Making a Trade: A Conversation with Patrick Coughlin Interview by Jordan Rockford

Making a Trade: A Conversation with Patrick Coughlin

Interview by Jordan Rockford

Patrick Coughlin hails from the farm lands of western NY. He received his BFA from Syracuse University and his MFA at the University of Florida. Patrick has been a resident artist at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts where he is now an acting board member. Prior to moving to Philadelphia Patrick lived and worked in Jingdezhen, the ceramic center of China. As an assistant in the design studio he worked with local craftsmen in the production of design goods for a global market. Currently Patrick is adjunct faculty at St Joseph’s University, as well as lecturer and ceramic area supervisor at The University of the Arts. His work has primarily focused on objects of material culture and their relation to process, heritage and domestic spaces.

Jordan Rockford: Let’s start with you. How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Patrick Coughlin: It’s a thing that’s been in flux – vacillating back and forth between crafts person versus artist – and they can be two very different things. I guess I would describe myself as a sculptor who works primarily in craft traditions, but that’s more based on the wheelhouse of things that I’m interested in that just naturally lends itself to craft disciplines. Talking about labor and where things come from, it’s just a natural manifestation that I would be interested in the process and labor of craft.

JR: What led you to clay, and would you consider it your primary medium?

PC: I feel like sometimes I’m in an abusive relationship with clay. I feel like I’ve broken up with clay so many times and we’ve gotten back together. But it is definitely the place where I have the most technical ability, knowledge and experience.

I hadn’t touched clay until my undergrad at Syracuse. I started as a painting major, so that was my entrance to art. It’s a great painting program at Syracuse, but it’s super conceptual, very cerebral, and at that point in time I wasn’t really ready to have that very conceptual discussion about why I was painting things. A ceramics class fit into my schedule, and from day one it was: this is how you make it, this is how it’s made well and this is how it’s made poorly and there was something about those boundaries and rules that I found to be much more freeing than the painting class.

Later I was living in China and it had the best crafts people that you will ever see. I realized that the material and the process doesn’t matter as much as what you’re going to do with it, because I could find someone who is cheaper, faster, better than I could be at making anything. The thing that became most important was what I was going to do with that medium, so that was the real big shift from the thought process of “how do I make this idea work in clay?” to “what is my idea and what is the material that’s going to best suit that?” So that’s how I’ve gotten into things like embroidery, upholstery, woodworking – these other crafts or domestic home goods traditions. But it was through ceramics that I was able to get a really solid grasp on how to enter into these other disciplines.

I think it was Ron Nagle who said that ceramics is at both times sacred and profane. Think of Chinese porcelains that are incredibly ornate, detailed, and precise versus things like Voulkos’ monolithic, visceral, very physical objects – the material has this ability to translate into so many different emotive contents of form, line and surface, and it’s really the only medium that deals directly with two dimensions and three dimensions at the same time. The ceramic surface isn’t finished until it has this two dimensional application given to it – sometimes it’s very pictorial, sometimes a glazed or cold finish. But I do like that idea that it’s the sacred and the profane: it’s your toilet and it’s also a Longquan vase. It’s all housed in the same spectrum of ceramics.

JR: What are some of your major creative influences?

PC: My background was in a farm community, very salt-of-the-earth people, who do things that have direct impact on other people’s lives. I’m working with a material that comes from the earth, so there’s this connection to my family heritage. The house I grew up in was built by my great-great uncle and only members of my family have ever lived there, so I was always surrounded by objects of the past that had this really strong story. I didn’t see them as mine, I saw myself as being a steward for these objects. I think we have a tendency as young people to think we are the pinnacle of our line, whereas at a very young age I saw myself as part of a continuum: “I’m here, and a hundred years from now someone’s going to be looking at my objects.” So it was very important to me that these objects were preserved so that the people who came before me would still exist, which is probably why I make objects, because it’s a way of leaving a legacy. In a lot of ways I feel like I am the baroque version of a farmer – I’ve become this odd thing, making tools out of dirt.

