A large part of what I’ve been exploring in my work has to do with the way humans' brains seem to simplify the things we observe and encounter in order for us to more easily assimilate and/or cope with what is happening. I’m interested in how this curious trait continually skews our perceptions and bends the truth.
I exaggerate or distort familiar forms as a way to expose things we take for granted and prime them for new meanings. Body parts, abstract forms, and everyday objects take on symbolic potential that opens the scenes up to questioning, which, I hope, encourages searching and questioning of ourselves as individuals and, beyond that, society as a whole.
Interview with Austin Furtak-Cole
Questions by Beatrice Helman
Hi Austin! Thank you so much for talking with us. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what drew you to both painting and creating in general? Do you remember some of the formative experience that drew you to a career in the arts?
In general there was an encouraged creative vibe in my household. My father is a musician and there was always music. My mom is more inclined towards the visual arts, which took many forms in our day-to-day lives and often included my brothers and me. My mom placed me in painting classes at a really young age, which I loved. We would paint from flower still lives and I recall looking at them very hard in an attempt to replicate what I saw. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to make something even though I was aware that my painting only emulated what those flowers looked like. My mom still has some of those paintings in her home and I find them fascinating to look at when I visit.
I also recall my mom taking me to museums in San Francisco, which is where we lived through my childhood, and I remember having this conflicted feeling; the museum was filled with slow, inanimate things that felt very boring to me, but I also understood that those things were important, and I wanted to understand what gave them importance.
In what ways have you noticed your work evolve over time, or perhaps how has your relationship to it changed?
My work has evolved a lot over my career, and a lot of that evolution seems to have taken place through questioning the “shoulds” of my life and replacing them with “wants.” When I was younger and didn’t know how to deal with something I would follow the examples that had been set for me. At some point I started questioning whether those examples were actually right for me. I think this is how my work evolved too; over my career I’ve increasingly let go of what I thought I was supposed to do, and started searching for what I wanted.
Are there any recurring themes that you keep coming back to? Any color palettes or moods? On the other hand, are there any concepts that you’re excited to explore and haven’t yet?
There are general themes I return to. I’m fascinated by how we view things and create narratives that exaggerate reality in some way. I’m interested in what reality is and how subjectivity in some ways makes a solid, concrete reality unreachable.
Color feels like a way to play and experiment and I’m often trying to challenge my sensibility or break out of habits I’ve developed through my practice.
I don’t tend to come to the studio with preconceived concepts, but more natural interest. The things I encounter day-to-day are of interest and tend to delineate the themes or concepts I depict.
What’s a normal, run-of-the-mill day like for you? Are you a person of routine, and if so what is that like?
It depends on the day. I work four days a week, which leaves three days for the studio, so my weeks are pretty regular. On workdays I try to intersperse the mundane, boring, serious workday with humor and playfulness in an attempt to not feel dragged down by the hideousness of capitalism. I try to force myself to go to the studio after work but am often thwarted by my tired body.
On studio days I like to enjoy leisurely mornings to a bowl of oatmeal with an array of toppings (raisins, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, yogurt, apple sauce, cinnamon and blueberries) and a cup of coffee. I like to sit and think at the breakfast table with the radio on. Thinking often takes the form of drawing or writing. Then I’ll bike or walk to the studio where I’ll spend the rest of the day. In general I find routines very stabilizing and think that I thrive under them – but I have trouble setting them for myself and I like having the freedom to meander a little too. I love making my bed every morning!
Do you look to other artists for inspiration or do you find that your creative process is renewed by looking outside of the art world? Or both?
I do find it inspiring to look at other artists, but I would say the majority of my interest lies outside of the art world. I think it’s interesting and important to experience art as an alternative viewpoint, and that’s probably what I find most inspiring about seeing other artists work. Most of my inspiration comes out of paying attention to everyday things that are happening all the time.
Who are some artists that have influenced your work, or even inspired you to turn in a new direction?
