Alika Cooper shuffles around a few fabric swatches, placing varying patterns and materials next to each other to see how they look together. She grabs a red and white patterned cloth and two blue swatches.
“Here, this is what I have and I have to make it make sense,” she says pointing to these three different fabrics, three fabrics you would never wear together or even consider being a part of the same product. For Alika, these are her paints: she will use these three, different fabrics to create an art piece that is part painting and part collage.
“This is a collage problem,” she says with a shake of the swatch. “I’ve never done collage before, ever, in my life. It still feels completely new. I feel like I’m drawing when I’m doing it but the actual process, the technical stuff, is totally new. Even the way you make shapes: it’s totally different in collage. Figuring out the composition is just like collage and that is totally new to me. I try to figure out what my palette is and, with paint, you can just mix them to change the tones. You can’t do that in collage.”
This is a very recent problem for Alika as this style of making is still relatively new to her. When she moved to Los Angeles, she switched up her making from painting and drawing to her current fabric affixing technique. She’s still discovering new practices and ways to make in this style: she is never without a fabric founded challenge.
Alika is a Southern California native. She grew up South of Los Angeles in Poway, right outside of San Diego. “I mostly grew up in San Diego, kind of in the East valley of San Diego. It’s pretty much low key suburban countryside. It was fairly conservative: there were art classes at my school but it was very unfocused. People moved there for the sports programs.”
She laughs. After high school, she went on to attend the a University of Oregon but didn’t know exactly what she would be studying. “I didn’t really know that I wanted to do art but, as soon as I started looking at the classes, I did. I applied to the art program when I went there so I thought I was going to do that–but I didn’t really know until the first day I was there, when you pick your classes. I just picked Art and Art History classes.”
“After two years I realized that I really am doing [art] so I transferred to an art school: I went to CCAC for undergrad and grad school in San Francisco and then lived in Oakland for ten years. I moved here about four years ago to be in a bigger city and a bigger, stronger art scene.”
Her move wasn’t directly in response to anything she didn’t like about the Bay Area and the art world up North. The two cities are just very different. “The Bay is an area that isn’t as big as LA. Artists don’t take on big art. It’s so much more low key. People really take on art history here while it is more DIY up North. I loved CCAC: there are so many great teachers and great facilities. You have a lot of freedom to do what you want to do and can focus on doing it. It was really hard to leave the Bay Area because I had made such a community having been to college and working there.”
Since life in the Bay wasn’t by any means bad, why did Alika move? “I don’t know,” she says with a little shrug. “It just seemed bigger and more competitive and like there is a dialogue happening in Los Angeles. I feel like there is a better art community here. I felt dissatisfied with the community up there. Because there is a lack of galleries and support, people are competitive in a way that isn’t productive. People are competitive in such a productive way down here.”
This explanation highlights a strange chemistry in the Los Angeles art scene and creative scene in general: it is a highly competitive creative climate but everyone wants to help each other, help their peers, succeed. It is such a weird, impossible sounding energy but it is absolutely true.
Los Angeles also provided Alika with the means to change: she’s in a new city, in a completely new environment, and in a position to take her art someplace new, to create in a way that carries her themes but expresses them in new ways. Changing in Los Angeles made sense. “I have been looking back and I think about how my subject matter has always tends to be pretty figurative. It deals with body image, which has been a pretty steady theme in all of the types of work that I make. Moving to LA, I feel like I made a major shift to this textile work. I guess I had the liberty here to change–it’s more accepting here too. Maybe this is all in my head but Oregon is super traditional with art and CCAC is a mix but, here, I feel more liberated.”
Alika’s textile work is an entirely new endeavor for her, a medium that relates to her personal themes but goes against any artistic practice she has ever had. Where did it come from? “I wanted to make a change in my work and I was having a hard time figuring out what it was going to be,” she explains. “I was making work like what was shown at Tenoversix last year: portraits of these starlets when they were young and naive and before they became famous or when they were working on more obscure projects when they were older. It was about aging. I guess I was looking for a new symbol for the feminine in my work. I was messing around while visiting my aunt in Oklahoma because my mom and my aunt both make quilts and different kinds of craft projects. I wanted to make a quilt but I wasn’t really even thinking about what I was doing at all. I wasn’t even thinking about anything. I started cutting fabric and gluing it down and I made this portrait of Grace Jones.”