In terms of artistic influences, architecture is one of the most interesting things that I think about – I’m really fascinated with how classical architecture culminated in modernism. This idea of how things evolve and change over time, where you can still see that it is of the same family, but it has become such an amazing caricature of the original intent. I love that process of change and evolution.

I also really like the work of Kehinde Wiley, who paints traditional Renaissance-inspired portraiture, but with contemporary black figures against these very opulent backdrops, posed in this very traditional way. There’s something that’s super racially charged in these minority figures sitting in front of all of the history of Renaissance pattern and power – because that’s also what it comes down to: pattern and decoration are all about power. So putting those figures in front of that is talking about this amazing interaction between who has power, who is the oppressor, and who has been oppressed. There’s some really interesting interplay – and they’re also just some of the most beautifully opulent painted pictures.

JR: You talk about pattern and decoration in relation to power – tell me more about that.

PC: The purpose of pattern and decoration – especially with functional objects – is to give them importance. Take any tool – even think about a prehistoric tool like a bone hammer, meant for a very basic use – as soon as you start incising lines and patterns, it elevates it into an object of importance. They’ve chosen to spend the time to give this object value and cultural significance beyond the function of the tool itself. I also think of the Renaissance courts displaying their magnificence through objects of gold, silver and porcelain, because those were the most highly sought after materials. All that gold and silver was not only beautiful but also represented militaristic power and control over a domain, because it could be melted down to fund an army. All of these wonderfully opulent decorated objects speak to the idea of power and importance. In the Eurocentric cultural milieu, if you have wealth and power and you want to show it off, that’s one of the ways in which it was done historically – by having opulent decorative objects. So in the evolution of home goods, that’s why we have curio cabinets and hutches as these places where we display our curiosities and baubles: it’s a direct outcome of this idea of displaying power and wealth.

JR: So, aside from the historical significance of pattern and decoration, why does it appeal to you and what makes it such a central aspect of your work?

PC: I find there to be such sensuality in pattern, which is why I’m interested in it. Pattern is very much about desire, about beauty and attraction. There are allusions to the body and the physicality of making things. People now live in a world where they’ve never been asked to have a real relationship to the physical, or to know how things are made or where things come from. And I feel in some regards we’re really losing sensuality, a real physical relationship to ourselves and how our bodies relate to the world.

JR: I’m interested in your choice of materials. Why pair upholstery with ceramics?

PC: That’s a newer material relationship that I’m still feeling out, but there’s something about the hard and soft together. As a conceptual space, making the handles soft, plush, and furniture-like creates an immediate, subconscious body relationship that you’d have in a very different way if it were completely ceramic, completely hard material. I feel like you’re immediately dealing with pressure and touch so where you touch the handle also becomes this very sensual act, but you’re not actually ever going to touch it. I think in the mind’s eye you have this perceived idea of it being this very sensual experience. Ceramic is a material that transforms from dirt into permanent objects. Earthenware is the clay that’s most accessible to building large sculpturally, but it’s also historically known as the poor man’s clay. If you think about the spectrum of value of material, porcelain was at one time worth more than the weight of gold, whereas earthenware was something they made gutters and storm-drains out of – it’s considered one of the lowest of materials. The tools themselves are low-value cultural objects, made in low-value clay, transformed into opulent, oversized objects. I find there’s something really interesting in that interplay between values that we give things. I’m interested in having people reassess the value of labor, the value of these objects in our lives. I’m trying to talk about these things as sexy, seductive, beautiful practices, because it’s not just the objects themselves that are beautiful but also the practices we commit with them.

JR: How does this new work relate to your earlier work?

