More than words 

Joel Cothran's text-centric art doesn't shy away from big questions

For most people, airbrushing is relegated to mall kiosks for custom T–shirts, not fine art on gallery walls. Joel Cothran didn't get the memo.

"The airbrush has something profound about it," the local artist explains, standing in his makeshift studio at the front of a cooperative arts space on 35th and East Broad Street. "You don't touch the canvas. You don't have an artist's hand involved."

Over the last few months, Cothran has been busy. He debuted a T–shirt design at the opening of the local, environmentally–friendly retailer Wooden Sheep late last year, had a solo show titled "When the World Goes Sour and the Milk Blows Up," at the Mr. Beast Gallery on Bull Street, and then moved a couple blocks north for a show as the featured artist at Local 11Ten.

Those shows highlighted Cothran's unique style and existentialist humor — featuring mostly large scale airbrushed works that played with color and typography to present hauntingly concise messages about the state of affairs for life in the 21st century.

His piece "Existing is Not Enough," encapsulates his signature style - seemingly simple, yet thought provoking works.
Long, looping letters in blue flecked with gold spelling out "Existing is Not Enough" atop a color field of black and red.

Aesthetically, the piece looks like a Miami disco rodeo — slick, but energetic; simple, but with depth. It manages to be cynical, but without pretense, like tagging a Mark Rothko painting.

"It's about materialism," explains Cothran. It's not enough to be alive, to survive these days, one needs technology — a cell phone, a computer, the internet and all the trappings — in order to create identity.

To express thoughts on materialism using an airbrush stems from Cothran's origins with the medium — working at a mall kiosk making custom T–shirts. "It was a job to pay the bills," he says. "Now I just can't stop."

In between orders, Cothran was free to experiment and develop his technical skills — much like graffiti, airbrushing requires dexterous snaps of the wrist and a steady hand. There's also a Zen aspect to it that he appreciates, a combination of movement, wind and sound.

His recent burst of activity locally stems from two things — first his satisfaction with his work, which is "just now getting good," and second, the amount due on his students loans.

"When you've got $100,000 in debt, you've got to do something," he says.

This week, Cothran debuts a collection of new work at the Sentient Bean in a show called "Yada, Yada, Yada."

In its eponymous piece, a 5'x5' canvas is painted black and dotted by a field of glittering points like the night sky. Within the field of stars, the words "Yada, Yada, Yada" emerge from a dense concentration at the center. This is our universe, blathering onward through time and space.

For his text–centric pieces, Cothran usually begins with the phrase itself — culled from an observation or lifted from a different context. "They'll just run through my mind," he says.

Although "Yada, Yada, Yada" shows a clear lineage from Cothran's previous work — the interrelation of image and text questioning the meaning of life and deflating contemporary norms – much of the new work that will hang at the Bean will be more abstract.

Painted on smaller canvases, and focused more on studies of form and color, these pieces mark a shift away from the conceptual to explore technique — finished pieces on paper are run through a typewriter, and other media like color pencils or brushes are incorporated. The change isn't permanent, just another avenue to wander down for the multi–faceted artist, who also dabbles in photography and design.

But words as a visual medium and the machinations of commerce are never far away. He recently had a piece running on the side of a mobile billboard truck — the advertisement read simply, "No News is Good News," and among his plans for the future are "a catalog" of poems.

Gaining inspiration from a blend of keen observation, existential cynicism and a dash of spirituality, Cothran judges himself as an artist by the same standards as the rest of the universe.

"You don't need art to live. It's kind of joke, a running gag," he says, citing legendary Dadaist Marcel DuChamp.  "It's something someone would want, but at the same time, you don't need more shit."

"Yada, Yada, Yada" Opening Reception

When: Fri., Feb. 4, 6–8 p.m. (thru Feb. 28)

Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.

Info: www.joelcothran.com

Cost: Free and open to the public


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Patrick Rodgers

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