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Alex Bradley Cohen’s Community-Culled Portraiture


Painting from the subjects that surround him, Alex creates portraits of his family and longtime friends— bright works that highlight his relationships in both the past and present. His paintings often take on an autobiographical quality, tracing personal stories from childhood memories to getting his GED. Alex often places himself within a work’s scene, painting multiple versions to represent different aspects of his psyche. Although deeply engaged with painting, he is also an active installation artist, desiring the balance of community-engaged art to his solitary studio time.

I\W: Why are you drawn to producing floor installations? Does this gesture reference something specific?
ABC: The floor pieces are a way for me to play. I’m interested in creating interactive spaces and installations that involve movement or touch. These are safe spaces for me to exist in, spaces of one’s own. There’s a social element to them that I’m interested in, something that painting in the studio doesn’t offer. Painting is therapeutic on a one-on-one level— it’s the activity of self-reflection, but I think creating installations or working on the floor develops a space for some sort of self-reflection. When creating installations I feel like I am more involved with something else besides just myself, because painting can be a very self-obsessive act. So it’s always nice to involve myself in other ways when interacting and communicating with the world around me. I think for the most part my art is both a personal conversation as well as a public or popular culture one.


What about portraiture attracts you to that mode of making?
Portraiture for me is about people and about community. I paint the people that I love and that inspire me. I think even when my work isn’t figurative and blends more into abstraction, it’s still about people. It just might move from the physical to the spiritual or emotional. I’m really interested in the emotional and mental states of myself and the city. There’s something therapeutic about it for me. it gives me a sense of self and space. I’m interested in artists that do that. When I saw the Matisse show at the Art Institute, it blew my mind. That was when I really wanted to paint people and tell stories of time, space, and culture, especially the people and things that I had been around my whole life. In my paintings some of the same people and subjects matters repeat themselves. I think I am suffering from solastalgia. It’s trippy because I haven’t actually left Chicago or my home or my neighborhood, but I am growing and maturing and things are changing around me in weird ways. Somethings are exactly the same and somethings are so different. Watching neighborhood change and the people you grew up around being pushed out of your neighborhood is sad and heartbreaking. The people that are doing it don’t even care. This sense of community and place is so deeply embedded inside of me. I’m so much a product of my past, and friendships that I’ve had. It’s this idea of a collective memory and how all your life experiences make you who you are. I have no regrets ever. However, I am constantly being challenged by past mistakes and experiences.

Portraiture for me is about people and about community. I paint the people that I love and that inspire me. I think even when my work isn’t figurative and blends more into abstraction, it’s still about people.

You are often a subject in your work. Why do you choose to place yourself in your paintings so frequently?
I exist within the work sometimes more than once. In one particular work at Carrie Secrist of my mom yelling at me, I was both at the table and in the background of the painting. These are the physical and emotional/mental states that I exist in. I exist physically in the world and emotionally within my mind and body. It’s important for me to depict these things in the paintings. They place me somewhere in the world. They give me identity. I think the work is extremely autobiographical, the paintings show different stories from my life. I have one piece about getting my GED. I could barely sit for the whole four or five hours of the test. I painted my mom and my dad into the work next to me, looking down on me as I worked. These types of paintings give me a sense of self. I’m constantly confused and being interrupted by life. Living in the city is chaos, and when you are young and totally involved with the city you begin to adapt some of that instability. I think what being in the studio and painting does is stabilize me. It takes mental concentration. It takes my mind off of everything else that is happening in my life and around me.


Does working from memory tend to be easier for you?
Sometimes. There’s something more emotional and intuitive about the process, but sometimes it can be daunting because I have no framework to base the image off of because it doesn’t actually exist in reality—only in my mind. There’s a challenge and a joy to it. More often than not the paintings that come from my mind are a lot darker then when I’m painting people or things from photographs. When I am painting people from life they become positive and bright, but then if I am painting something from my mind or past it becomes darker because I am then dealing with myself. Even if I am dealing with a positive memory it comes out a bit dark or tweaked.


What made you realize you wanted to be painter?
I think I always believed I was an artist or an innovator of some sorts. I actually think I began as a performance artist in my youth. This got me into a lot of trouble in school. When it comes to painting specifically, I think it was just a life process. It was the medium that felt most fluid to me. My mom used to paint, so she always had acrylic paint laying around so when my brain began to move I would indulge in her paint and create. It really wasn’t until I met Alberto Aguilar in community college that the realization came into existence that making paintings was what I wanted to do.


Can you talk about you and Alberto Aguilar’s collaborative relationship?
I met him when I was young, back in 2009 so we have been working together for about 7 years now. I see myself as primarily a painter, but then with him we do performance and make videos, sound pieces, drawings, installations, and paintings. Our creative relationship is endless. We do all of these other things outside my typical practice which helps me stay loose in the studio. Having that balance and playfulness outside of the studio is very positive for me. Alberto and I have a friendship that is super unique and fun, we seem to now get away with a lot of things. We were doing these things always, but now people seem to be taking them more seriously…


Is your ceramic work a way to expand some of your scenes within your paintings out from the canvas, or are they coming from a completely different headspace?
When I started to think about art as something I could do, it seemed like a lot of fun to make ceramics. I took a ceramics class when I was at Harold Washington. I wanted to make sculptures that existed inside the installations I was making. I transferred to SAIC, and I don’t think the ceramics developed in the same way the painting did. The ceramics still stayed in the same environment as the installations, which I don’t think will ever really change for me. I haven’t figured out how to have my paintings exist within those spaces. For now they seem quite separate, but I am interested in re-investigating my ceramic work and excited to see how they will exist with my new figurative paintings.

Do you consider your specific mind space when you are producing work for a show?
I think I do now. I think because it is a story or narrative or paragraph or chapter or some sort of section. I like to bounce off different things from my past or present. When producing a new body of work there is something that I’m trying to tap into. I try not to set specific guidelines because I want the work to drift both conceptually and aesthetically. I don’t want to control my art in the same way that I don’t want the art to control me. Sometimes both of these things happen and it becomes a struggle. This is when I hit the streets and go skating, ride my bike, or write a poem—to hit the restart button.


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