In Conversation With Darin Cooper | Episode 29

January 4, 2024
© Darin Cooper's studio. Image: Josh Shaw, Modern Masterpiece Photography
© Darin Cooper's studio. Image: Josh Shaw, Modern Masterpiece Photography

Hi Darin! Let’s go back to the roots. How did you understand that you would like to devote your life to art? Was there any pivotal moment when you decided that you wanted to become an artist?


When I was in high school, I originally studied photography. I took a photography class and I fell in love with taking pictures of my friends and family members. Eventually I started getting hired for events, for school, and for other events. Then I applied for a photography program at School of Visual Arts in New York, which I am still attending. I did that for a couple of years and then COVID happened, and suddenly I could no longer take pictures of people because of the requirements. So, I did portrait photography, but I had never picked up a paint brush before then. When COVID began, I was just home, bored, and I just started to paint. But I wasn’t good at all and I hated that I wasn’t good, as I am very competitive. I just painted every day until I finally found my painting technique.


Meaning that pandemic for you was a pivotal moment, a new beginning. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have found yourself on this completely new artistic path.


Yes, exactly! If it wasn’t the pandemic, maybe I would still be making images. Although I was making conceptual fine art before, like conceptual photography. So, I would still be somewhere in the art world, I guess, but yeah, pandemic did become a starting point.


You are currently obtaining a BFA from The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. Have you changed your discipline after you had decided to develop yourself as an artist rather than a photographer? To which extent does the university correlate with your current artist practice?


After COVID-19 we returned to our studies, which though ran online via Zoom. In my class, on the photography program I was the only one doing paintings, which was very difficult, obviously, so I eventually made a switch to Fine Arts. At school we first had to do traditional drawing classes. We had people coming and sitting nude and we were sketching them for 15 minutes, etc. But as for me, I rarely draw anyway. So, for me it was just something which is nice to have, but nothing more. And as for the painting class, I had figuration painting there, but I don’t paint figuratively. The SVA is a very interesting place, because they only teach you traditional techniques of painting, unless you really ask for something else. It was very frustrating, to be very honest, because I have paid thousands of dollars… So, I went in, kind of doing my own thing, just studying the artists who I like and going to museums, while the school has helped me to put the cherry on top, so to say. The best thing that I have got out of my education at SFA is meeting my friends Emmanuel and Ryan, who was also participating at the group show (editor’s note: at Bode Gallery). And it was everything – meeting them! So, for me school was more about building my network, and to be honest, that is what most colleagues are about. Now I am in the end of my program, graduating in two months. And a lot of the students are currently in this phase, when they are trying to figure out, what their final project is going to be about, what their art is about, what they are going to do after school… And I have just been fortunate, as I have done all this “heavy” work earlier. So, when the professors are asking me: “Darin, what your body of work is going to be about?”, I am answering: “Like all my art practice, that I have been doing for the past three years already”.


© Darin Cooper, Grillz, 2022, Acrylic, iron transfer, ink on muslin, 40 x 36 in. Image: Darin Cooper


You often turn to the collage technic, incorporating photos, images, or even wooden sculptures into your canvases. How did you come up with this technic? Have you been to any extent inspired by Dadaists and their experiments with collages, especially photomontage?


I guess, it was not so much Dada. I mean, I dealt at some point with early collage artists - Robert Rauschenberg was definitely one of them, and also Jasper Johns. But you know, I come from the photography background, so a big part of me, - as I have been doing photography since I was 14, - still belongs to photography, so I still wanted to have photography elements somewhere in my practice. These printmaking and collage were just something that I kept inside of me, and in the end, it just became part of my practice – painting with imagery. I didn’t want to take images anymore, so I dealt with archives, and a lot of my images are from YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok. As for the wooden sculptures – this is where the good part is about having cool friends – because they also make work. My friend Emmanuel works a lot with sculpture, including African wooden sculpture. So, he just helped me do it. I was thinking, what if I put the figures into the painting, that would be cool! And I am surely making my way into sculpture, and it was a nice intro to it.

And that would be exactly my next question - about the archive images and photos that you use. Do they come from your family archive? Or do you prefer not to deal with your personal experience and would rather choose some neutral unfamiliar protagonists for your paintings?


In fact, the protagonists of my works have nothing to do with my family’s past. There are no images of my family. I normally use images that have a cultural impact, and I reference them to speak about my life. It is more a symbolic meaning. I got inspired by other people’s experiences and then talk about how they relate to my experiences. Besides I am very interested about how the Black culture spreads on the Internet.


Describing one of your works (“Horsepower”) you have mentioned that you were interested in the history of Black cowboys in the South. Are there any other historical references and backgrounds in your works?


For sure! The Western cowboy references and talking about cowboys, how are they supposed to look and who they are – that is one of the biggest historical references for me. But I also deal with religion as well, pulling narratives from images of people at church, or people celebrating religion in different ways. My practice is surely connected to history, but I would say I mostly deal with history within the last twenty years. This contemporary history is like my life, that is the NOW, which I am interested about. I have noticed, how Black and African artists tend to reference older history, events from sixty years ago or a hundred years ago. And I thought, but we also need to talk about modern history, for instance, how the South changed in the 2000s. Therefore, I would say, I reference both of them – the old and the new history.


