For artist’s Aspen project, it ain’t just the blues | AspenTimes.com

For artist’s Aspen project, it ain’t just the blues

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Karl Wolfgang/Courtesy Aspen Art MuseumPeter Coffin's untitled installation at the Aspen Art Museum is intended to make viewers question their visual experience.

Yes, the color blue means something to Peter Coffin. The California-bred, Brooklyn-based artist notes that blue is associated with calming and escapism and transcendence. It is also the rarest of pigments in the natural world, so in the days before artificial pigments, painters would often use blue – typically in a king’s robes – merely to boast of their access to the color.

But no, Coffin is not as obsessed with blue as his current exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum might lead some viewers to imagine. The untitled installation – which has been a work-in-progress since mid-May and shows through Friday – is blue, through and through. Blue sporting equipment, blue tarps, blue bunk beds, blue flowers, a blue DeRosa drum kit, and the centerpiece, a blue Toyota Land Cruiser which Coffin drove around Aspen this spring, when he was here as the museum’s Distinguished Artist in Residence. And it is not a jumble of various blues, of powders and navys and midnights; all the objects stick close to the tone known as cobalt – bright and intense.

Coffin was actually more interested in the animal kingdom than a particular spot on the color wheel. The satin bowerbird, from Australia, collects blue objects to build its nest; when Coffin questioned animal behaviorists about this behavior, the response was that the color helped the birds attract a mate.

Coffin wasn’t convinced. “Animal behaviorists will give a logical explanation for anything that looks like play,” he said back in May, when he was first installing his piece at the museum. Coffin wondered if the bowerbirds were doing something illogical – like simply being creative. He compared the birds’ behavior to dolphins, who often blow bubbles to swim through – an activity that looks more like entertainment than a survival technique.

Then, Coffin connected the birds back to humans: “Whenever we study animals, there’s always a little bit of examining ourselves,” said the 36-year-old. “It’s self-reflective. So I wanted to study our own sense of aesthetics.”

Here is his real field of interest. If there is a link through Coffin’s projects, it is a desire to examine – and then have viewers themselves observe – our own aesthetic sense. It’s not just, What are we seeing? but also, How are we seeing it? Or in terms relevant to the Aspen audience, What is all this blue about, and what does it do to us?

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“I wanted people to look at the lens we look through,” he said. “Often in art, we just delve right into aesthetics without thinking what it is. Tradition tells us it’s just beauty, but I think it’s much more than that.”

The project Coffin really wanted to bring to Aspen was one that would have had the town buzzing, if not necessarily reflecting on aesthetics. He had brief talks with the Aspen Art Museum about recreating a work here that he had done last year in Gdansk, Poland – flying a 24-foot aluminum flying saucer through the sky. The piece was adorned with 3,000 LED lights, making it possible to display images – Marcel Duchamps’ rotoreliefs, movies – on the saucer while it was in flight. The project was not intended to stun the residents of Gdansk, who were given advance warning. But Coffin did want to get their reaction; he worked with a team of sociologists to study the responses.

“I’m interested in social consciousness,” he said. “I have this theory that in times of war or social duress, people escape reality by believing in things that are not of this world. It was during the Second World War that the UFO phenomenon began. Carl Jung wrote a book about this: ‘Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky.’

“If people are feeling hopeful, a UFO will make them think of ‘E.T.’ and ‘Alf.’ If they’re feeling afraid, it will be ‘Alien’ or ‘V.’ I’m using UFOs as a neutral thing for people to think about.”

While creating the blue installation, Coffin noticed a vivid shift in his consciousness. “I found myself, in collecting blue things, getting in this funny state of mind – getting obsessive about collecting things that were the same shade,” he said. “I’d scan a thrift store, a scrap yard, and focus on finding that shade of blue. It overtook me for a while.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

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