Cole Sternberg on the Link between Painting and the Environment

Cole Sternberg is an American visual artist who works in a range of mediums from painting, installation, video and writing. His work encompasses social issues from the environment to politics to the media, while his latest project is the result of a visit to the windward side of Santa Catalina Island in California. Ahead of his Berlin show’s finissage at MAMA Gallery, SLEEK spoke the artist to discuss the environment in painting and his connection to German capital.

Sleek: What’s you connection to Berlin?

Cole Sternberg: I’ve been to Berlin many times since childhood. The first trip was just a couple years after the wall came down. It was obviously a much different place then. I was quite young and remember the streets being filled with Soviet uniforms and metals and pieces of the wall all for sale to us tourists. Not just around Checkpoint Charlie, but spreading throughout the streets we wandered down. It was a boomerang of consumerism from the East I guess. In hindsight it feels like a strange dream of another time, unconnected to this place now.

In recent years, I’ve visited for art purposes, once with ArtLab21 as part of a residency, other times for research. The creative hub Berlin has become is an easy draw for me. Getting into interesting discussions and seeing intriguing things is unavoidable here.

Many of your works depict nature, have you always had a strong connection to the environment?

I think we all are inherently and permanently connected to the environment. So, yes, this connection has always been there. In the past decade, as some take some many steps backward socially in terms of environmental protection, it has become more of a focus in my work. Environmental protection is a basic human right and should be recognised as such.

Most of the references to the environment in my work visually are subtle and require a bit of introspection and research to figure out. Recently, the environment has also taken on a more specific role in the process itself. This body of work, for example, was painted in my studio and then dragged in the Pacific along the windward side of Catalina Island. The movement of the Ocean through the works fades and creates geometric patterns in the pieces, as well as stretching and recomposing the structure of the linen itself.

The windward side of Catalina is a beautiful place. The water is turquoise, ribboned black and white granite dips from the mountains into the sea. There is no land access, roads or power, so it is preserved in many ways. But, however glorious it feels, it is not the same as a hundred years ago. The waters use to be packed with fish, an amateur could catch ten marlin in a day. Now, they feel empty, an entire day fishing can end fruitless. It is the victim of extreme over fishing and pollution. It is basically a beautiful graveyard. This is the underlying feeling of the entire exhibition.

 You work in various mediums, can you describe your process? Do you prefer one medium over the other?

My mediums vary as appropriate for the story I’m trying to tell. I also like to keep my mind challenged by learning how to integrate different formats and materials into my practice. In terms of preference, I really go back and forth depending on the day. Sometimes writing is the only thing I can accomplish, other days it is painting and other times it is shooting and editing film.

What’s next for you?

At the end of 2015, I travelled on the maiden voyage of a shipping vessel from western Japan across the Pacific and to the United States. On that trip, I created paintings and photography, but also shot many hours of film. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a documentary using the film footage entitled “are the green fields gone?”  So, next will be the presentation of this piece of work. I’m also currently building a large public installation that will be unveiled in Mexico City at the end of the year.

“Cole Sternberg: On the windward side of the island” is at MAMA Gallery, Import Projects, Keithstrasse 10, Berlin until 1 July 2017

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