Lately I’ve become obsessed with the paintings of Sydney Cohen, the Oakland-based artist who is also an adjunct painting/drawing professor at California College of the Arts. We met there last summer teaching painting in the Pre-College Program on the Oakland campus. She is warm and unpretentious, and we became fast friends commiserating about the joys and frustrations of teaching high school students and connecting on interesting assignments. One of hers I particularly liked: “Make a dark painting. Now make that painting’s dreams.”
I quickly noticed that while she was generous in talking to (and about) her students, Sydney often shied away from talking about her own work or professional artistic experiences. Researching her work online, I was amazed to find her work to be quite stunning. They were these small to medium-large brilliantly colorful layered abstractions of oblique lyrical structures and spaces, each one a mini-world of intuitive and playful decision making. Both highly worked and loosely executed, they reveled in a vivid liquidity of poured textures and buoyant shapes. But she didn’t exhibit them that often.
When I visited her paint-splattered studio, there must have been hundreds of paintings lying around and stacked in various states of finish. Hers is the kind of beautifully messy painterly abstraction that I enjoy so much but see little of these days, with many young abstract painters leaning toward a forced distance of restraint with barely there gestures of thin paint and labored conceptualized emptiness. Sydney’s painting refreshingly loped and careened wildly through a complex network of bright shapes and unhesitating gestures, pouring on layer after layer of strange color combinations into burrowing organic forms.
Why so deflective? It was like she was working in secret. Or perhaps like a great actor fraught with stage fright, she’s just incredibly shy when it came to showing her work. Only a handful of people I know who knew her were aware of her paintings. My programming slot at Right Window Gallery in the Mission was approaching, so I asked Sydney if she would like to do a show. I was afraid she would say no, but she thankfully accepted. It’s up through May. To get to know her and her work better, I asked her some general questions and was delighted by the roundabout airiness of her answers.
Q: How would you describe your work?
A: Pillow forts to have sex in. All-you-can-eat ice cream. A preference for the most indirect path. My friend was telling me the other day about some greyhounds we saw at the dog park. She said their owner told her that they have special neuroses: either they stack dishes and things on top of the refrigerator when they’re left alone, or they take things down off the refrigerator and make stacks around the house. She couldn’t remember which.
Q: Is there an artist or artwork that particularly speaks to you?
A: Oh, so many. Michael Disfarmer, Japanese ceramics, woodcuts from ukiyo-e. We talked a little about Édouard Vuillard. I’m really into the drawings of Emma Strebel; I’ve gotten to see her draw since she was in middle school. She goes to NYU now. My aunt Bonnie makes paper from mushrooms. I really like shapes.
Q: What are some of your favorite color combinations?
A: Sometimes when I’m walking around, I feel like I drop into extra deep color vision, that my eyes are tuned right in to color. So much of the time we are not really seeing color. Our brains make composites of colors, deciding for us to not focus on color, more to just take in general impressions, so as to navigate in the world and not get hit by cars or walk into trees. One doesn’t need to be an artist to experience the sudden awareness of color, as if the world just got turned on or tuned in and that it feels like an altered state. It makes us realize it is not how we usually operate. Yet color is happening around us all the time.
I am loving gray and green at the end of the day, and I’m appreciating unusual combinations—orange and purple together, mixed blue and rust shadows. Some colors that I used to find so ugly can start to be really interesting. Oh my God, purple—I’m sorry I’ve been dissing you all these years.
Q: What might people not know about you?
A: I was an extra in a Bollywood film. I played a drug addict. It was a long time ago.
Q: Does anything else inform your work?
A: I really like the internet. I love being able to look something up and that links to something else I want to know about and that to something else. It is supposed to be rewiring our brains to go only shallow, but wide is another kind of deep.
Q: What advice do you give most to your students?
A: You are a bear lost in a forest, and there is an old woman with long gray braids baking pies for you, and your job is to keep following the smell of pie. That’s your job—learning how to keep turning toward what is most delicious to you.
Sydney’s show “Some Other Need” is viewable through May at 992 Valencia St. in the right window of A.T.A. This Sunday (5/19/13) , there is an opening from 4 to 7 p.m. Go see it!