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Top 5, Not 5: A Conversation with Joshua Koolik

Joshua talks with the Brown Art Review about his senior show and the burdens of artistic genius.

Top 5, Not 5: A Conversation with Joshua Koolik
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

April 10, 2024
7 Minutes

Joshua Koolik is a senior studying Visual Art and Modern Culture and Media. His recent solo show, “Top 5, Not 5,” pushed the boundaries of the exhibition format. Not only did the interactive exhibition present viewers with a comprehensive history of the universe, but it also included a body of work spanning mediums of fabric, book-binding, oil painting, audio, and video (to name a few). I sat down with Joshua the week of the show to talk a bit about his work and perspective.

Charlie Usadi: Hi Joshua! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me!

Joshua Koolik: Thank you so much for inviting me! It is always so nice to talk about art!

CU: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself? What can we find you doing on campus when you’re not in the studio?

JK: I’m a total Aquarius ISFP and, like, 5’10”. When I’m not making art at List or in my room, and I’m not running errands, maybe you would find me dancing or taking a nap, which I’m trying to get more in the habit of doing—although naps do make it more difficult to distinguish between waking life and dreams for me. Sleep is so important, though.

CU: And where does Visual Art come into this? How long have you been creating, and when did you decide to concentrate?

JK: As a very shy and sensitive child, art made sense as something for me to do, and I enjoyed it. I imagine many visual art students have a similar answer. I am very lucky to have parents that encouraged creativity growing up. Since high school, I knew that I would go to college to study art. I thought that I would add another, more practical major, like architecture, but it didn’t really happen for me.

CU: How has your experience been in visual art at Brown? Any particularly inspirational courses or professors who’ve contributed to your work?

JK: Leigh Tarentino, Daniel Stupar, Heather McMordie, and Isabel Mattia are the main professors I worked with here. They are awesome! Since I also concentrate in Modern Culture and Media, I have taken some production and theory classes over there, including my capstone with Tony Cokes, which encouraged ways of thinking about art I hadn’t encountered in VISA. I’ve also done some dance and math classes that totally opened up my mind and access to my body.

CU: How have you seen your work develop in recent years?

JK: I am getting better at trusting myself and now have ways of working where I can fully absorb into what I’m doing. In the past, I was more comfortable listening to music or something while I worked, but now it feels like I need more stillness in my head to make all the little decisions all the time. Sophomore year, I was confused about the purpose of making art, which I think is somewhat due to how art had been taught to me. Back then, I was making dumb gay stuff. Now, I have much more clarity. I went to the Ed Ruscha show at the MoMA a few months ago, and something really clicked for me there. I’ve been having a bunch of moments like that in the past couple years, whereas before that, if I’m being totally vulnerable with you, I had a harder time connecting to art in museums and stuff. I love looking at art. It’s just so good sometimes!

CU: Does your queer identity still play a role in your work now?

JK: I understand why you’d ask that, but I’m actually not gay anymore! Yeah, it’s been about a year and a half.

CU: So, in terms of your current art practice. What themes do you work with most?

JK: As you can see in the show, I’ve been doing a lot of animal stuff lately. Patterns have been big for me for some time as well. I am inspired by my physical and mental experiences as my eyes, brain, and the rest of my body move through and figure out 3D space—proprioception, I guess—inspired by things like perspective, shadows, textures, lines, and “negative space.” Generally, science has been a jumping-off point for a while, too. It’s all about material awareness, being creative, and following my heart.

CU: You mentioned Ruscha. Are there any other artists inspiring your current practice right now?

JK: Definitely. For example, I feel like I’m always rewatching this video of Elizabeth Murray, even though I think our work is very different. Ooh, I just watched this awesome video of an artist who makes the world’s smallest handmade sculptures. I also feel like all the art I’ve seen in my life influences me, for sure.

CU: I’d love to dive more into your recent work. Let’s discuss your show! First off, would you like to say anything about the poster? I love the image—what’s the story behind that photo?

JK: There’s just something about it, right? That picture was taken by my dear friend Jemima Alabi, who is able to see and capture me like nobody else can! The photographs of me taken for this interview were also shot by her. Many call her one of the greatest minds of our generation, and I’d have to agree. She is also an incredible writer. You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram account @spacecam17. Huge shoutout!

CU: Could you describe the concept behind the body of work, “Top 5, Not 5”?

