Q&A: cobi moules
By Jess T. Dugan | June 13, 2019
Cobi Moules is a painter whose work focuses on personal narrative relating to his queer and transgender identity. The complexity of his individual experiences is navigated through documentation, the subtle re-imagining of his physicality, and the creation of fantasy worlds. He playfully explores multifaceted notions of the self, autonomy, and gratification. Reflecting on art historical representation of both portraiture and 19th century American landscape painting, his work often disrupts the historical narratives while seeking inclusion and creating a space for personal significance and a queer presence.
Cobi was born in 1980 in the small rural town of Oakdale, CA. He moved to the Bay Area where he received a BFA from San Jose State University in 2004. In 2010 he received an MFA from The School of Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. His work has been exhibited nationally including The Leslie Lohman Museum, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Jepson Center, Crystal Bridges Museum, Ogunquit Museum of American Art and Smack Mellon. Notable awards include the SMFA Traveling Fellowship, Ruth and Harold Chenven Foundation Grant, and the Joan Mitchell MFA Grant.
His work is in the collections of the Crystal Bridges Museum, Leslie Lohman Museum, RISD Museum, Cornell Fine Arts Museum and 21c Museum. He has been an artist-in-resident at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Ucross Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson, Vermont Studio Center, Space Gallery, among others. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Jess T. Dugan: Hi Cobi! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s start at the beginning: what first drew you to art-making, and what was your path to getting to where you are today?
Cobi Moules: Hi Jess! Thank you, it’s lovely to chat. I first started painting and drawing when I was a kid. I used to paint with my grandmother on her porch. I absolutely loved it and at the same time would often get very frustrated and cry whenever I couldn’t get things just right, which was often. I was a little bit of a handful and am amazed at how patient and encouraging my grandmother was. It was her encouragement that initially got me excited about image making. I continued to paint and draw throughout my teens and into undergraduate but didn’t realize at the time that it could be a potential career path. I thought about other avenues of study but couldn’t really imagine doing anything else. To not have something to fall back on felt pretty scary at the time but I eventually put all of my time and efforts into art-marking. After undergraduate at San Jose State I moved around the Bay Area for a few years and then moved to Boston for graduate school at SMFA. I worked with some incredible people that challenged me and helped me discover some of the visual language that I had been struggling with at the time. My time there was a critical point in my artist growth. After graduate school I took a couple of years, with the help of a few artist grants, to travel around the states camping and hiking national parks and going to artist residencies. My main focus during these travels was on Bois Just Wanna Have Fun. From there I moved to Brooklyn where I currently live and work.
JTD: Your paintings are beautifully rendered and incredibly detailed- they must take you a long time. What is your process like? How much time do you generally spend in the studio, and what is your preferred painting environment?
CM: Thank you so much. They do take me quite a long time. I try to work on several pieces at once, a few smaller pieces along with something large, that can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months. What sustains me through the sometimes tedious moments, painting leaves for a month for example, are the quicker more immediate pieces that take a couple of weeks. I spend around 60 hours a week in the studio, give or take. My preferred environment is a very clean and organized space. I like to have a couple of different areas set up for the different projects so that I can switch my focus easily. Also, when I’m painting I usually have something playing in the background- podcasts, audiobooks or tv shows. Having a storyline playing out while I work somehow creates just the right amount of distraction for me to be at my most productive.
JTD: Much of your work includes self-portraiture and draws from your own identity and experiences in the world, particularly around gender identity and expression. Was this always an important aspect of your work? What role does the inclusion of yourself play in your practice?
CM: Yes, the self-portrait has always played an important role in my work. Each project uses the self-portrait in a different way. The scale of the figure and the size of the groupings play a big role in how they function. The larger single portraits are much more traditional in representation and are used partially in a documentary way. The small graphite drawings, in which I play with hair growth, balding, and grooming, uses that tradition along with play to explore aging and gender expression. Bois Just Wanna Have Fun, on the other hand, uses the multiples of the self portrait to create fantastical, playful and sometimes humorous scenes as a way to reflect on and renegotiate my relationship with a fraught aspect of my own history. All of my work, until the latest miniatures project, has centered around my own queer and trans experiences and has used the self-portrait as a means to explore the complexities of those experiences.
JTD: Tell me more about your series Bois Just Wanna Have Fun. How did it begin? Is it completed or ongoing?
