In The Studio With Paul Cooley
Paul Cooley first made a splash in the New York City graffiti scene in 2012 when the storefront of Louis Vuitton was vandalized. Over the past seven years, he has consistently shown during Art Basel, Miami, become a permanent part of Iowa State University’s public collection, and executed a nomadic curatorial project that is reminiscent of Warhol’s ’90s Factory scene. Cooley describes his work as autobiographical—with references to coping with his anxiety, depression, and previous struggles with addiction and homelessness. While those extenuating circumstances extend into his artwork, they certainly do not define it. In fact, since the conception of Cooley’s artistic career he has worked tirelessly to express ideas that are honest. Cooley is someone to root for. He’s incredibly sincere and multi-talented, with projects that span across various mediums, and a person to follow as his influence continues to grow.
What year did you vandalize the Louis Vuitton storefront, and why did you choose to vandalize it? Were you afraid of the repercussions?
In my experience it’s usually best to leave fear out of the equation especially if you are vandalizing something. Nothing sticks out more than a paranoid criminal. The LV store is so picturesque. It’s an old building on a cobblestone street in SoHo. It just looks beautiful, that photo that went around on Tumblr in 2012 was pure magic. I don’t know who painted it but I would imagine their intentions were mostly aesthetic.
Have you always wanted to be an artist? Why did you start painting?
Becoming an artist was an evolution for me. I didn’t always have the goal of being an artist, but I’ve always been one. After my graffiti buzz in 2012 my focus was a clothing brand. Eventually it started to suck. I didn’t like the direction things were going, it wasn’t as honest as I wanted. I was already painting because people were buying thanks faces, so I naturally started to explore other ideas with painting. Through this process I realized that I could be myself with painting; that I could be honest. Then I just became fully obsessed.
Was it an intimidating or freeing process to be self-trained?
At first it was easy and freeing. I would credit a lot of my early success to not knowing the rules and not caring. Once I learned all the rules, some self-doubt set in. Now, I’m surrounded by painters with MFAs, and it’s hard sometimes. I overthink things more. There’s an actual term in the art world for someone like me, who is self-taught: an outsider. But I am happy to be an outsider. I was lucky to have so many people who identified with my story. Now that I am in some more important collections it’s like, who the fuck am I? I have to continue to do the things I did in the beginning while I push forward into new ideas, and it’s a struggle.
What do you mean doing the things you did?
I just have to keep being honest with myself and forget the rules—not overthink it. The work will get better naturally without me overthinking it, but it can definitely be hard to continue being a “wide eyed explorer” when this has become more of a career path.
From following your work over the past seven years, I saw that you once lived in Florida. What made you decide to leave New York City?
I didn’t really decide to move there. I hit a bottom in 2010. I was a drug addict and basically had ruined my life at that point. I come from a good family, so I basically woke up in a rehab in Virginia because they drove me there. It was a very Bible-thumping rehab it sucked . . . . I was dope sick for weeks, beating people up and breaking shit. They kicked me out like two weeks in because I was not complying. After being kicked out, I was living on the streets in Richmond, and sometimes I got a spot in a homeless shelter. Then I got in touch with an old friend who was studying social work at Florida State University, and she got me on a bus down to Tallahassee. So moving was not really a choice it was my only option. It was because of this person who helped me. She saved my life in a way. She would drive me to meetings every night; and eventually, she let me use her car when she was in class. I found a job doing night audits at a hotel, which had a lot of downtime, that’s when I got a sketch book and rekindled some drawing practice. It feels like that was the starting point of my second life.
How has it been maintaining sobriety?
It’s been hard. Left to my own devices, I would self-destruct. I was able to get clean and stay clean by going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. That was the only thing that worked for me because when you go there, it’s just a room full of other drug addicts, not using drugs. The basic text of NA says that one addict helping another is without parallel, and that’s absolutely true. That’s the only thing that has worked, and I still go to meetings. Not as often as I probably should, but I’m still a work in progress.
On your website, you describe your work as autobiographical—with reference to coping with your anxiety and depression. Does your inspiration come from the struggle of coping with your past and present challenges, or are you inspired by moving past your previous hardships?
No. My inspiration doesn’t have to come from a place of hardship. I would say I am often inspired when the solution comes. Problems and challenges are easy to find. The solution is usually much more inspiring.
When you paint, are you looking to express an answer?
I suppose the answer is yes, but that’s definitive. That’s an end goal, and I try not to have an end goal when I start painting. I don’t have all the answers and some of the best answers in my life have come from keeping an open mind. If my mind is open those answers can come right in the middle of the process and that is totally spiritual. It’s not something my human mind could conjure up. If the viewer finds answers in my paintings they are not answers I am giving, but answers I have received.
The reason it’s hard to make a good painting is because we have this human logic that tells us we know things. We don’t know shit! The best paintings come when I can get my ego out of the room. My ego is that thing telling me I’m some sort of genius who has something to say. I’m not a genius. I got here because I didn’t care how anything would be received. I wasn’t thinking about status or critical acclaim. It was just honesty that got me here.
Do you still feel that way now that you have learned the rules and have this circle of friends that are MFA painters? Do you not care about getting critical acclaim?
Of course I care about getting critical acclaim. Dude it sucks! It’s terrible. I think about that all the time. But critical acclaim will never come while I’m aiming for it.
How was the transition from being an artist who gets curated to curating other artists? Was that a completely different headspace?
It’s much different, yes. I started a curatorial project that I’ve been working on for the past two years. I just did this big show in Brooklyn with 13 artists who are all emerging rockstars, and hundreds of people came to the opening. Honestly it was pretty insane and I feel huge amounts of gratitude for the artists. I work for them. They make it work.
The hardest part is the logistics that people don’t see. Shipping, stretching, moving big work, and dealing with all the unforeseen issues. Then there’s managing the expectations of artists, haha. I am learning a lot.
What are some of your goals?
That’s a hard question because you would think that someone who is hardworking and ambitious would have all these goals, but I don’t have specifics for you. I have started to build a reputation and I get new opportunities in my inbox regularly. My goals in general are to support my family, not burn any bridges, continue my process of recovery, and keep myself and my artwork honest.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
Work hard, do not give up, and pay your dues. A lot of the time, people just want to see that you’re still here.
Images courtesy of Karl Rosello
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