Currently living in London, Filipino artist and Central Saint Martins graduate Nicole Coson works in a variety of mediums but primarily focuses on analogue printmaking and etching press methods to realise her figurative and abstract works. Coson’s work often inhabits a space of unpredictability; in terms of process - in the way that she relies on chance and instinct - as well as physically - in the way that forms are obscured within her artworks. Having centred on figuration and characters found in Philippine folklore, Coson’s practice has moved towards more natural subjects; revolving around organic forms and our historical relationships with them.
The discourse her pieces take are not intended to be directly read as culturally or politically engaged with her Filipino heritage; living in a city such as London and having an awareness of its colonial past in her native Philippines no doubt has provided an understanding of the importance of origin however, she does not attempt to create works to be seen through a specific cultural or ethnical lens.
Coson’s art has been widely publicised with exhibitions that include, ‘Process of Elimiation’ (solo exhibition) at Finale Art File, Philippines, START ART FAIR at Saatchi Gallery, London, ‘How to Appear without a Trace’ at Display Gallery, London and ‘Spirit Captures’ (solo exhibition) at West Gallery, Philippines.
We spoke to Nicole Coson as one of the featured artists from our 2017 Artist Series:
LN-CC: HAVE YOU ALWAYS DREAMT OF BEING AN ARTIST? DID GROWING UP IN THE PHILIPPINES HAVE AN EFFECT ON YOUR CREATIVITY?
Nicole Coson: Yes, I always thought I’d end up as one. My interest in creating art has been a constant that has sustained me all my life. So, it didn't really feel like it was a choice I made, instead, it felt like a very obvious destiny. I grew up in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The blazing heat, the insane amount of people and cars… the atmosphere was at times thick, reckless and overwhelming. Though I do love Manila, I saw painting as a way of achieving some sort of respite from the intense energy outside - a space to breathe and a way to collect myself and my thoughts, away from the chaos of everyday.
HAVING GROWN UP IN THE PHILIPPINES AND SPENT MOST OF YOUR ADULT LIFE LIVING IN LONDON, DOES YOUR WORK CHALLENGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT?
N.C: After migrating to the UK I’ve felt a reoccurring urge to engage with the cultural values and histories of my origin. My figurative work derives from characters found in Philippine folklore, my abstract work either stems from an idea of isolated islands occupying the picture plane of the canvas, or my understanding of Japanese Zen gardens and the flow of natural energy. As a ‘foreign’ artist working and engaging with the art scene of a city like London, I think it is inevitable to question your own identity, and the concept of your identity in the eyes of a country haunted by a colonial and imperial history like the UK. I think in many ways that this approach to engaging with a culture and a society alien to your own is a healthy way of mutual understanding and acceptance. I feel that the perspective provided by living in a historic yet extremely diverse city as London has taught me a deeper and more profound understanding of the importance of origin and belonging.
Untitled Nicole Coson
HOW HAVE YOUR STUDIES HAD AN EFFECT ON YOUR WORK? WHAT WERE THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS THAT YOU LEARNT WHILST STUDYING AT CENTRAL SAINT MARTINS?
N.C: I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2014 with a BA in Fine Arts. It was really by necessity that I ended up having a practice that utilised printmaking techniques. I found myself in the printmaking room at CSM simply because the painting studios were cramped, students worked elbow to elbow and yet it still felt like quite a solitary atmosphere. I yearned for something else than just brush and canvas and printmaking offered me that. Located in the old Byam Shaw School or Art site, the Central Saint Martins printmaking studio retained all the quirks and charm of its independent art school predecessor. The technicians blasted amazing music, the students scuttled around with ink stained arms and beautiful old mechanisms of Victorian era etching presses were on the go non-stop. It felt like the right place for me to be and it was just so much fun. Now, my practice is very much printmaking based, thinking about it now, it’s funny I have cramped studios to thank for that. Going to art school and being surrounded by people that have the same interests and perhaps ambitions as you is a really good way to build your creative network early. Push yourself forwards as well as others.
YOUR EARLY WORK FOCUSED ON PORTRAITURE BUT YOU HAVE MOVED AWAY FROM THIS, WHY? DO YOU SEE YOURSELF RETURNING TO THIS AT SOME POINT?
N.C: My practice is where it is now is because of my experience in figuration. I was looking at Rorschach inkblot tests, a kind of image that seems to sit between abstraction and figuration. These tests were comprised of ambiguous designs that could be this or that, like moving blobs evading our ability to perceive them. Whilst the Rorschach test was ultimately about what the person being subjected to it decided the image was, to me, the beauty of it is in its ambiguity and the ability of the image to seem open-ended and limitless. I still feel like I’m pursuing the same ideas with my work now as I was when they were more portrait-orientated.
