Last week I spent an hour chatting with artist Mark Kochen for a Weekender cover story. We spoke about the Sioux City painter’s distinct art style, his work methods and the ever-evolving story linking his pieces together. However, I wasn’t able to include everything we talked about during our interview in the finalized article.
Here’s what’s left of our lengthy interview:
In addition to your paintings, I noticed that you also create sculptures. Do you make those as often as the paintings?
Kochen: I don’t claim to be a sculptor. But what I do is I make ideas tangible. I make prototypes. (He motions me over to one of his sculptures placed on a wooden pedestal in his living room. It’s a tower made of colorful boxes. His signature sheep are scattered throughout.) Here is a sculpture. Again, I don’t think of myself as a sculptor. I get ideas sometimes and I want to see what they look like in reality. Drawing them would be a massive pain. It’s easier for me to just sit down at the desk with the wood and the glue and the knives and just build it.
What kind of wood are these pieces made from?
Kochen: Bass, balsa, sometimes just pine. Stuff I can cut. They’re just prototypes. If I was using really heavy duty materials I might think they were a bit more of a thing. I definitely got some plans for these sculptural ones. (Kochen points to the pile of similar prototype sculptures hidden away inside a cabinet in the corner of his dining room.) I’d like to take a shadow box thing -- a large shadow box -- and do a really subtle tilt that built up with hundreds and hundreds of little things. All these things are hand-built boxes. Those are all hollow. They weigh grams. They are nothing. You can lift that whole sculpture up with just your finger.
I like that the sculptures have the same look and style to your paintings. You’re able to add the same amount of details and precision.
Kochen: Yeah let’s go look at some paintings! (Kochen and I walk into his work space. Paintings are stacked everywhere. One piece is set up against a wall in his storage room that has yet to be finished. Kochen motions to some of the larger works, his favorite kind to create.) I want to do a show where I hand out magnifying glasses. Wouldn’t that be fun? If you go to these big museums, they’re not going to let you get up close. In my world, this I where I paint them. (He leans down to a painting and gets face-to-face with the canvas.)
And do you want people to see them from the perspective of you painting it?
Kochen: Yeah! Get in there! (Kochen points to an extremely dense painting, full of pop-art imagery.) This thing is pixel-perfect. There are some real obsessive compulsive going on there.
You don’t use oil paints, right?
Kochen: It’s all acrylics. It’s a very specific application of paint. It’s liquid plastic. It’s fun!
How do could go about painting the more details portions of your paintings?
Kochen: Everything is done in waves. It’s all layer structures. I’ll just put down a very generic orange – the whole thing is orange to start with. Well, first it’s pencil. So it’s white with pencil and then it’s whatever color it’s going to be. And then I’ll differentiate pieces of it with darker or lighter, and as it gets closer to being complete that way, then I can outline it. As I get closer to the conclusion, I can go back and really get in there with the tiny little brushes to fix any imperfections. That’s something that’s gotten worse of the years! I’m always like, “I can do better!” Every painting is “I can do better!”
Well that’s a good thing, right?
Kochen: It’s good for the legacy; it’s not so good for productivity. Have you ever heard of 80/20? It means 80 percent of the work is done at 20 percent of the time, and then 20 percent of the work takes 80 percent of the time. So you can get it 80 percent of the way done really quick and then it’s the hard slog.
Looking around your place… do you have paintings in every room?
Kochen: Oh yeah. The whole house. You can’t hardly find an empty piece of wall space. My gal is a sweetheart and she tolerates it very well. She’s an artist, too. She’s a teacher out in Hinton. But yeah there are piles [of paintings]. My mother’s house -- her basement -- is piled up, too.
How many paintings do you have, Mark?
Kochen: Hmm… somewhere between 300 and 400, of varying sizes. I have an understanding of what’s most interesting. And this is always going to be more impressive than this. (Kochen compares his large unfinished painting to a small, finished canvas piece about the size of his hand.) It’s always going to bug more eyes out. One of my favorite things about this whole thing -- this whole art gig -- is watching kids in front of my work. I’ve seen them just go “Ohh!” And that was me when I was kid. I loved this stuff.
What kind of art did you gawk over when you were a kid?
Kochen: “Calvin & Hobbes.” Are you a Bill Watterson fan?
Of course! I still read those!
Kochen: It’s not just the black-and-whites, he was a phenomenal artist! His Sunday strips were fine art all the way. The Spaceman Spiff he did – just beautiful, gorgeous work. But, yeah, Bill Watterson. I can never remember the “Where’s Waldo?” dude [Martin Handford]. Richard Scarry – he had books like “The Little Monster Goes to the Construction Yard.” You would open it up and there would be two, full pages of every type of construction equipment in excruciating detail. I still have the books! I have every Bill Watterson book. I’m clearly a Dr. Seuss fan. I’ve been kind of going over this in my head and it’s funny my relationship to that stuff is… I feel more strongly about that then I do, say, Picasso or a lot of your masterworks. But I think the best art in the world is Renaissance paintings – the Sistine Chapel, you name it, that stuff is the best stuff to have ever been created. But next in my book is Dr. Seuss and all that.
Why do you value those artists so highly?
Kochen: Those particular? Data. Seuss created a whole world, incredibly expansive. With Richard Scarry, he’d have one page where it’s construction and then you turn the page and it’s a cutaway of an entire apartment complex. There was always something to see, always something to look at. You’d look at it on Monday and you’d come back again on Tuesday and you’d see all new stuff. That’s where I’m at. That’s what excites me. Data-dense imagery. Generally, you can start somewhere and follow it and get distracted. (Kochen hovered his finger above the canvas of his nearly complete painting, tracing the interconnecting parts.) You could follow the little trail around to see how that winds in and out. Or you could look for the crabs and see where each of those is at. Every subsequent pass you’re seeing it in a different way. I mean, this stuff is pop art. It’s a surreal pop art.
Do you think you’ll ever stop building this world of yours? Will it ever be finished?
Kochen: No. It will never be finished. It’ll never be done. This is what I’m cut out to do. It’s not the easiest road. It takes a lot of work. People warned me, and I didn’t listen.
Are you glad you didn’t listen?
Kochen: Yeah, ultimately. You hear those stories about people that are laying there in the hospital dying and they never say, “Oh, I wish I would have spent more time at the office.” Right? It’s always, “I wish I would have followed my passion” or “I wish I would have spent more time with my family.” It was never, “I wish I would have taken the standard route.” Nobody ever says that. I’m following the passion. As a final word, it’s exciting for me because I can still see it with some objectivity as myself as a kid. If I could go and present my work to myself as a kid, I think he’d be excited about it.