CM: It began around 2008. I had been looking a lot at the Hudson River School at the time and was drawn to the beauty of their work and at the same time was increasingly frustrated by the meaning behind their depiction of the figures within the landscape. The relationship between the individual, nature, and god, as represented by these artists, felt very personal and tied to similar ideas coming from my religious past. The importance of virginity, purity and the honor of sacrificing one’s selfhood for the glory of god were prominent themes growing up. The tiny diminished figures in the Hudson River School paintings expressed so much of how I was taught to relate to my body and self within “god’s plan.” As a young queer trans kid struggling to understand who I was and believing that I was unnatural, I felt that my only way forward was to stamp down and ignore true expressions of myself. Bois Just Wanna Have Fun began with a desire to explore the relationship between the ideas presented in the HRS, the religious ideologies of my childhood, and how my body can be used within these spaces as a means to challenge the notion of being unnatural while utilizing the landscape as a place for the exploration of both nature and myself within it. This is an ongoing project. I tend to work on multiple things at once, setting one project down for a year or so to focus on something new and then coming back and revisiting the other. This project in particular has been a fairly constant series in my practice. I am continually inspired by the rich and diverse landscape and am hoping to take another long traveling stint in the next year or two.
JTD: I’m glad you brought up the landscape because I’m interested to know more about your placement of multiple self-portraits in these expansive, lush landscapes. Often, queer and trans bodies are excluded from existing openly in idyllic, recreational, or rural landscapes such as the ones you paint- is there an intentional social or political message behind placing trans figures in these settings, or does it come from somewhere more personal? Or perhaps both?
CM: Absolutely, it is definitely both. The personal history I am responding to is reflected in a much larger American Christian culture that has a very loud voice in the social and political sphere that we are in right now. The American landscape is such a rich environment to talk about the complicated experiences of being trans and queer in America. To give you a little more background, I grew up in a rural town and was surrounded by nature. I lived there until I moved to the bay area for college. While I feel a sense of safety and comfort within nature I also feel the necessity, when occupied by others, to make myself invisible. These opposing feelings can be quite disconcerting, and while still present in urban spaces, are most evident in the less densely populated natural environments. Both complete Isolation and being amongst a large queer community bring a sense of safety and freedom. With this series, I have chosen to occupy these landscapes that historically evoke an insignificance of self. By multiplying myself throughout I am overwhelming these spaces as a way to shift that relationship and use the landscape as a space for exploration and belonging. Although this work is coming from my own experiences I see these ideas extending well beyond myself.
JTD: You are currently working on a new series, Portraits as Affirmation, which you describe as being “in response to the erasure that we are being confronted with” and as “a project of visibility, affirmation and love.” These portraits are of transgender and gender nonconforming people, and you put out an open call for participants via social media and your website. What motivated you to make this work? How expansive do you imagine it will become? What has the response been thus far?
CM: The past couple of years have been quite difficult with the amount of legislation being put forth in an effort to strip the most basic of human rights from trans folks. One moment that was especially devastating, and that prompted this project, was the memo that got leaked proposing to have sex and gender redefined as unchangeable and based solely on birth assignment. This would completely erase trans, non-binary and intersex folks. I had already been thinking about and researching the miniature portrait and was drawn to the intimacy and love that these images evoke. There is so much attention and care given to each person. In this moment that feels quite paralyzing at times I felt a need to show that love and care towards our community, honoring each person and showing a beautiful and diverse community that can’t be erased.
The response has been amazing and I am very excited by the enthusiasm to participate. Eventually I am hoping to complete anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand, or more, portraits. I see this project as a growing installation that will ultimately be determined by the level of interest in participation. I am currently dividing my time between painting portraits and the research and creation of the frames. Figuring out some of the unexpected limitation of the framing has slowed down the image making process but has also led to some exciting possibilities for more variety and a more personalized approach to the frames. I am doing a lot of experimentation right now and I am very much looking forward to getting back to a point where I am able to prioritize the portraits themselves.
JTD: Can you speak about the importance of visibility and representation, both in your work specifically, and also more broadly?
CM: Visibility and representation are extremely important. Growing up, the only trans people I saw were on shows like Jerry Springer, where they were dehumanized and used as props for a laugh. These shows were toxic and pressed the idea that trans folks were fake and out to trick you. Seeing these images helped feed into the self hatred that I was already feeling. It wasn’t until I was able to move away and find a community that I began to strip some of that away. Representation has changed in such a positive and affirming way over the past decade. It helps in feeling a sense of community and belonging. I think it is especially important for people living in areas with less access to a trans or queer community. My desire for Portraits as Affirmation is that it helps in creating that sense of community and can be a part of the affirming representation that I think so many people, including myself, need. Once it gets further underway and I have a larger installation of portraits I am looking to travel the piece fairly broadly throughout the states, adding more folks from the travels along the way. This part of the project is something that is further down the road but is such an important aspect in realizing the scope that I hope this piece will have in regards to community and affirmation.
JTD: What are you currently working on, and what’s on the horizon for you as an artist?
CM: At the moment I am splitting my time between Bois Just Wanna Have Fun and Portraits as Affirmation. While I am at the initial stages of the miniatures I am really excited about where this project is going. Over this next year my main focus will be to catch up on the framing component, continue the portraits and build up the installation. Then in two to three years I hope to get it to a point where it can begin traveling. The possibilities at that point are very exciting and I am looking forward to connecting with folks on the road and expanding the installation’s representation.
JTD: Great, thanks so much Cobi!
All images © Cobi Moules