In terms of painters, Diebenkorn, De Kooning, Bacon, Beckman, and Guston had a big impact on me – and of those, Guston probably had the largest influence. Allison Schulnik, Amy Feldman, and Carroll Dunham are a few contemporary painters I’ve found interesting and influential.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I’m currently reading a book about invertebrates by Sue Hubbell called Waiting for Aphrodite: journey into the time before bones, which is very fascinating. I’ve been enjoying the pod cast On Being with Krista Tippett, and seem to be rediscovering the music of TV on the Radio. I’ve always really liked British comedy and just finished watching Toast of London, which I loved and is totally strange and absurd. I’ve also been watching Who is America? with Sacha Baron Cohen.
What do you do when you need a break or have to let off steam?
I like listening to a good song at high volume and spontaneously dancing. I recently bought myself a nice pair of binoculars and have been going to my roof to look at the planets and moon. I like going to parks, walking, and looking at birds. I’ve been trying to get better at giving myself days of leisure where I allow myself to do very little. I also turn to yoga, which is something I’d like to do more of – in general I like to find ways to relax. I like hikes, picking blueberries, finding a good swimming hole or just talking on the phone with my best friend Maria! Sex is pretty fun too.
Can you share any career highlights or challenges, and what you learned from them?
I worked at the Vermont Studio Center for two-and-a-half years, and that was surely a highlight, mostly for the people I met and friends I made. It was also a moment where I had time, space, and the support of my peers to question things and experiment within my life.
Maybe the most challenging thing has been moving to, and living in, New York City over the past five years and then realizing it may not be what I want; to let go of the ideal of what I thought this place might be for me. What I’ve learned from this has something to do with an increasing acceptance of myself. In different ways, both the Vermont Studio Center and New York City gave me permission to develop and become who I want to be.
Can you tell us a little bit about your studio space, and how you like to get work done? What are some of the things that are important to you in your day to day process of being in the studio? For example, can you work among chaos or do you need to have everything in its place?
I usually like to start drawing and/or writing before I come to the studio. I like not being burdened by the objects of the studio and there is less pressure to come up with something when I’m working in a sketchbook. I’ve always been a little envious of writers in that they seem free of objects in their process; that their studio can essentially be a note pad and pen. While walking or biking to the studio I like looking at people, trash in the street, and new graffiti that pops up or gets removed.
Often when I get to the studio I put down my things and end up leaving for another walk – maybe for a coffee or to get some food. I find this a little odd as it’s not the most efficient use of time but it’s just another moment to think and have a wander.
After all this programmed procrastination I get started pretty quickly. One thing that helps me is having raw materials on hand – like a stack of paper and all my paints out in front of me. I like labeling the tops of my jars of paint with the name of the color.
My studio tends to grow chaotic over time; things accumulate and eventually become stale from sitting for too long. This can often coincide with my work needing to shift in some way and I’ll then clean house by taking out all the trash and removing old work from the walls.
I almost always listen to music while I paint, and will take small breaks while I’m working. I like sitting on the fire escape and recently befriended a pigeon who built her nest in a flower pot. I’ve been watching her tend her eggs, which recently hatched, and I like talking to her while watching things pass below.
Is there anything that really sets the mood in the studio?
The mood seems highly connected to the headspace I try to create for myself, and when I start working I feel like my focus funnels in on the painting I’m making. I don’t concern myself too much with the surrounding room itself, although I do sometimes think I could use some better lighting.
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
I like music. I listen mostly – but I like writing jingles, and singing too. I enjoy comedy and humor a lot, tricks and practical jokes. Soft poodles, freckles, and rainbows are all great. Mostly I like nature, looking at the stars, watching birds, etc. Reading is pretty cool too.
What is your personal relationship to social media? Do you find that it supports your work, and your growth, or that it’s dangerous to your creative process? Do you use it solely personally or for professional reasons as well?
I’ve always treated social media as a useful tool, and Instagram in particular seems like a great tool for artists. Before social media, when I was in high school, a teacher told me about this artist she knew who loved television for the simple reason that he had the power to turn it off. I found this to be a pretty profound thought and I tend to treat social media with the same idea, that essentially it’s mine to use how I want. Overall I do feel like it’s supported my work and career and I mostly use it in a professional capacity, but I do also like the ability to share things of interest with friends.
