Sarah Coote is an artist currently living in Richmond, VA. She received her BFA in Painting from Rhode Island school of Design in 2013 and is a first year candidate for her MFA in Painting + Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before moving to Richmond, she was an artist member at FJORD gallery in Philadelphia where she co-curated and exhibited her work at various venues such as Vox Populi, New Boone and Little Berlin Gallery among others. In 2014 she was a resident at Grin City Collective in Grinnell, Iowa.
I am questioning the complexity of experiencing pleasure in our bodies with images and found materials. I am researching the psychology of fantasy and role-play. It is important for me to understand that taking pleasure in touch and in our physical relationship with other beings exposes our true desires and the societal structures of power.
I am using acrylic paint and found materials including household decorating surfaces and rug mats. The found materials and their context are used in combination with paint to create layers of meaning and visual effects. These layers of meaning in the objects refer to their relationship they have with the touch and weight of human bodies in their everyday use. I am gathering source material from pornographic films, television interviews and personal archive. I am thinking about all the ways we are looking and touching, holding and being aware of the things that hold pieces in place.
Q&A with Sarah Coote
by Lydia O'Reilly
Hi Sarah! What is your art-making process like? Do you work with live models, or with photographs, or as an outside observer of candid scenes?
The imagery in my paintings come from photographs and video stills. Sometimes I will make a collage with the images and start a painting from there. However, a large part of my practice involves working with many layers on the surface, so I will start with a collage, paint the collage and then continue to develop the image, in the end the painting usually looks very different from the original photographic source.
Are there any artists, past or present, that you consider yourself to be in dialogue with?
I have always loved the politics involved with figurative painting, Bathsheba or the Interior of the Bible by Helen Cixous from her book Stigmata has been a central text for me. Artists such as Karen Kilimnik, Eduard Vuillard, Kathe Burkhart, Henry Taylor, Nicola Tyson, David Hockney are on a long list of favorites that keeps growing.
You work with surfaces and materials that seem to have a domestic connotation--rug mats, vinyl, floor tiles, and other found objects. What is the relationship between domestic life and fantasy/role-play?
I am drawn to working with domestic tools used for maintaining a home’s appearance (sponges, rug mats, wall paint colors, vinyl marble prints). I am drawn to their practical usage and symbolic weight.
For example, a rug mat is a really beautiful tool, it is used to keep a rug from sliding around on a wooden floor. The mats that I prefer using are made with synthetic foam and gridded netting. Once the mat is positioned on the floor with the rug on top, it does its hidden duty of holding. And when a body’s weight is on top of the rug the mat holds that weight too, it holds the weight without being touched. I am very interested in this idea, the poetics of the mat and its usage, and building textures and tactile surface with its material.
You have said that you gather source material from pornographic films, television interviews, and personal archives. These seem like very different sources, especially in regards to the division between a person's public and private life. Why did you choose these source materials?
Every part of my practice starts from personal experience, intuitive direction leading me to the thing. When I started the Teach me Something project, I was thinking about how my taste in fantastic storylines reflected my romantic life and what I wanted or gained from relationships. The schoolgirl storyline is one that is pretty standard, and all the videos I was sourcing images from are dated from the early 2000’s–2010. What I find interesting about using these videos, is that there is a clear power structure between a teacher and a student.
I wanted to pull apart that relationship and really analyze how it may be shifted or understood by using porn as a medium of plastic fantasy. The scene and the characters are already performing, I was recasting them and changing the script. To be a teenage girl can be a traumatizing era of concern over appearance and being desired or wanting to be desired, so to interrogate a fantasy that preys upon that insecurity and perpetuates misogyny is important to my 15 year old self still inside and screaming. This project is currently changing too, and I am investigating new inquiries on these issues.
Your mark-making is very heavy and vivid, and yet your subjects seem ethereal, ghost-like, floating in space (Matched, Lake Selfie, Prom). Is this related to your themes of touching vs. looking?
My relationship to my subjects in paintings is distanced, because I am looking at them through filtered versions of their bodies. I am sourcing the images from social media, Tinder and other places. I am trying to relate to their place, or think about the inner workings of their surfaces, this is why layering and expressive mark making are a huge component in my paintings.
Where does the realm of "sketching" or "preparatory" mark-making end, and the realm of "finished artwork" begin? Do artists rely too much on such an imagined separation?
This is tricky, I paint very fast and in short bouts. In my studio my preparatory work is research for the image which can take weeks or months, to paint the image is the fastest part of the process, but I have to feel confident in my ability to work with the image and interpret it through my gesture. When I finish the painting its a decision I make to leave the image behind and work forward with something else.
Your paintings have an enormous range in scale, from very small (Boston, Paul at the Sculpture Park) to very large (Small Holds). How does scale relate to your themes of holding and touching?
I like to work with miniature and play-scale (see: Office Party), and then larger-medium size scale closer to body size. Arrangement and order, with reference to play is important and something I revisit in my smaller works.
Related to that question, many of your small paintings depict large, open scenes, like landscapes, while your large paintings depict small, simple forms. It's kind of disconcerting. Is this intentional?
The larger paintings are painted in a completely different way than the smaller paintings. They reflect more of a psychological space in comparison, it is a reason why I use both scales in my work.
How does the use of text effect your visual statements (Your Special Girl, I Need You to be Fierce)?
I like the use of language in signage and working with its symbolic meaning. I like the associations you can reach with just a few words and an image, and how empty those reads can be.
What is the art community in Richmond like? Was it a strange transition from Providence?
After I graduated from RISD in 2013, I moved to Philadelphia and met the members of FJORD gallery where I eventually became a member. It’s an incredible city with many artist-run spaces and collectives. I met a lot of wonderful people there during the two years before starting at VCU. Richmond is a smaller city and a good place to be for graduate school. I am working on a curatorial project set to launch next week with two collaborators that will exhibit artists throughout the year in my house. Other than that, school takes up most of my time here, so I can’t say that I know Richmond as much as I would like.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Where can we see your work next?
I am showing this month at FJORD with some wonderful artists from Richmond and New York, also in Maake’s juried show in State College and then later this week Bruce Martin Gallery, a curatorial project I am co-directing will open and run throughout the year in Richmond, VA. Thanks for the thoughtful questions Lydia, and Maake Magazine!
To find out more about Sarah and her work, check out her website.