PC: Instead of dealing with the very specific heritage of my family, I’m dealing with our collective cultural heritage of labor. We used to be a nation of doers and makers and producers. It was an interesting thing to move to China, to a city that was a production factory city, to live in a place that is actually making, doing, producing, and then to come back to the US. In the city where I was in China, there is no way in which you could not be aware of production, work, and labor because it was constantly around you, every facet of life was part of that structure, whereas here we’re in a world of leisure and commodity and ease, where we have no idea that carrots come out of the ground.

JR: You describe the work in this exhibition as “delving into the permeable boundaries of the domestic, the industrial, and the carnal.” Boundaries can be thought of as things that divide, but more often they’re a meeting point. How are you envisioning that these three things meet in your work?

PC: In the Venn diagram of those three circles, I’m interested in where they all overlap because we have a tendency to very easily genderize labor: there’s certain labor that is considered more masculine or feminine. I’ve made the most prominent objects domestic tools of the home, which would traditionally be associated with feminine labor. Surrounding them are these industrial, masculine tools. I want them to exist in that same realm; I want to subvert the value hierarchy we give to men’s labor over women’s labor.

Thankfully, we live in a time when those gender boundary lines have become very permeable. Children today are growing up without the same strict gender-defined roles that have existed for centuries. Every one of us falls in a different place on the spectrum of masculine and feminine. Through scale, I’m making hierarchical changes in reassessing the gender roles. There’s a lot of overlap that I’m interested in because I think people are most interesting when they are comfortable with those dualities within themselves.

The sensuality, or the carnal, brings it back to that idea that the interaction with tools enters us into the physical world and an awareness of our bodies.

JR: Structurally speaking, the boundaries of these objects are also permeable. Can you tell me about the use of latticework in these pieces?

PC: It’s this thing I’ve been interested in for a while. There’s something about obfuscation, of having only part of the story given to you and having to really search for the other parts of it, of things having an interior, hidden life. I’m trying to allude to that through this latticework. But I’m still really grappling with why I’m so continually drawn to things overlapping other things. I’m not totally aware of what is behind that, which is why I’m interested in continuing to make work like this because there’s something about discovering what that is through the making. The work isn’t answering it yet…

JR: Aside from what you’re exploring for yourself in this work, you talk a lot about purpose and intent. Often one’s intent behind making work is rather different from how one intends the work to be experienced by the viewer. How should viewers approach this exhibition?

PC: Oftentimes the functional object is a such a subversive thing in how it exists in our lives: it’s something we use every day without thinking about it, but it is something that has great physical, cultural, and personal power that we’re not always aware of. Some of the tools are clearly recognizable, while I think others are abstracted enough that they’re in a new context, so it’s asking the viewer to envision their interaction with these things, to consider their use and value. I want the viewer to come into that space being more aware of the power of the objects that we have, and the importance of where they come from and how those things are made – how everything in our life is something that is made.

JR: Tell me about the title of this exhibition, Tools of Trade.

PC: Tools of Trade is a law term that deals with bankruptcy: the “tools of trade” that are essential to a person’s livelihood cannot be part of the bargaining for repossession of one’s belongings. Tools of Trade also has some allusions to sex, to objects of desire… tools have always had phallic references, so it has just enough allusion to the sensual world, but also that these are inherently important objects to livelihood, even though they are presented as very decadent, opulent things.

JR: The sexual also is essential to our…

PC: …livelihood and wellbeing, yeah.

JR: But also from the standpoint of someone who is talking about feeling like a steward of heritage, the sexual is essential to….

PC: …propagation, yeah. The primacy of the species to survive.

Jordan Rockford is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Arts, where he teaches courses in critical studies and creative practices. He holds an M. Litt. in Art History from the University of St Andrews. Previous curatorial projects include David Adika: Equator at the Open Lens Gallery; Vuth Lyno: Thoamada at the William Way LGBT Community Center; Ryan Wilson Kelly: The Sleep of Reason and Chad States: Night Sweats at NAPOLEON.

 To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Coughlin_Rockford_Feb_2015.


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