JK: The exhibit is about science, math, history, animals, patterns, dance, drawing, and more. It really feels like the concept driving this work is everything I have ever thought of. There have been some rumors floating around about the significance of the title that need to be put to rest. Some people were saying it’s because I’m in the top five hottest guys in the grade—and that I have a secure position, like, I’m not fifth or something. While I’m flattered, I will say that the five in the title represents the five paintings in the show. Another shoutout to Jem for coming up with that title!

CU: I’m glad we’ve cleared the air about the show title. Hopefully TMZ gets the message to chill out. Could you speak about the mediums you work within the show?

JK: There’s a lot going on in terms of materials: one painting is sewn fabric over stretcher bars, one is marker on paper/wood, one is plasticine on board, one is tape on cotton fabric, and finally, there’s one oil painting. We also have a paper sculpture, 300 printouts, a book, animal sounds/ancient music mix playing, and my YouTube playlist projected on the wall. I have been using a lot of different materials because I enjoy the challenge of maintaining my message through super different forms. It helps me stay sharp and see from different angles what exactly it is that I’m doing.

CU: I totally get that—the show is so fun because each piece is unexpected and so unique. There’s a lot of dynamism in terms of media. In terms of content, you mentioned animals as a common theme throughout the show. I’m interested in their significance to you and your work.

JK: Yes! All 5 of my paintings depict animals. Hmmm. I like using animals because they are easy to relate to in so many different ways. There is just so much reference material and personal connection to work from. Because I’m secretly very serious, it is convenient to be able to pretend that there’s something funny in my work, and these animals do it for people for some reason. I could talk about my own associations, but that would interfere with the experiences others might have. 

CU: Text is also central to this show. Your statement, in particular, is unlike any I’ve encountered before. What sort of thought goes into the words within your work and the words which frame it?

JK: I honestly wrote it in like two minutes with ChatGPT’s help. I didn’t realize a statement was required for the capstone until the day before my show. But I really like how it turned out! It captures something for sure. I really do like it. I read it over and over again. One of the paintings has text in it, but that was a months-long process to write. The 400-page book in the show took me a while, too.

CU: Can you elaborate on developing the text for those printed sheets?

JK: Yeah, so on one side of each sheet is a narrative of history since the Big Bang, and the other side is shared between the fundamental areas of math and of natural science. I wanted to simplify each of these fields so they would be like quick snapshots as a tool to help shift scales and situate ourselves. Surprisingly, it took a very long time to write these short things. I emailed like 80 professors from various departments for their thoughts on what I had. Some of them were not so excited to boil down what they spent their careers researching into just a few words, while others were extremely helpful in pointing out holes, mischaracterizations, biases, and even problems with the form itself.

CU: I love that you presented professors with the text. The paper you have the text on is hand-marbled, right? I remember seeing you working on it in the studio.

JK: Yes, that’s right! I used a Japanese process called suminagashi that I learned from art class at the Sunday school where I teach. It was very cool to watch the kids experiment with this new technique, so I bought a kit for myself.

CU: And these documents are interactive. How did that idea come about?

JK: Actually, Daniel Stupar presented to me the idea of something that changes over the course of the show. Shoutout Daniel! I thought that having a huge pile of these sheets to interact with, along with modeling clay, was very in line with the trains of thought that inspired them initially.

CU: I totally agree; there’s a playfulness throughout that’s really engaging. Do you think teaching at Sunday school may have influenced this interactive “project” visitors encounter in the show? I feel like the statement itself is a bit of a teaching moment, as well.

JK: Hm. I didn’t think about that connection, but totally! Like I said, all of my thoughts and experiences I’ve ever had went into each element of the show.

CU: Do you have plans to continue this conceptual path you’re taking, or do you want to shift direction?

JK: Continue, I think.

CU: Any specific inspirations/ideas you’re thinking of exploring next?

JK: I have been working on some stuff that references POV (point of view) more explicitly, and I want to keep going with that.

CU: Where can people find more of your art?  

JK: I am still working on a website for Heather Bhandari’s class, but let me commit to joshuakoolik.com now.

CU: On behalf of the Brown Art Review, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me about this show. There's such a wonderful variety in the work, so I’m excited to see what’s next. You can see more of Joshua’s work at joshuakoolik.com in the future!

JK: Thanks!

(All photographs courtesy of the artist)

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