Bushwick-based artist KT Hickman is the epitome of someone who enjoys going hard in the paint; big strokes, messy renderings. Yet still, her distorted Coke logos are instantly recognizable. Looking at KT’s work is contagious and makes you want to paint. Her current series combines an insanely playful rendering style with an insanely disciplined subject, Coke. She has managed to stay on this subject for 5 years, without straying into the millions of other potential series, and still finds ways to keep it new. Discipline or obsession?
Joseph Smith is a Bushwick based painter and interviewer. He conducts studio visits with emerging to mid-career artists. These interviews serve as documentations of the artist, the artworld, the time period, etc. You can find his work and current projects on his website, or instagram. He visited KT’s studio towards the end of September 2020 to rummage through stacks of old paintings while talking about the eponymous Coke.
Joseph Smith: You bounce back and forth between video and painting, how did that become a part of your process?
KT Hickman: I wanted to study painting, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to focus on technical skill alone. That made me go towards video. I think the audience is broader and you can connect to more people with film, but I always went back to painting eventually.
I made a video of this drink I made called “The Coke Girl.” In it was every type of Coke mixed together with vodka, or whatever liquor you’d like, a spoonful of sugar, and a cherry. I’ve always painted text in some form and something just clicked as I was painting for fun, just spinning off of the video.
My ideas are always derived off of an obsession. [Coke] is definitely about obsession. Obsession is something I get a kick out of, the repetition fuels something in me. The idea that something can be repeated so many times and still be different each time.
JS: Did you think you’d be painting this for 5+ years?
KH: No, I just imagined it in so many different combinations and I wanted to see how many ways I could manipulate the logo through a variety of color combinations, or whatever it was, and yet have it remain so graphically recognizable. [Coca Cola] is ingrained in everyone. That’s why it’s funny too. Everyone can have an immediate reaction because they know what Coke is. You get it right when you see it. It’s not alienating. I’m not a fan of elitism or exclusivity. I don’t like how alienating the art world can be towards people from different backgrounds. It’s so limiting and unrelatable at this point. The [Coke] symbol immediately connects us globally.
JS: So it was an endless combination for you?
KH: It still is endless. I’ve been experimenting with not using the Coca Cola font and I plan for that to look totally different. I was wondering how far I could take it with it remaining recognizable, and found that for the most part it stays recognizable. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it looks, people still know what it is. It’s like brainwashing. It’s kind of semiotic, the word, “Coke.” You can endlessly analyze it. Coca Cola is an archetype of American culture, visually, historically, economically. It can represent the best and worst, the American dream and imperialist corruption. It’s an evil thing that can also make you smile.
JS: When you see a graphic or font you want to reference or experiment with in your paintings, do you collect it physically? Would you take the book or find images of the type online?
KH: I would take a book, like Stephen King’s typography from the eighties, even Goosebumps or something. I’ve been buying books by the lot on eBay, which will have like 10 books in one lot. That has a huge visual influence.
JS: We’ve talked a little about how you felt more pressure to develop a brand as a female painter, why do you think that is? KH: I think you have to try harder to fit yourself in. I personally do not think about or impose gender onto my work. I think it should function outside of those boundaries, but people are quick to impose them and create a narrative for the maker. Some people want a clear definition and like to divide things into categories, then have a hard time separating the thing from the person. Whenever that starts to happen, I try to do the opposite. I don’t feel the need to be seen for my work to be understood. Making a brand and doing one thing is not really my interest. If I didn’t switch modes, I would get really bored. I was making video art and when that started taking off, I became really un-attracted to it. I care less now, and not caring has helped me a lot with my work.
JS: Do you see yourself continuing to work on the Coke paintings in the next couple of years?
KH: I have no idea. It’ll evolve, and it’s always something I can go back to. I’ll just keep painting and experimenting and living in my own world.
It’s weird to feel like you have to do something like this. It’s obsessive. I can’t really explain it. You make time for it- if you don’t it drives you crazy.You always come back to it. It’s not about gaining a skill, it’s about getting anything internal out. [Painting is] basically therapy.