Interview: Serena Cole
May 19th, 2010
Fashion loves art, no question. But the functional canvases of YSL, Marc Jacobs, or Alexander McQueen aren’t frequently seen as a painter’s muse. However, we like to think the line between art and fashion is a little blurry, so discovering California artist Serena Cole’s fashion-fantasy paintings was a bit of a revelation. A life-long worshipper of fashion, Cole questions our veneration of pop culture by melding images from fashion ads with traditionally saintly symbols (think halos and haunted eyes). Her goal is to create iconic faces that explore “the strange double-edged sword of being wanted.”
The Block: What’s your life story, in a nutshell?
Serena Cole: I am a native Californian, born to a musician father who went to work at eBay and an artist mother who went to work for the Post Office. Seeing my parents giving up their own dreams has made me work even harder to see to my own goals realized. I spent my childhood in the Sierra foothills – the middle of nowhere – drawing in my room, creating piles and piles of fashion designs, complete with tilted lines of clothing. The glamour and fantasy of fashion always intrigued me. As I began studying art more seriously in high school, I realized that fashion design was a childhood dream better put to use in my art. Painting allowed me something really satisfying, but until I started showing my art, I had not realized that it truly made me different. I didn’t believe I would ever be able to go to art school and become a professional artist; it seemed too far-fetched, like wanting to be a rock star. It wasn’t until my early twenties working at crappy jobs that I knew I had to go to art school to study what I loved, regardless of the practicality. I saw the alternative in my parents and everyone else I knew who worked jobs they hated and were filled with regrets of not following their own passions.
TB: We love the gold details in your work. How did you discover this particular method?
SC: I have developed a large body of work over the past five or six years using mostly watercolor, colored pencil, gold leaf, and some other mediums as well like dye, acrylic, and gouache. I am a medium nerd – I like to collect and try everything. In art school our professor gilded a hammer in class, and after that the possibilities were endless. What I like about using gold is that it is both beautiful and completely superficial. I only use imitation gold, so at the same time that it is reminiscent of older styles of art, it is a completely contemporary reference to our fascination with the surface of beauty.
TB: Your art has a great Klimt vibe. Do others often make the comparison?
SC: Thank you for the compliment. Yes, I do often have conversations with people comparing my work to Klimt. He was a seductive artist, painting beauty and colour and pattern into a frenzy of desirable images. I do admire his work, but I am interested in how I can transition some of those themes into a modern day practice that says something about our contemporary culture.
TB: We see fashion everywhere in your paintings. How does fashion inspire your art?
SC: Fashion is pure adult fantasy, in the way that The Lord of the Rings is fantasy. You couldn’t live in an ad even if you had the clothes – it isn’t there. I desire a world that I can only be a part of through my art. The designers that I love to look at are the strangest ones, the ones who create the biggest spectacles, like John Galliano for Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, and sadly, the late Alexander McQueen.
TB: Your recent art focuses on images of the human face taken from ads and made rich with symbolism. How do you choose your subjects?
SC: In the past I worked fairly intuitively, finding imagery that I was somehow intrigued by and attempting to create an iconic painting, crafted in paint and gold. What I have been interested in more recently, with the images from ads, is how depictions of a human face have changed from an honoured way in historical imagery to become a vehicle of advertising. I was investigating how historically the mainstream masses revered images of a saint as a means of escape in the same way the masses still look toward a beautiful face in a campaign as a means of escape.
TB: You mention magazines a lot on your blog – what do you like about magazines?
SC: I love magazines because they encapsulate what is most desirable about fashion. A good fashion magazine acts as its own better-than-real world, with a big dose of escapism to fulfill those fantastical needs to be transported to another dimension. Our worlds are mundane, and magazines make them colorful, beautiful, glossy, and newer than new. Some of my very favorites are AnOther Magazine, POP, Wonderland, and V.
TB: Where do you plan to take your art in the future?
SC: I have some fun projects in the works, including collages and drawings, as well as a side project taking photos of my friends as if we were re-shooting a catalog for Urban Outfitters. I would love to have some more exposure internationally, as well exhibitions in other US cities such as Los Angeles or New York. As far as what shape my work is taking, we will have to see as I finish my graduate degree next year!
Serena Cole has exhibited in Germany, Miami, and LA, as well as her hometown of San Francisco – the perks, she says, include free wine and hugs. You can find her work at Triple Base Gallery, www.basebasebase.com.
Interview Darcy Smith