“It was really fun,” she continues. “I started messing around with different adhesives for appliqué so that I could get smaller pieces down more tautly. I kept on playing around with it and, when I got home, I thought it was cool so I stretched the fabric over canvas and tried it that way. That was nice because it makes the fabric super taut because I could iron it on.”
The technique Alika uses to make these fabric “paintings” is a combination of various adhesive applications and iron-on heat bonds that she places on her fabrics. This technique affords her to be able to cut shapes and make compositions in a similar way to drawing. “It feels like drawing,” she says holding a piece of fabrics she had cut earlier. She cuts out a near perfect circle, suggesting that creating in this fashion is incredibly easy. “That’s what’s nice about using this [iron on] material: it makes the fabric like paper.”
Alika has used fabric to make a few quilts but likes them better on the flat plane of a canvas.”I’m figuring out how to make the bigger ones more complex. There are so many technical things to figure out! Like with the newer ones: even the backgrounds are more layered, even if it is the same fabric. I place a bunch of pieces together in an area to create way more depth and atmosphere and confusion of space.”
The medium–fabric–can present it’s own unique complications, an unexpected element that makes for an often difficult artistic process. What type of material should be used? What does it mean to use fabric from different eras? When you layer so many materials, what happens? These are all questions Alika has been asked while making.
“Different fabrics react differently to the heat, which is another problem,” she furthers. “When you are doing intricate things that are all next to each other, you can only put the iron at certain places and with a certain heat. It gets hectic. Sometimes I melt stuff and have to rip it off–that’s when it becomes like painting because youmess it up and have to wipe it off or cover it up or pull it off. I try to figure out the composition before I glue it down. At a certain point, it becomes such a complicated web that it has to be tacked down. Then it’s like a painting because you are stuck with it and you have to deal with it.”
One layer to these compositions that people don’t realize is this deep connection to fabric craft, particularly fabric craft that the women in Alika’s family have a been active in for decades. “The very first ones I made were at my aunts house so they were with her fabric. She has been doing crafts for a very long time: she has nearly three decades of fabric scraps. It was fun to get these fabrics from 1989 that wouldn’t necessarily be in a quilt store right now. Fabric has a quick shelf life because there is always a new, trendy pattern or material. They date nicely. And it’s always fun to find ones that you can’t place in time, ones that could be eighties or nineties or I-don’t-know. I started going to Wal-Mart and Jo Ann’s because I was really into run-of-the-mill, domestic project material. I’ve gotten into upholstery fabrics and Downtown’s fabrics, which has a wide selection of stuff. I really like calicos and quilting fabrics, these designs that can be abstracted by scale.”
“And, every time I visit my mother’s house, I dig through my mom’s bins of fabric. She has an entire shed full of fabric in her garage.”
It’s somewhat funny that Alika’s work has incorporated so much of her family and home because she is now so close to where she grew up with them: she is back in Southern California. She never thought she would be living here ever again. “I’m from San Diego and all of Southern California is ‘a thing.’ There is a similarity in the cultures of both cities and I definitely wanted to get as far away as possible from here after high school. Since then, I’ve been slowly coming back in this direction.”
“I see myself staying here for a while,” she says of being in Los Angeles. As for her work, she has some literally big plans. “I am working on some bigger pieces and this body of work is changing and becoming more detailed and rendered. They’re becoming more worked on and layered. The craft aspect keeps changing it: there’s a lot there still to mine as far as the process. I’m also trying to make more large scale ones, which gets pretty hectic because of the layering of fabric and covering the space with it. Fabric only comes in certain sizes so it can become a technical quagmire as the work gets bigger. It will be interesting to figure it out.”
For more on Alika, check out her website. Alika is also featured in the January 2013 issue of Frieze magazine by Jonathan Griffin and will be showing work at Art Los Angeles Contemporary with Night Gallery. Alika is also participating in Houston group show Sojourner, which is on view through January 15.