Like a snake biting its own tail, painting about painting is an act of ever-updated creation. In Cody Gunningham’s work, traditional references are interpreted into a new visual language. The alliance between old and new comes to life in domestic scenes where busts, skulls, flower vases and basketballs co-exist without reserve. In constructing his still life, the artist exposes himself through “things”, an indirect approach that brings into focus the world of possessed objects that come to create the physical version of our individuality. We talk to Gunningham about the evolution of his art, daily routines, first doodles and the joy of the unknown.
Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself?
I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a painter. Turning twenty six this August, excited to live another year. I graduated from college last spring and have been enjoying working in my studio, giving more to... art.
Do you remember your childhood doodles?
I do. I have a Polaroid, or 35mm, of my first art showing. It was an 11"x17" drawing of an underwater scene from a one point, hybrid perspective. It was titled, appropriately, “Water World”. I still doodle, it's just more... informed or aware. So it's drawing, and I still draw every day.
How do you feel your works have evolved? Why the transition from illustration to paintings?
The short answer is that all work must evolve, right? Painting, in my terms, has changed just as much as I have over the years. I became more aware. ‘Illustration’ or ‘drawing’ was the start, but painting has been the driving force in my idea of what art means to me. I just began to take it seriously in the last 6 years.
Many of your works seem to reference and reinterpret classic themes. What are your influences?
My work is about painting. I make paintings. The early and enduring influence is Picasso. I grew up in suburban America, saw Picasso in a museum with my mom and went straight to the library to acquire as many books as possible. Braque and Juan Gris soon followed. The influences have always been in painting. I suppose I just always wanted to paint. Illustration was the bridge between. Willem De Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman: when I first saw painters painting. Seeing Red Room in person, sitting with Marc Rothko, Steven Parrino’s vortex paintings, Philip Guston... I went deep into painting history, interested in everything I could get my hands on. Over the years, I started developing a taste and focus.
Can you tell us how you approach the still life & why it plays such a big role in your painting?
I think the objects we choose truly define how we are individuals. From the clothing we wear to the arrangement of our living spaces, the still life is an insight into a character, a feeling, a place. The still life doesn't take the place of a person as much as it shows that person in what they possess. I could never do what Rembrandt or Van Gogh did with self-portraits. I just knew painting myself was not in line with my objectives as a painter. It's not like I haven’t tried or that they were not "successful", but it just didn't feel right. I suppose I didn't want my ego or image in the work. There is a way of allowing myself into the work without directly showing that. The still life is also a very traditional motif that even the royal academy deemed as "high" art. I find that interesting, considering the vast array of stuff that contemporary people possess and how something like Nike shoes can be, or is now, elevated in society.
Why flowers?
The flower is temporary, fleeting and full of life. I've always been interested in beauty, even if it means denying it.
Your paintings always seem to incorporate a host of patterns from abstract to geometric. Can you give us a bit of insight into your aesthetic?
Patterns take many different forms, from the graphic or the abstract. Sometimes a pattern can be a touch, a consistent visual mark. I use patterns optically, creating a push and pull, showing the diversity of touch through pattern. Other times they are used to flatten space. I have an inherent interest for interior spaces, domestic objects and antiques. The combination of old and new.
Are paintings ever finished?
A painting can be a complete thought or expression, however I don't necessarily think I want that in my work. The motives behind a painting can linger on through a body of work. Making the definition of "finished" a reluctant process or acceptance, which can create a certain tension in the work. Some pieces are complete without being finished. In order for the work to be alive, there has to be balance between the two without expectations or intentions.
Painting is an emotional as well as physical undertaking. How would you define your relationship to painting? How does the process change you?
You’re right. Painting, or making a painting, is very physical. I build all my own surfaces go to the hardware store, buy wood, cut it, assembling, stretching, priming. It's a laboured endeavour with an immense amount of anticipation. My relationship to painting… I wake up every day and take "care of myself". Make breakfast, check my Instagram, email, maybe exercise. Soon after, I make my way to the studio and begin to work. I'm most myself when I am painting, challenged and engaged. Recently, I have been in between studios and the time off was enjoyable at first. It allowed me to "have a life.” Enjoy meeting a beautiful girl, get my house in order, visit family... That sort of thing. Though as time went on, I began to notice how important it was to my well-being that I stay busy with my art. In so few words, the process of painting is as important to me, if not more, as my well-being.
What does the future hold? Is not knowing a better way to go through it all?
The future surely holds more studio time, more time spent on my art and more time with my new girlfriend. I am currently working on lots of projects outside of my paintings, which has been a good distraction while my studio situation gets resolved. In the past few months, I have designed two album covers, t-shirts, been featured in a short film and been in a few photo shoots. It's fun to be creative and outside of your element. I thrive on it. I'm sure I’ll continue to push my network of people, as well as my roles in those circles, to new avenues. I have bills to pay too (laughs). And of course, not knowing is so much better. I try to live without the expectations of Cody to influence my art. It has, too. It can only survive when I can separate the two. I mean, I'm a painter. If I knew what I was going to paint, I would just paint it. But that's not why or how I make art. It's all about being a traveler, enjoying the unknown places, experiencing the new, and living free of an agenda.