This interest to history arose while I was developing my art practice. At first, I was making literally the worst paintings in the world – I will never show them. Then I started to make these tissue paintings. And the point where I stay now – how I use watercolor, acrylic and the colorful painting method – I used to do all this but on tissues, while I was talking about Black joy and Black sadness. Then I moved from that material, as I wanted to deal with concrete, because my dad worked with it, installing floors. And then he passed, and it was a reference that I was constantly using. However, one day I thought, well, I love my dad and I miss him, but I don’t want to talk about him in my art for the rest of my career. So, I started thinking, what else I could talk about. I started looking for new topics. In the end, I just decided that this history could become that topic. And I felt deeply about it. When I get back home, to the South, I just pick up inspiration there every time.


© Darin Cooper's studio. Image: Josh Shaw, Modern Masterpiece Photography


And do current political and social narratives influence your art?


Yes, a hundred per cent! I deal with American narratives only, because what I know best of all is the South, the Black South – it is where I grew up. That is all I can really speak about. That is my life.


Last year you were resident at the Macedonia Institute Residency. Could you please tell us more about this experience – how did it affect your practice? Would you like to participate in artist-in-residence programs in the future?


That was my first residency, and the first residency can become either the first or the last. For me personally Macedonia was a great residency, because I have heard from other people about their residency experiences… Mine was not correlated with a gallery, so it was nice, but when it is correlated with the gallery, it can be a little stressful. So, I went to the middle of nowhere, living in the woods, my neighbor was two miles away. I was there for myself for a whole month, I really had a lot of time to reflect, and there was a moment of piece. I would say, it definitely made me think about new ideas – I just had time to think, I had time to experiment with new materials in my studio there. And I was actually the youngest person at this residency program. They usually choose people who are on their Master’s, more established artists. And when they found out they said: “Oh, really, are you still an undergraduate?” And I said: “Yes”. And they were like: “What??” I guess they just never asked me. And in the future, I will be definitely applying for other residency programs. I would love to participate in a residency again, as it was very impactful to my work. Every artist must go and participate in it!


Last year was a breakthrough for you – you have had your first international shows in Berlin and Rome. Is there any difference in the way your art has been perceived by the local vs. international audience? Do you see these distinct settings influence your work?


I went to Italy and to other show in London, which I also was part of. I would say that in Italy, in Rome it was more difficult, because of the language barrier. However, people who came to the show, they loved it! The hardest part was, I guess, to explain my art to them, because of the cultural difference, as they are not really aware of the context and of the historical background. I am from the deep South of America, which is an entirely different culture. But as I said, visually people loved it. And as for London, that was truly fantastic. A great show, very crowded, and people understood my art, once I explained it. There is no language barrier. I think my work has been very well perceived there, apparently people in London liked me a lot.


And what would you say comparing New York and London art scene?


Actually, they are very similar. However, the art scene in New York runs a little bit under the motto: “You can do anything”, while London tends to stick to the rules. In London they really look precisely at your work and care a lot about its quality, what materials you use, etc. I would say it is fancier in a way, more prestigious. London still wants you to make more traditional art. And New York is just like: “Do whatever you want”, which is cool of course.


© Darin Cooper, Cosmic travel (Diptych), Acrylic, ink, collage, iron transfer, pencil, on muslin, 80 x 40 in. Image: Darin Cooper


Talking about your favorite artists, you have mentioned that you admire Jack Whitten, Radcliffe Bailey and Sam Gilliam. Did you have a chance to meet them? If you had a chance, what would you have asked about their practice?


I have met a few of them, Radcliffe Bailey, e.g., and immidiately connected with his work. Jack Whitten died a year before I moved to New York, and imagine, he taught in my school! So, I would definitely have met him there. Sam Gilliam has recently passed… And I have also met Kevin Beasley, who is also a great artist from Virginia.


What other things could you call your sources of inspiration? Any hobbies or activities that play a part in your practice?


The thing that does inspire me, besides art, is music - a hundred per cent! I always listen to the music while I am painting, I can hardly get without it. Also, American movies, especially Southern movies, because I often find references there for my work and tend to go to movies mostly because of that. Now someone is playing a show in Atlanta soon and I am thinking of going there to get inspiration, because that is deep-deep South! So, I get my inspiration, visualizing staff, going to the places I haven’t been before. And environment is a big part of my inspiration as well, being in environment, seeing what is going on, etc.


And last but not least. Could you please tell us about your upcoming projects and plans? What are you currently working on? What is the most extraordinary project, you would like to bring into life one day in the future?


This year I have my first solo show in New York City, which is insane. Everybody comes and you know, it will either make you or break you. I also have a few more projects that I am currently working on – with you, guys, and also a couple of more shows, that I am going to be in. This year I am also going to get brand collabs, like working with fashion industry. Since my work is very colorful, it kind of fits fashion in a way. Moreover, I was doing fashion photography before. So, everything is interconnected in a way, and everything is coming around. My life is very interconnected indeed. Maybe I will be commissioned by a company and will be doing public projects, public art. And I am going to try that my art becomes part of a museum collection – being at least in one is my goal. So, being in a museum – that would be a great plan for this year!


Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova