Corey Presha’s paintings are inherently tied to and derived from history, with his recent body of work a response to the 2017 election and the current socio-cultural climate in America. Sourcing imagery from postcards, found materials, and Black Americana imagery from the early 20th century on eBay, Presha is exploring the history of outward and internalized racism in American history, specifically how it is adopted in culture, media, and is still incredibly prevalent in contemporary society. Painting with black paint on white canvases, Presha adopts stark contracts of positive and negative space, furthering the themes present within his work, while his minimal aesthetic also referencing the visual language of his original source materials and plays with the high/low contrasts of art, culture, and representation.
Corey Presha lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has shown work in group exhibitions, including “Slideshow” curated by Alyssa Kazew (Brooklyn, 2017) and “Television” curated by Sarah Largess and B. Thom Stevenson (99 Cent Plus Gallery, Brooklyn, 2017). Presha runs Sun Editions with artist Bill Sullivan, publishing artbooks, zines, and editions from various artists. He has self-published two artbooks, “The Black Panther Coloring Book” and “100 Girls I Don’t Know”, alongside multiple zines.
What is your background in art?
I went to school for history and political science, but then I dropped out and switched to photography. Photography has been my life for the last decade and is what initially got me interested in artbooks and all of that. About two and a half years ago I decided to take up painting. I was using more and more found photos and ephemera in my work, and the work was moving further and further away from photography and more into a printmaking space, and I then decided that I wanted them to be on canvases. I wanted the images and the works to be paintings. Another big reason why photography kind of lost its luster for me was because of Instagram. I actually thought it was amazing how it democratized photography, but once I saw that anybody could be a photographer, I just immediately thought, then why can’t I be a painter? So that’s also how it happened, I wanted to try my hand at something new. Until then, my whole life had been staying away from painting because I thought it was messy. Now painting is all I want to do. But even though I switched to photography in school, I think that history and political science is still a big part of my work. The paintings I’m making right now are all about history, and politics is my biggest hobby for sure. I would say that history is the biggest influence for me, especially seeing it as this cyclical thing because we keep repeating ourselves, especially in American history. I think that history is really my medium more than painting.
What was your photography like and how were you developing that practice?
It started out with kind of straight, portraiture, and then as I progressed I was using a lot of found photographs. I did a book called 100 Girls I Don’t Know that are all screenshots from Tinder where I was kind of searching for pictures that looked like they were all taken by one photographer. For the past four years I’ve been working with my friend and artist Bill Sullivan on Sun Editions. He’s a master painter, but he’s also a photographer, and he was a mentor to me in encouraging me to stretch my wings and do whatever I wanted in the artworld and try my hand at different things. He had a big influence in getting me from just photography to painting as well. It’s been a while since I picked up a camera, but I do still have some old projects that I would really like to make books of, but it just hasn’t been inspiring me in the same way lately.
You use appropriated imagery in your work, and history is a prominent theme in your work. How are you sourcing and selecting imagery?
I scour eBay for old postcards and for a lot of the imagery. For me, I find so much humor in these old blackface images, but they’re so heavy and weighted at the same time. These postcards were things that white people would send to one another as jokes, but they’re so weighted in racism that you have to think that this is somebody’s grandmother or grandfather sending this. They’re not the people out there lynching people, but they are the people posing in front of the lynched body in those photos that you see. I was thinking about this a lot after the election. These paintings are definitely a response to Trump’s election and to everything that’s been stirred up since then. I was thinking about the difference between the outwardly racist Richard Spencer’s and white nationalists of the world vs. the average person that would vote for Trump or have sent one of these postcards in 1930, which led me to how I started thinking about this imagery. With sourcing, I try to stay away with Google and use eBay more because with Google you’ll find the same images over and over again, but with eBay I seem to find rarer things. Using these images started with my photography and continues in my painting now where I’m appropriating and reshaping these images in a new context.
Are you looking for particular images?
I’m more interested in the overarching theme that they show and I just try to find the images that speak to me the most. A lot of them use more childlike imagery, so I try to stay away from those and use the ones that are still cartoonish, but are showing a little bit more as well.
How are you approaching humor with these images and this subject matter?
I try to use humor to make these topics easier to swallow. I want these images to be seen kind like how ‘nigga’ is used in rap songs, so as to make them a part of the lexicon. I think a lot of people see these images and think that they’re just coming from my brain and are not even aware that these were widely used images spread across America. It is all funny to me. It’s a history that’s not really known, and also the images are just funny on their face.
Can you talk about your incorporation of text in your works, in terms of source and content?
The text pieces are an obvious play on Ed Ruscha and using text in that way. A lot of them come from the postcards. That whole ‘jive, turkey’ lingo is funny to me, but it also expresses the same thing that the blackface images express, which is this old kind of racism that you know is still prevalent in modern society. It’s thinking about these stereotypes that are placed on black people.
How are you thinking about this post-election contemporary moment and incorporating that into your work and subject matter?
The election I think has played a big role in everything that I’ve done since then and continues to. I think that the election was big for everyone, but I’m pretty obsessed with politics and it hit me pretty hard. Over the last three years, these issues have all been stirred up again and I’ve been watching race in America explode. When I started making the new work, I knew I wanted to play with the issue of race, but I wasn’t really sure how. With the ridiculousness of Trump and everything that’s been going on, I thought that they had to be a little absurd. These new paintings I’m making are a bit more about Trump. I’m ripping off of Philip Guston’s work that he made commenting on Nixon and the Klan and his place in America. I feel like doing that with other pop culture references involved, but playing into the Donald Trump narrative.
What’s your work process like?
I work pretty quick and I like to paint quick. I use a projector and then work from images pinned up next to it. Lately I’ve been trying to slow myself down a bit to work a little bit more on being more painterly. I feel like my work is so graphic that I want it to have some painterly qualities to it. I’ve been trying to mix things up a bit and have been making collages before making a painting, so instead of working from a single image I’m using multiple images to create one thing. I don’t use photoshop, so I have a weird and convoluted route of using different apps on my phone in lieu of photoshop, and then from there it’s getting the image onto the canvas. I work directly from the images and then from my mind. I always used to think that working with a projector was taboo, and I didn’t realize that everybody just fucking does it, so I use one as well. And then when I feel like the image is complete, it’s there.
How do you balance your different bodies of work and think about things materially with Sun Editions and your painting practice?
I haven’t really figured out what a good painting book looks like yet. I have a million books, a lot of them by or about painters, and I love catalogs. For my last book fair, I made a faux catalog of all my paintings. But I’ve been trying to figure out just what a really good painting book looks like. There’s a history and look for photography books that I don’t think exists for painting books really and you lose the scale within a painting book. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m trying to for the fall and I’m workshopping it with Bill.
How are you thinking about scale?
Most of the work is 30 x 40 inches, but I really wish they were bigger. If I had the money and the space they would be humongous. I like seeing the images bigger and bigger, that for me is what it’s all about. The billboards and the graffiti pieces are really all about that -- seeing them at that size is really what I want to be doing.
Your work directly engages with a historical visual language through the use of those source images, and almost preserves and archives them through a contemporary lens. How do you approach merging that visual language with the contemporary moment?
That’s the main thing that the work is about, preserving this history. Even for myself, who is somewhat of a history buff, I didn’t even really know that this thing called ‘Black Americana’ existed. Seeing this weird history presented as a kind of fandom interested me to the point where I just felt like I needed to start using these images to preserve and show people this imagery.
People don’t want to believe that they’re grandparents were racist and probably still are, and that gets handed down. It’s something that needs to be broken. I think making these paintings and playing with the narrative of them and having people face their history is what I want to do. It reminds me of when people say preserving the Confederate monuments is preserving history -- it’s taking them down that is really facing history because these are the losers of history. In Germany they don’t have statues of Hitler for that reason, but they do learn about what Hitler did and how the Germans became a part of it. We Americans don’t face that history with the Civil War, we don’t really learn the repercussions of the Civil War or about Reconstruction and how all of that affected the whole history of our country. So that’s a big part of what the work is, what’s going into the work, and what I’m trying to do.
What are you thinking about in terms of making a successful work? What does a successful piece mean to you, what are you trying to achieve?
I definitely plan my work out a lot before it’s actually put onto the canvas, so I know what it’s going to look. But often times I’ll finish something and take a step back and feel like something is missing, and I’ll have to walk away and take time to digest it. I don’t know what it takes. Whether it was photography or painting or any medium, it’s all about the image and the making and trying to make a perfect image and composition. But I don’t really know what goes into it, I just know when I’m doing with it.
Can you talk more about collaging together multiple images and working from multiple sources? How does narrative enter into that?
It started with a commission I did recently for a magazine, which is now the painting that’s currently in progress right now. I had source all these images for it and I had a folder of things that I wanted to work from, and I just started printing things and cutting them out and created this collage. It was the first time I had ever done that. The article was about the NFL and Colin Kaepernick, the future of NFL, and racism. I was trying to show that through collaging all these football images with the image of owners and blackface and it all came together. I really liked the ways the lines between the photos were showing and I thought it added a new element to the narrative of being able to show more depth than just one stark image. I definitely see my work moving in that direction more.
How are you also thinking about color?
I’ve always been afraid of color, even when I was in high school making art. But it is something that I want to start working with in my next works I think. I don’t think it’s lacking from this work. I even thing it adds something in terms of the commentary because I’m trying to make things black and white, as cheesy as that sounds. I don’t really see color in these works, but I do see it in my future, I just don’t necessarily know how yet.
Do you have plans for pieces in the future?
I have a painting from a series that I was working on before that was based on this FBI manual that contained all the sheets of acid that were confiscated between 1973 and 1988. For me, it was really funny seeing all of these popular images like Superman and Mickey Mouse used in this counterculture way on blotter paper. So I was doing a series of paintings about that, I want to go back and do more with those. I want to make some larger versions of those paintings. I also still have a good amount of what I call the ‘economic anxiety paintings’ as well. But the next thing isn’t quite there yet.
What are you looking at, thinking about, engaging with -- what’s influencing you?
The counterculture and really 1968 has always been big for me. I grew up with two hippie parents, so the counterculture has always been a big influence on me. We did the Black Panther Coloring Book with Sun Editions, and I always look back on those years as the coolest time in the world and also a politically and historically super important time. Other than that, punk has always been a big influence on me, and right now modern rap is the biggest influence in my life. I also really love the democratization of everything. Richard Prince said ‘It’s a free concert,’ and I think that idea is great, I love that. It’s Internet culture -- everybody has their own Tumblr feed and you can become the owner of all these images. I love that.
What’s your studio practice like?
I have every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off, so my wife will be at work and I’ll be able to work during the day. I also work a lot of nights because I’m used to staying up late with work, so I’ll stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning just painting. Sometimes I’ll make two paintings in a night, sometimes I’ll work on a painting for a week. It’s pretty bare bones, nothing too crazy.
Are there any frustrations or challenges that you’re thinking about with your work right now?
I think the biggest obstacle is just not being rich (laughs). I work at a hotel and I work the graveyard shift, so having a bullshit day job -- or night job, in my case -- is annoying and definitely holds me back. Having a lot more money would be great to be able to stretch myself out a bit more, and also having a bigger space to be able to make bigger pieces. Other than that, I don’t really feel anything holding me back. I want to be able to feel like I can do anything and right now I actually do feel that way. And why not? If I put my mind to it, I can get anything done. That’s the way I’ve been working these last two years, making this transition from photography to painting. That’s the way you have to do it.