In your opinion, what are some of the benefits and detriments of social media in relation to the art world? How has technology changed things, even in the last few years?
I like to think that social media is giving more access to opportunity. Maybe technology and social media in their current state tend to steal our attention, but that seems deeply connected to how capitalism functions. I don’t know how it affects the art world in general. The structures of the art world seem deeply entrenched to me and I’m not convinced technology will change that. I think of technology and social media as having the potential to enhance things.
Are there any accounts you follow that you love?
I usually enjoy @aspring232actress ‘s story, @colorblindbowen is a pretty funny guy, @phishshtix occasionally posts strangely humorous oddities, and @buzz_macallister always seems to be conjuring up cool drawings.
Do you turn off your phone while you work?
No! I actually love talking on the phone while I work, especially with my best friend Maria!! A lot of paintings have developed out of the conversations I’ve had over text and talk.
Is there any advice from your past that really resonated with you?
Not really. Most of the advice I’ve received I had to abandon and replace with my own reevaluated understanding.
You seem to return to the same distinctive features—like a hand or a foot—repeatedly. Can you talk to us a little bit about creating your own iconography or in some respect visual touchstones?
I’ve always enjoyed looking at and drawing from the human form. Initially I think I liked the challenge of drawing hands and feet, but in addition to that they hold a lot of symbolic and expressive potential that I like to take advantage of. I spent a lot of time in Europe, Italy in particular, and always found the missing parts and fragments of figurative sculpture fascinating, and I think that’s where I started thinking about them as singular parts.
I came to the idea of creating a personal iconography first through Max Beckman and then Philip Guston, and also Giorgio de Chirico, who was a big influence on Guston. I’ve always struggled with choosing what to paint and I liked how those guys made symbols for themselves, so I thought coming up with my own iconography might ground me and give me a cast of characters to pull from. In the last few years I’ve focused more on asking myself what I actually like and what is of interest to me. The answer to that can be as simple as an abstract shape to as complex as a gnarled hand. I’m mostly trying to hone my attention and notice when something strikes my interest – and I draw those things. Those things seem to be all over the place but can still be difficult to notice.
What specific function does paint serve as a medium, and do you ever consider other forms such as drawing, etc.?
I used to really love the sensuality of oil paint and kind of lusted over its potential fleshiness. More recently I’ve been using Flashe, which has a much different feel, and I think I simply enjoy it for its color and texture. Mostly paint serves my personal enjoyment; I like using it. I like drawing a lot too, it’s where all my paintings start, but I don’t have much impulse to make anything other than paintings at the moment - maybe a film one day.
I personally love clouds and find them to be extremely fascinating and meditative—can you talk a little bit about your own feelings about clouds and why you return to them as a motif?
I like how paintings and clouds are similar in that they’re both objects that are mostly viewed and not really touched, which almost makes them not objects in my mind. They also both obfuscate things and we visually make things out of clouds, which is what you do when you paint, you’re making things up.
I’m also interested in how we visually replicate something like a cloud, and maybe draw it, and how we come to recognize what a cartoon shape of a cloud looks like, and we agree collectively that the cartoon of a cloud is a cloud. I often look up at the sky and look for clouds that look like cartoon clouds and find that real clouds don’t really look like cartoon clouds. I think it’s interesting how symbols of things can replace the actual things they represent and kind of bend or abstract our understanding.
Could you expand upon the decision to incorporate hands and feet in your work? What is your relationship to the body in general, and how does that translate into your work?
I feel like the body allows us to do things in the physical world but it also can be extremely limiting. The body parts in my work are an exaggeration of that idea—the parts are disconnected from the body, which further limits their ability. There’s a limit and weight built into their agency.
I feel like humor is hugely important in your work and wanted to know if you would agree with that—and if so, what is your relationship to humor? Does it speak to your larger perception of the “art world”?
