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Interview: Dustin Cook on his upcoming Solo Exhibition “Tumble”

Dustin Cook is a Detroit-based visual artist and designer. He is a graduate of College for Creative Studies, and as a featured artist in the Student Exhibition 2017, his eye-catching paintings left a serious impression. Since graduating, his artwork has been exhibited in various group exhibitions at PLAYGROUND DETROIT and KO Gallery.

Tumble presents a new series of relief paintings in his debut solo exhibition. The duality of the word “tumble,” which means to fall, or “fail” and having to get back up again; or to perform as an acrobat and “succeed” is visible throughout his latest paintings. He explores this idea of failing and succeeding simultaneously, playfully riding the line between success and failure.

“Boo-boos,” Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 9 x 12 inches, 2019 by Dustin Cook.

‘Playfulness’ is a reoccurring narrative throughout his work explored through sculptural works, paintings and installations. This concept of play comes through by maintaining a formalist focus on color principles, line quality, shape and form, combined with abstracted representations of symbols and signs.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I have really early memories of wanting to be an artist. In school, when you’d have to write what you wanted to be when you grew up, I always wrote artist and astronaut (hopefully one day I’ll go to space). Around first or second grade I would write and paint these books about various experiences and dreams, dragons and other things I liked and actually ended up getting awards for them. Art and creating has always been a big part of my life… it’s something I really connected with and always enjoyed more than most of the other things as a kid.

In the studio. Photography credit, PLAYGROUND DETROIT.

What is your experience as a working artist?

I have my BFA from College for Creative Studies in Fine Arts and my interest was in painting and sculpture. Through high school, I had pretty extensive exposure to graphic design through an awesome teacher I had that mentored me, but I really didn’t learn to draw or paint until going to CCS.

I have worked as an illustrator and designer for Adult Swim, and continue to do freelance design for clients and special artist projects with clients through PLAYGROUND including murals, commissioned paintings for collectors and interior design projects. I recently finished a mural for the renovated lululemon location in Birmingham that allowed me the creative freedom focus on minimalistic graphic elements.

Mural installation, lululemon Birmingham, Michigan.

What ideas are you currently interested in exploring through your artwork?

I’m most interested in exploring concepts that include playfulness, humor, art history, and the Digital Age. I’m working with acrylic, silicone and cast plastic mediums. Casting plastic seemed to really make sense when I thought about it like I do painting. Acrylic paint is essentially plastic, it dries super fast and the cast plastic does the same. They both have very similar processes.

Aside from these materials, I’m trying to push myself into new territories (in the past I have used astroturf, blinds, clay, caulk, and inkjet printing) to continue to push and explore materiality throughout my work.

What is it about relief painting that is of interest to you?

I think my interest in relief painting came directly through the work I was doing prior that was saturated with iconography, and a language that I was creating.

I was looking at a lot of modern logo types or symbols, and reminiscing of things like hieroglyphics and other forms of early symbolic language that was often carved into a wall, creating a relief. Making a large wall installation of shapes was also relief-like to me, and in a way, represented 21st century hieroglyphs and ’emoji’ Internet culture and communication. My research and on-going exploration eventually brought me to explore relief painting more seriously.

Detail view, wall installation, “COMM[UNITY]” Exhibition, November 2017.

What inspires you?

Mostly other artists. I’d be lying if I said something like “going out and seeing the nature” as much as I love to do that, it doesn’t often inspire me. 

Keeping in my studio regularly and consistently thinking and writing about ideas keeps my inspiration flowing. Of course, I also consume lots of artists books, documentaries, artists talks and dive down the rabbit hole of Instagram and the Internet to see and learn about all of the paintings that I can absorb.

Has the concept or theme that your work revolves around evolved over time?

Absolutely! I try to never be stuck- by that I mean, I try not to continue to exhaust the same idea. I think ideas are often great to explore and get into, but like a chapter to a book the story must continue or come to an end, and then new ideas should be pursued. My mind races and often I can’t keep up with it, so I try to explore as many of those thoughts as possible. Some are successful, and some are not, but I think that’s a great way to grow. It’s like, your Vans don’t become cool until they have some dirt on them.

Photography credit, Jeremy Fuller.

Do you have a favorite color? How does color play a role in your artwork?

My favorite color is yellow. It always has been. Bright primary and mustard. Color plays a pretty big role in all of my work. I’m certainly attracted to bold colors and I use color intuitively… sometimes forgetting it’s there. Color is often formal and aesthetic, while I do always trying to explore new palettes and color combinations.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

Definitely allowing myself to fail as a part of the creative process. Especially in college, I tried to ‘stay safe,’ often not allowing myself to explore some of my ideas due to intimidation or insecurities.

Allowing myself to be true to my own vision and also value the ideas that I have has been a really healthy and more enjoyable for me as a studio experience because it typically brings something new, and keeps me learning more every day.

What is the concept behind the show you are installing?

My show, Tumble at its root, is about this vulnerability to allow oneself to ‘fail’ in order to ‘succeed.’ The word “tumble” has this amazing word play that can be seen as someone falling down and having to get back up again, or- it can also describe an action that is pretty intense for a gymnast or an acrobat. You really do have to ‘tumble to Tumble.’ Personally, it also works well in relation to where my life is at currently, and where I am as an artist.

The paintings are all vastly different from one other with few common themes. Some of them define tumble more literally, in providing a situation that is naturally given and having to get out of it, for example, like a golf ball stuck in a sand trap, or something that is cut or hurt- and patched to be healed like a band-aid on a wound. I think it’s like that with the idea of ‘tumble,’ you have this moment of a journey where you’re getting up from the fall, but you’re not quite succeeding like an acrobat does. I think some of the work lays within that space with is often humorous or frustrating, and always one step in front of the last.

“Playbook,” 2018 24 x 36 inches, plastic casting on astroturf, Dustin Cook.

What are some of your favorite mold shapes?

As far as some favorites, it’s always changing, but currently I really like the golf ball and band-aid. I started sourcing existing molds online, but I have also created custom shapes as well. There are so many options to choose from.

How long have you lived in Detroit?

I am originally from the Detroit metro area, growing up in the White Lake or Waterford area. I moved to Detroit in 2013 to attend CCS and have lived here since. I think Detroit has an aching heart, but beats stronger than any other. The environment you find yourself in is always going to impact what you do creatively. Without a thriving environment it’s often hard to be your most creative self. I’ve only live in one other major city (Atlanta), so I can’t speak on how my experience would different for me, but I think Detroit is a pretty special place right now for creatives. It’s like a bud waiting to blossom. Detroit’s rawness keeps many of its residents wanting to create and draw out a little more of the vibrancy and life in this city that we all know is there.

Dustin Cook’s debut solo exhibition opens to the public on March 30th from 6-9pm at 2845 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. “Tumble” will be on view through April 27th.

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