Exclusive: An Interview With LA-Based Artist Cole Sternberg

Employing watercolor, heavy oils, and spray paint, LA-based artist Cole Sternberg blends mediums to produce visually striking works. Paint often obscures text in his compositions, which at first glance may appear messy, but are in fact laid out to convey detailed narratives, be it a representation of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, an infamous Hunter S. Thompson episode or a particularly unforgettable break-up.

On a recent Saturday, Sternberg arrived at Culver City’s Kinsey/DesForges gallery riled-up from an earlier meeting with Los Angeles Art Association’s board where the debate got heated over how to best help the city’s emerging artists. After walking Flavorpill’s Jane McCarthy through his current exhibition, Sternberg chatted about celebrity culture, spray paint, and how he’d like to get his hands on a Monet (for the second time).

Flavorpill: What’s your schedule like?

Cole Sternberg: I paint from like 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. most of the time.

FP: You’re a night owl.

CS: Well, I just don’t sleep at all. I get up early too. I’m busy working on a museum show at the moment. I stole the title. “And those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” It’s a Nietzsche quote about self-awareness and community awareness, and the whole show is about war and human rights.

FP: Sounds like if you were a musician, the show would be more like a concept album as opposed to a smattering of songs. Is that typical for you?

CS: I jump. I do both. The Kinsey/DesForges show here in LA is just a mix of the paintings that I think are most visually compelling, but then my show in New York this year was all about relationship break-ups. The museum show’s also more like a concept album. That one’s kind of fun for me because it’s the first time I’ve been able to use my legal background. In law school, I studied a lot about international human rights, and I’ve done articles for law reviews on those issues so finally I can be like, here’s the value in that very expensive degree.

FP: Did you paint while in school?

CS: Yes. When I was in undergrad, one day I thought, “I’m going to go to Michael’s to buy some oil and cheap canvas.” I had this photo of a street scene in France, and I just painted that. My roommates were like, “Oh, that looks kind of good,” and then three years later, during my second year of law school, I had my first little solo show at a bar/gallery thing in DC. I mean, I was always sketching and doing little watercolors but not really painting, not like anything near this scale.

FP: And did you take classes at some point or was it more like, “I’m just going to do my thing?”

CS: I never took an art class. Except maybe in fourth grade, I remember cutting out cardboard Christmas trees. I liked the idea of art school but I’m sort of realistic and thought art wouldn’t be a viable career. I decided I was going to go to business school and law school, but I was wrong. Now I’m doing art.

FP: Do you fully lay out a concept before you embark on a painting?

CS: It kind of depends on each piece, but I tend to have most of it laid out in my head beforehand. I mean it starts with the idea of the text a lot of times. And then I think of the coloration I want to do. The only thing that changes as I’m painting is how the colors mix together.

Courtesy of Cole Sternberg
Courtesy of Cole Sternberg

FP: Would you say censorship is a central motif in your art?

CS: Yeah, I mean, I’m even censoring my own text by painting over the words. The thing that motivates me is just whatever is in my head that;s bothering me. And then I want to change that into something that is also somewhat beautiful and interesting.

FP: So the stuff that bothers you is the impetus for the work.

CS: Well, that stuff gets me going and annoyed. I’m getting it out on the canvas. Sometimes it doesn’t translate into evil or dark work, but it gives me the energy I need to do it. What’s fun is if I can do the art and bring in my little statements about politics or whatever at the same time. The people who come into the gallery might not know about a certain subject matter that’s in the paintings, so it sometimes brings a new awareness. Other times it’s people who completely disagree with me politically who come in and really like the paintings, which gets us into a discussion that’s very entertaining.

FP: Your art has been described as apocalyptic. Would you agree with that?

CS: Well, I don’t know about the word “apocalyptic” necessarily, but there are a lot of things nationally and internationally that frustrate me to the point where if you think about them too much, then you begin to think, oh we are moving toward some sort of apocalyptic future or even just to a different kind of world that’s much darker. From how the U.S. doesn’t value art or music anymore, to broader issues such as genocide (which we still allow to happen in the world), slave labor, and human trafficking. All these things that just continue to occur irrespective of our growth in technology… it seems like we are on a kind of a downward trajectory. Is it apocalyptic tomorrow? Probably not.

FP: “LA’s Pretend” is a phrase you’ve put in several of your paintings. Before moving here, you were living in DC where the dominant discourse is (naturally) politics. What would you say is the dominant conversation in LA?

CS: LA is such a fascinating place. The realities of living here, versus what the rest of the world thinks it’s like here, are two different things. A friend of mine always laughs about how Nicky Hilton could be sitting here on the street beside a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and no one’s going to talk to the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Everybody wants to talk to Nicky Hilton. Everything’s around this notion of celebrity, creating this idea for the rest of the world that LA is like fantasyland because that helps a portion of the population here make money.

FP: The fantasy is lucrative.

CS: Yeah. These celebrities accept that the paparazzi’s going to follow them around all day because in the long run, that makes them more money. And that’s what people here seem to talk about, the celebrity-centric explosion. I don’t necessarily mean the art community, but just LA in general.

FP: You’re off to Berlin soon to do a residency.

CS: Yeah, I’m going to Bonne and Berlin. It’s with E105 gallery and ArtLab21. There was a Financial Times article the other day where the mayor of Berlin called the city, “poor but sexy.” Their GDP per capita is lower than like Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The economy’s bad, but there’s more cultural stuff there than in almost any other city in the world.

FP: You use spray paint and tagging in your work. What interests you about street art?

CS: Well, I think real graffiti artists or taggers would make fun of me — I don’t consider myself a good tagger at all. I just like the medium. There’s something about using spray paint against heavy oil application, the conflict between the two — that just fascinates me. And then the metallic colors. You can create a mirror out of only one layer of paint. You really can’t create that color with any other kind of paint. Not many traditional artists use spray paint. I don’t know why. It seems like a fun thing to do.

FP: Which contemporary artists do you like?

CS: Right now, I really like Richard Prince, how he jumps around with subject matter and style of work. And Cecily Brown, the texture of her work is very cool.

FP: How about artists who have influenced you?

CS: My two favorites are for sure Monet and Cy Twombly. Those are my guys that I grew up liking. My grandparents on one side kind of dealt in American impressionism and they took me to a lot of museums. I remember being really little and looking at Monets… one time in France I touched a Monet and set off the alarms because, you know, I just wanted to feel the texture of it. But I was young enough that they thought it was cute.

FP: So you’ve touched a Monet.

CS: I’d do it again but this time they might not be as nice.

Note: If in LA, drop into Kinsey/DesForges gallery to see Cole Sternberg’s latest show, New Works, which runs through July 11.