Studio Visit: Serena Cole’s Glittery Paintings Tap into our Dark Desires

As part of our ongoing partnership with In The Make, Beautiful/Decay is sharing a studio visit with artist Serena Cole. See the full studio visit and interview with Serena and other West Coast artists at

Serena’s studio is in her Oakland apartment, a modest space that she has efficiently rigged to accommodate her needs. She’s set it up so that her studio takes up most of the apartment’s square footage, but she keeps things flexible with furnishings that are easily moved and rearranged. I’m always impressed with resourcefulness and am appreciative of the kind of ingenuity that comes out of necessity and that manages to circumvent a set of limitations. In fact, the idea of limitations kept coming up for me in thinking about Serena’s artwork because her pieces are very much visually dictated and confined by her reference material. Her work directly appropriates the fashion imagery of advertising campaigns and editorial spreads, highlighting the patterns and tropes used to elicit desire and encourage consumerism. In taking on this imagery, her work attempts to examine what is revealed about our collective psychology, the culture of consumption and escapism, and the complexity of fantasy. In our conversations, she acknowledged that she isn’t so much trying to create something new, but instead aims to deconstruct already existent imagery in the appropriation of it. But this is a slippery slope— in being so tightly tethered to the aesthetics of the fashion world, Serena’s work runs the risk of coming off as analogous instead of questioning. Serena is aware of this risk— in creating art within a framework already heavily loaded with well-established associations, value, and perimeters, she knows the trick is to get the viewer to recognize that there is actually a lot at stake amidst the glitz and glamour.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I make drawings and paintings with watercolor and colored pencil, but I like to use a lot of other materials like gold leaf, photo transfers, ink, gouache, acrylic, etc, etc. I also just got some glitter (!) and have some weird interest towards oils right now. I am a media nerd— I love finding new things to use and fitting them into a painting as seamlessly as possible.

Looking at the much bigger picture, I think all of my work is about unhappiness. Fashion is a world driven by feelings of lack and inadequacy, the desire to be someone else and the fantasy of what that might look like. So ultimately, fashion is unhappy, and it functions as a mirror to ourselves and reveals deep-seated anxieties. The imagery used to sell fashion is powerful, and I think people are often swept away by the fantasy it conjures. I’m fascinated by the idea that we all want to be someone else, but the person we want to be also wants to be someone else.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I am very lucky to have the perfect job for an artist straight out of grad school. I work as the 2D Studio Manager at the school where I graduated, California College of the Arts. I work full time with benefits and have my own office, and am off for two months in the summer. I manage the undergrad Painting students, and work closely with the Painting department, so I feel I am directly contributing a lot of positive things to a place I care about. I think I actually work too hard, and my art can sometimes suffer from the time I spend working at the school, but I am trying to figure out the balance. There are so many great things about working at an art school: access to the facilities, meeting interesting visiting artists, and exchanging really fruitful dialogue with both faculty and students.

I also teach night classes at the Art Studio at UC Berkeley, an extension program, so I am getting my foot in the door being an instructor. I teach the basics of drawing and painting to hugely varied groups of people, and it can be really challenging, but also rewarding to see them get excited about making art and improving. So, on a lot of days, I feel like with my art practice I have three jobs.

What do you read, listen to, or look at to fuel your work and find inspiration?
I make myself read a lot of classic literature because I feel everything stems from the past and I want to be aware of what is being recycled in our popular culture. Some books are totally wonderful, and some I trudge through for years. I am currently reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, but I also read super light fashion and art magazines all the time, like Another Magazine and Wonderland.

I hardly ever pick up any new music, and listen to the same old assortment of records on my turntable when I am at home making art. I tend to select a pile for the day based on feeling. I will pair Nick Cave with Bauhaus and The Cure or Cat Power with Bat for Lashes and Elvis Costello. There is something really wonderful about the glamorous angst of goth and some punk that really lets those emotions rip and helps me get into the zone.

I watch WAY too much TV and am mostly interested in shows that take me away from my life and into something more beautiful and puzzling, like Lost.

Do you have a motto?
No one is going to do it for you.

What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Cats, the beach, and dropping watercolor into wet pools on paper.

To read the full interview and see more of Serena Cole’s work go to

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