Q+Art: Raphaele Cohen-Bacry Creates Abstract Collages with a Poetic Approach
Mixed media artist Raphaele Cohen-Bacry explores the narrative potential of abstracted shapes in her poetic collages. Her lyrical pieces are created from auction magazines, wallpaper, and printed images of famous artworks. Cohen-Bacry considered herself a painter until recently, a mindset that gives her collages a flowing quality with strong underlying structure.
Born and raised in Paris, France, Cohen-Bacry moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and instantly warmed to the city’s sense of freedom and possibility. Her collages mirror the artist’s newfound liberty by employing what she calls “pictorial free association,” a technique that builds shapes, color, and composition intuitively. “[I’m] always expanding my abstract lexicon, a vocabulary of the eye,” she writes in her artist statement. “The lyricism in each of my works appeals to feelings, and at the same time, there is a strong structure behind it. It opens and extends emotions for the viewer.”
Cohen-Bacry explores contradictions in her pieces, juxtaposing new and old, sublime and trivial, and famous and obscure. The contrasting elements in her pieces create a strangely welcoming environment, one that invites the viewer to travel through intimate shapes and spaces. Her repurposing of material coupled with a structured yet intuitive approach speaks to our flexible nature: “My work is a hopeful reflection about our ability to adapt and…create a piece of art and a new life.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Raphaele Cohen-Bacry discusses the zesty allure of za’atar, confronting your own practice, and the benefits of silence on the creative process.
What one book belongs on every artist’s shelf?
Raphaele Cohen-Bacry: Rencontres avec Bram van Velde by Charles Juliet. Juliet, a French poet, writes about several meetings he had over the years with the Dutch painter. These exchanges with the humble and consumed Bram van Velde should be read by any artist, because it puts the art first and places the artist more in the background, as a necessary agent for a greater purpose. I believe that today the emphasis is often too much on the artist's personality, and not enough on the work as part of a continuum.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
RCB: Claire Falkenstein. She was both a prolific and multifaceted female artist. She was always experimenting with new techniques, and she was instrumental in shaping a new art movement in America. I am fascinated with this era, when women started to be taken seriously as artists and brought new ideas to the table. I would have a lot of questions for her. She also lived in Paris, my home town, and was interested in art and sciences, so it feels we have several things in common. However, our works are very different, and that always makes for good discussions.
What are you trying to express with your art?
RCB: Each of my pieces is an extension of me and a direct way to reach people. Like a light bulb, it creates an environment for the viewers just by being there. It is a window, a passage to another space and time and also a mirror for the viewers, as the work allows them to look into themselves. It is a means to reach fellow humans.
I am interested in the rapport, the relationship, even the connivance between the different elements of a work of art. What makes it function or not. A painting, a collage, or a sculpture can suddenly turn into something beautiful and complete. Why is that? When it all comes together, a story is told and the work invites you in. You could say I create space and depth so the eye can travel and intimacy is allowed. The work tells the story of its genesis, with all its layers, its construction, the subtleties, and, ultimately, the force that comes from within.
I am always inventing and experimenting with new techniques, looking for arrangements that will make my art efficient and relevant. Working to get to that point is a personal and never-ending quest.
Do you prefer New York- or Chicago-style pizza?
RCB: It does not matter, since I always add green za’atar and olive oil. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern herb blend (thyme and sesame seeds) that gives any pizza a fantastic kick. So really NYC- or Chicago-style, they all become my own signature pizza!
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
RCB: I have done it many times. If I like the project and the people I am working with, I will go for it. And the more challenging the better. However, although I am willing to give away my time and energy, I do it with discernment, because this is time away from the studio, and I also need money to pursue my work…and to buy large supplies of za’atar!
What person has most influenced your work?
RCB: You would not think it is such a difficult question for me. When I was asked before, I thought about my teachers, other painters or writers, and so on. Angelica Caporaso, my Argentinian teacher and first mentor, had a big influence on me, but many others did too. The interesting thing is that the answer changes over time and I can not pinpoint the one person who was mainly instrumental in my career. I now believe that it is a sum of small and big influences, good or bad, that shaped my work. But if I have to go as far back as I can, I think my paternal grandfather, who was a fantastic story teller, probably set an example for me of what it is to live with dignity, integrity, and a love for freedom. I try to instil those values into my work.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
RCB: To have lasted so far? I have worked constantly all these years, whatever obstacle was thrown my way. I have never even questioned my making art, because to me there is no relationship between my creative process and the way my work is received. Of course, a great show with a good response is energizing, but this (or the opposite) does not condition my practice as an artist.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
RCB: To grab opportunities when they show up and think about how to manage later. Once there is motivation, I can always come up with solutions and deliver, and actually the bigger the challenge, the more interesting the outcome. This is how I ended up in the US, accepting an offer without thinking about all the difficulties and what I was leaving behind. In a similar spirit, a friend of mine used to say, every time I was expressing some regrets, "‘I should(n’t) have’ does not mean anything to me," and I try to live by this.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
RCB: I cannot really comment on this because I got my art education from many different sources and did not go to art school, and neither did most of my friends. At eighteen I personally would not have had the maturity to resist the influence of teachers, as good as they may be. I guess art schools work for some, as they help build a network and maybe teach to run a career. More importantly, they expose students to many options and give the means to try many different things. In my case, I needed to follow a more unconventional path. What is paramount for a young artist is to get exposed to many artists and mentors and ways of looking at art. Confronting your practice and seeing what good artists are working on is key. There are many ways to do so besides going to art school, especially if you do not have the means to pay for college.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
RCB: Too many people "buy with their ears." I wish we could go back to "buying with our eyes." I so much enjoy discovering obscure artists, or unknown pieces of art that I like without even being aware of who made them. If more people could trust their own judgement as opposed to what they are supposed to like, the art world would benefit greatly, and we would not always see the same artists over and over.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
RCB: Ah, that is the eternal conundrum! I made the decision long ago that commercial success is a by-product of my work, not its motivation. Along the way I had to find other means to support myself and my art so I could keep my work truthful. That being said, it is always exhilarating to find people who appreciate your work enough to want it in their home or work place!
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
RCB: Not much. I used to listen to a lot of podcasts and music, but lately I am enjoying the quiet and the sounds of nature coming through the windows. Today I find it too distracting to play anything while I am working. It happens from time to time that I need silence, especially when I am in an exploration or transition phase.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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