Yes, I totally agree with that. I like joking around and want that to be included in the work I make. I think humor is super important and try to include it in as many moments of my life as possible, I think it’s one of the few places we can find relief. Also, I think we tend to take much of life too seriously, and I think it’s important to expose those moments with humor. I feel a little confused by the general meaning of the term “art world” but I’m pretty sure it takes itself way too seriously.
Your use of color is fantastic. Do you feel that you have a strong relationship to color? How do create a color scheme for a piece? Is it based in mood or aesthetics or something else?
I think color is fantastic and a super enjoyable experience. I like how colors interact with each other, and specifically with painting how they interact through layers. I tend to look at what I’m making and visualize colors in my head and then try to replicate that with actual paint and make adjustments as the painting evolves. I also like challenging my color sensibility by trying to use combinations that I haven’t used before.
Is personal narrative a facet of your work?
Sometimes, I do process things that are happening in my life through the work and so a version of personal narrative often makes its way in.
You have said that a “large part of what I’ve been exploring in my work has to do with the way humans' brains seem to simplify the things we observe and encounter in order for us to more easily assimilate and/or cope with what is happening.” Can you expand a bit on that?
I simplify forms in my work to emphasize and expose the nuance and complexity of things. I think that’s a natural human trait; that we simplify in order to grasp things, but that can unfortunately fool us into thinking we know all there is to know about a thing, and I think it’s important to reexamine and continue questioning. To look at a cloud in one of my paintings you might at first say “oh, there’s a cloud!”, but on further examination you start to see that maybe it has a clumsy, flat, solid three dimensional form with crisp edges. That version of a cloud doesn’t really match the experience of real cloud. Through this I’m making images that hopefully get us to probe and think and wonder and exercise and expand our capacity to experience.
Your exaggerated forms are really fascinating in that they seem to be taking on a huge symbolic importance. What is their function in your work?
I like to think of the forms as literally embodying and carrying the weight of the symbolism they take on. They’re almost like stubborn characters desperately trying to hold onto their own meaning. I think what I find interesting is how symbols turn into truths for people, and how hard a person might try to staunchly uphold these inherited or unexamined meanings while ignore a more nuanced experience or reality. I like symbols, but they can become heavy and burdensome and the exaggeration of my forms is an aid in reminding us of that in some way.
In some ways, art is constantly pushing us to figure out the most basic questions, such as who we are and personal identity. Do you see that happening in your work, or that it’s attempting to understand, question or explain something about society as a whole?
A lot of the objects in my work are in parts or fragments; I’m potentially picking things apart or putting them back together to try and understand something that’s just as much nothing. A lot of the objects are ungraspable or ephemeral and I’m pinning them down in some way as if to say, “This is it!” when nothing is really ever “it.” I think we have particular understandings of our fading experiences and I try to find ways of recording the binding feelings they create.
Lastly, I’m really in love with your piece Elements and was hoping you could talk about the background of that piece, where it came from, and what the process of creating it was like?
Elements started with the question “what are the bare necessities or the essentials of being a person and/or artist?” I think that’s kind of a ridiculous question because there is no one tool kit that is going to fit the needs of everyone, but I used the painting to jest out an answer for myself. I considered the idea that perhaps my hair was a part of my identity and maybe I needed that to be a person, or that as a painter I needed all the colors of the rainbow. These are really just absurd personal jokes– absurd answers to an absurd question in an attempt to also have fun with what I’m making. The other elements of the painting are a pair of chucky, building block-like shapes, and a hand in the background that seems to be corralling everything together, maybe in an attempt to make something coherent out of all this nonsense.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
My brother’s band Geranium Drive recently released a new EP and I was excited to contribute a piece for the cover art. I just brought four new paintings over to Harpy gallery in New Jersey and am looking forward to seeing what he’s got planned for them. Mostly I’ve been thinking about leaving New York and moving back to Vermont to focus on the parts of my life that I feel are neglected here in New York. Other than that I’m always looking for new opportunities.
To find out more about Austin and his work, check out his website.