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Student Profile: Alex Cohen

SAIC painter-ceramicist, talks about the complicated nature of staying true to yourself.

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Alex Cohen. Image courtesy of the artist.

I sat down this week with SAIC painter-ceramicist, Alex Cohen and talked about the complicated nature of staying true to yourself. Alex has exhibited in venues such as Believe Inn, Co-prosperity Sphere, Antenna Gallery, Pop-Up Art Loop, and Uprise Skateshop. You can see his work in person in spring of 2013 in LA, as Alex has been curated in a show by Chris Johansson at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.

Where did you grow up and how were you first interested in art?
Uptown, Chicago. When I was younger I would make art with my mom. She makes paintings but she’s not an artist, she’s a waitress. I feel like I’ve been creative my whole life. I started making art again when I dropped out of high school and had nothing to do. So I started painting. Actually my first painting was sophomore year when I got suspended and I painted my wall. The apartment I grew up in is super colorful—my mom made these mosaics that cover the walls — they’re of sharks and whales, palm trees, flamingos, underwater scenes with fish.

“beeerics,” 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Do you think that art you grew up around influenced your idea that art was supposed to be fun and make you feel good?
That’s a good question — yeah, yeah. I still feel that way.

What about your newer paintings like “Juvie,” and “Segregated School House?”
Well, I still make fun paintings, but if I’m given the chance to speak I should still say something a little bit more or else it’s selfish.

We’re looking at a couple different series of paintings here-some portraits of Hip-Hop stars and some paintings that have social critique and other abstract ones. Are all these paintings personal?
Yeah. Defiantly. Those abstract ones are just from me doodling in my history class. But then, when those started to be exhibited, it felt like they were taking away from my personal experience growing up. So, I felt like I had to incorporate the imagery into my paintings. I felt like I was leaving something out, ignoring my past.

“Juvy.” Courtesy of the artist.

By being here (SAIC) and exhibiting work?
Yeah.I felt like it was being selfish.

Do you think the portraits and the newer paintings are an attempt to think about your past more?

How do the portraits do that?
The portraits-those are just the people I listen to. Those are like my fathers.

Do you think it’s more important to make those paintings because you’re here and you don’t see paintings like that and you need to see paintings like that here at SAIC?
I think it’s me being true to myself and true to my interests. The abstract stuff is what you would call skate art or graffiti,and then the newer paintings I did because lately I’ve been thinking about people and how we all interact together.

The new paintings are thoughts about freedom and how we’re not free. Capitalism — bullshit. Also, how genuinely racist people are still, even though you may not be hateful everyone’s racist. It’s just a drag. And the fact that gay people can’t get married, it’s a drag. It’s all a drag.

“Incarceration of M.L.K.” Courtesy of the artist.

What upsets you?
Rich people, ignorance, people who are not empathetic, greed. Yeah those things. People who are selfish, who only get one thing and don’t see the whole picture. Ego. People who don’t recycle. People who don’t get up for old people on the buses and for pregnant women. That stuff just irks the hell out of me.

What do you love?
I love being insane. I love not having control over myself or my thoughts. Ironically I love ignorance — I love ignorant rap. It justifies some of my actions. It helps rationalize my behavior sometimes. Obviously I love life, duh.

Some graffiti artists lament the fact they’ve been brought indoors to exhibit work in galleries and museums — or at least they are conflicted about it. Do you feel similarly? Not that you’re a graffiti artist, but in some ways your work references aesthetics outside of the institutional art world.
I did. I did. But now, I’m like pulling it back. I started hanging out with all my old friends again and not caring about this school anymore. I’m glad I still live in the city and can still hang out with old friends. At some point I wanted those things (what SAIC promotes), but now I don’t care. I’m just ignoring this place — I feel guilty about being here. I hate this school and the people who go here. I miss hanging around normal people.

“Biggie.” Courtesy of the artist.

What are some things you struggle with being part of the SAIC community?I don’t know if it’s hatred but it’s a lack of trust in the decision-making and honesty of others within the community. I believe that a lot of people are just lookin’ out for themselves and forget about others — others with less, others with more. I believe that we are all equals as individuals and as artists and when we accept all and share joy we are better equipped with opportunity for all to succeed.

Why are you here?
One of my teachers at Harold Washington College talked me into coming here. I was excited at first because it was like a big step forward — but now I’m just over that.

You graduate next year, what are you going to do next? Are you going to run from the institutional art world and never look back, or are you going to try to develop a different kind of relationship with it?
I know what I don’t want… to be like… lame. I want to show work in schools, not in galleries — I’m so uninterested in that. If it happens, it happens but it’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m putting up my installation I had in the Pop-Up art window on Wabash in my old elementary school. That’s important. It’s a therapeutic day school for troubled youth.

What are your Influences?
Rap music… but, I need to think back to when I was pure.

What changed your purity?
Coming to this school, taking art classes, reading. I used to be pure and listen to rap music, do graffiti, skate around all day, ride the trains. Now I got school and work.

Influences now?
Rap music, memories, walking. I walk a lot. I watch people, how people interact, it messes with my head. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’re all here together even though we are. Rage.

Anxiety?My anxiety only came after holding in the rage. I used to be wilder. But now I get anxious from holding in the rage.

What are you mad at?
I’m angry from different things. I was a bad kid. I was in special-ed classrooms and got suspended, which made me feel abandoned and not part of the bigger world.

“Jam Master Jay.” Courtesy of the artist.

What angers you now?
Things that make me angry or upset are ignorance and pretentious thoughts. Unfair situations that leave others abandoned, ego, distrust and greed.

Are there artists you look at?
When I first started making art it wasn’t art I was looking at. It was my friends’ graffiti. I didn’t look at artists, I just doodled. Now, Matisse, Chris Johansson, Jacob Lawrence, Miro — those are my main dudes.

What rappers do you listen to?
I relate to rap music like in how it’s a revolt of not being accepted into society. I’ve always felt outside of America’s norm.

Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole all day, every day, huge crush on Jay Z obviously. Everything, but Rick Ross, Wacka Floka Flame.

No to those guys?
No. Ya know I’m into Blackstarr, Tupac, Common, all the rappers I’ve painted: NAS, Biggie, Kanye West, people don’t like Kanye West but I do. I like his ego. Like who cares? That’s how part of me wants to be. I would give more than him, but I would have his ego.

If you had all the money in the world to make whatever project you wanted, what would it be? What would you do?
I would make a project that would teach rich people how to share more.

I’m gonna end this interview by asking what’s the secret to life?
The secret to my life has been truth — be true to my feelings and my thoughts.

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