outside of this great big state.