DO YOU FIND YOUR WORKS ARE RECEIVED DIFFERENTLY WHEN SHOWING IN LONDON AND THE PHILIPPINES?
N.C: In some cases in London, people actively look for what’s distinctly Filipino about my work. In the way that people read art works through a screen of culture and ethnicity which I think can be problematic to both the viewer and the artist. Last year, I was given the opportunity to give a talk that was accompanied by a show at Asia House, a cultural institution linking the UK and countries across Asia through a vibrant arts and learning programme. I was given the chance to talk about what it’s like to be a young artist from the Philippines working in London. I sometimes feel that people almost assume that because the work is by an “Asian artist,” the work is expected to be culturally or politically engaged in a particular way, which can be problematic. I wanted to address that, and I feel very fortunate that I was given the opportunity and the correct platform to do so.
Untitled Nicole Coson
DO YOU EXERCISE CONTROL OVER PIECES OR FEEL THEY TAKE ON THEIR OWN TRAJECTORY?
N.C: There is certainly an element of unpredictability in the way I make my work. I apply a very thick, even layer of ink onto a metal sheet and from there I wipe away at it with rags and solvents to create marks. The image on the metal sheet is then transferred onto the canvas as it’s fed through the press which utilises around 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch. In most cases I do not have complete control with my work and producing work in this way requires interaction with this third entity. Many times the ink base is so thick that I work blindly and I rely only on experience, chance and instinct, until the moment I peel away the canvas from the inked plate and the print is revealed.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS WHEN STARTING A NEW PROJECT? DO YOU CHOOSE SPECIFIC THEMES TO FOCUS ON?
N.C: Life as an artist, or any freelance creative I assume, is a constant push and pull between struggling to find work and drowning in it. I think that it is at the peaks and troughs of these waves that my work is pushed forward and evolves; you teach yourself to streamline your thought process when you are pushed to the brink of your own capabilities during busy periods and you reflect and regroup during the quiet times. So in that sense, I don't think that I have ever chosen a specific theme to work from and focus on; I think that all my work is a direct descendant of a previous piece, or at least the concept or discourse embedded in previous pieces.
DO YOU AIM TO TRANSLATE A PERSONAL NARRATIVE THROUGH YOUR WORK? IF SO HOW?
N.C: Each monotype is a moment captured, never to repeated again. Once a print is done, it’s over, no touch-ups, no going back on mistakes, it’s finished. That’s what fascinated me about printmaking, there’s a clear beginning and ending. It’s the residue of an instant that has passed so, in a way, caught in that tangle is a snapshot of myself at that moment. When I’m amongst examples of my work, I can actually see within these marks and strokes, particular moments on a perpetual loop.
WHAT MATERIALS DO YOU ENJOY WORKING WITH? ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR MEDIUMS YOU ARE DRAWN TO?
N.C: Rather than the use of a particular material, what is consistent in my work is every piece is made using this enormous old etching press (one of London’s largest) in my studio by Broadway Market. Rather than applying paint directly onto canvas, there’s this machine that intervenes between me and the surface. The step by step, technical aspect of it like turning the wheel, pulling back the blankets, the rolling on and wiping away of ink on a metal plate is hypnotic to me. I enter this state which is one of the only times that I feel a real clarity.
Untitled Nicole Coson
YOUR WORKS ARE OFTEN MONOCHROMATIC, WHY IS THIS?
N.C: My works are normally black and white with a few exceptions. I believe working without colour allows the subject to appear more interchangeable as well as appear photographic especially with this particular technique. Fewer colours seem to contribute to my intention of allowing the subject to remain neither uninvested nor trapped in a singular identity; to instead float freely as it shuffles between instances of recognition and unfamiliarity.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SUBJECT MATTER TO SOMEONE NEW TO YOUR WORK?
N.C: My practice revolves around natural or organic forms and our relationship with these objects and images historically. What immediately comes to mind when we see cloud or rock formations? What stories are we able to extract? My last show was titled Process of Elimination. I became interested in ambiguous designs. I find their elusive nature beautiful in its ambiguity and the ability of the image to seem open-ended and limitless.
It was during a time when I attempted to remove place or origin from my work as I felt it was important for my practice to regain a sense of autonomy. To start again from scratch one must eliminate and that to me was looking back at nature and specifically geology.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON? WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
N.C: I am currently working on a few private commissions and preparing for two solo shows in Manila this year. I feel very excited to show in the Philippines and honoured to be a part of its growing network of young artists exhibiting in amazing spaces.