An Interview with Adrian Cohen-Gallant and Sophia Ilyniak

Photo by Zach Hertzman

Photo by Zach Hertzman

I met Adrian Cohen-Gallant and Sophia Ilyniak at Gallery 1313. They were performing as part of a live Internet broadcast hosted by In My Bed Magazine. The artist couple has created a series of body paintings since their senior year at the Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA). Together they position themselves on sheets of broadcloth, linen or burlap to create quasi-symmetrical imprints with their mud-covered bodies. The suggestive forms left behind allow Cohen-Gallant and Ilyniak to draw a viewer in with a sparse and graceful composition, while maintaining distance from intentionally arousing representations of sex. Since their performance at 1313, I have learned how the reception that these works received at ESA, and the intimacy Cohen-Gallant and Ilyniak foster, help cast light on the potential these two artists share.

Will: Lets start at the beginning. When were and how did you guys meet?

Adrian: I didn’t necessarily have the greatest high school experience in my first four years of high school. I went to a school called Metro Prep [Metropolitan Preparatory Academy]. I actually started in grade eight, before I really had an opinion of my own about schools, my parents just put me in that school. In grade nine, I ended up getting into a drug addiction. In grade ten it had sky rocketed into terrible, terrible drugs. So, I ended up going to treatment in Utah. Spent a year in school there, got incredible marks because Utah’s academics are terrible. I got like 100% in most of my classes. And I was basically two classes, from my understanding when I was in Utah, away from graduating. And then I come back to Canada, transferred my credits over, and they transferred basically into nothing; they transferred into a pile of electives. So I still needed so many mandatory classes. I had basically spent no time in school as far as they were concerned.

Sophia: That’s when things get really kinda screwed up I think. We were friends most of the school year, and then I went to a treatment program for eating disorders, so I was gone for most of the year. And in the middle of that I lost my boyfriend, who I had been with for over two years. That’s when he kind of came in, and became my best friend. Took care of me pretty much. You were there everyday. And that’s just kinda how things happened. It was an OD [referencing the passing of her boyfriend], so he totally understood what happened.

Adrian: So I just told her 'I can be there for you.'  And I just talked to her about things after her program everyday.

Sophia: The last thing that was on my mind was getting into another relationship. I was so content with being single for the next however many years. A month later we were already together. And I felt so terrible. It was a really, really hard time because I wasn’t supposed to be with him. I wasn’t supposed to be with anybody. I was supposed to be grieving. It was just wrong and some people had issues with it. Anyway, after a while we started making art and started doing really fun stuff together.

Will: Tell me about the initial idea and how things developed as you guys started working together.

Adrian: Initially, I feel it’s a little bit cliché, but it was just how incredible the little things are, and how art is held on this pedestal but our daily life is below it. Such a beautiful part of our daily lives is artistic in every way; there are so many facets of it that are incredible. How could I actually express that? The next obvious conclusion was getting covered in paint and leaving the remnants of it behind on a canvas.

Will: Why does the naked body represent the opposite of  ‘elevated’ art for you?

Adrian: Where I want to go with this was to show how other things are sacred and ritualistic that people do but are, especially at the age when we first started, very kept in the shadows. We refer to making love as sleeping with someone because it’s supposed to happen at night behind closed doors. It’s a hush-hush topic even though we’re supposed to be a liberal society.

Sophia: Especially during high school; we are [supposed to be] a-sexual beings in high school.
Adrian: It’s really hard to visualize what it’s going look like until you actually do it.  Once we actually did it and saw the first print we stood holding one another as if we were looking at our child.

Sophia: The first thing that we really liked about it was that it was a 2D sculpture.

Adrian: Yeah, its an imaginary sculpture. It’s not a performance piece; we were making love on them, and a lot of them you can really see the passion in them. There is a lot of motion and movement; you can actually see the passion of what happened. The ones that aren’t like that area whole lot cleaner. They almost have a completely different message in them. The whole gray series, I almost find it too sterile, but at the same time it is an interesting look at lovemaking. It’s really sterile: here’s where your hands go, here’s where your legs go, here’s where your body goes.  It really isn’t that far of a stretch to go from what we do to a performance piece. We’re not opposed to public nudity.

Sophia: It’s amazing that I’m doing that right know, when you consider where I was last year.

Will: [to Sophia] Was it important for you to be able to do these [performance] pieces? Was that a step forward for you, it terms of you being comfortable with your own body?

Sophia: I’m in a way different place now. I’m just really happy that I don’t have any anxiety about that at all.

Will: Do you think your performance pieces convey something completely different than the finished works themselves, the canvases.

Adrian: I feel like the finished works are really open to interpretation. You see one and you don’t necessarily link it to sex or anything of that sort. There is a whole lot more risk involved in the performances to be interpreted as erotic or just in a less wholesome way, because we are naked and on display.

Sophia: We’re showing how comfortable we are with each other.

Will: That’s an important part of staying away from the erotic in my mind: just how comfortable you guys seem with one another. Is that a big objective for you: staying away from the erotic?

Adrian: We were afraid of In My Bed [Magazine].

Sophia: We checked it out, and did some research, and checked out what the magazine is actually about because we didn’t want to put our stuff into some porno crap. That’s not what it’s about at all.

Adrian: Our culture absolutely disgusts me with the way sexuality is portrayed and woman are portrayed.

Sophia: That’s another reason that I don’t shave anything on my body. It’s about equality, and I think the symmetry in some of the pieces conveys that.

Adrian: So many people will see my ass or my back on the canvas…

Sophia: And they instantly think its my body!

Adrian: Just because it is a sexualized object, but yours or mine looks exactly the same on the canvas.

Will: Has it’s been difficult to overcome the association with the erotic when it comes to your body art?

Adrian: I find that the finished pieces do a much better job of avoiding that than the performance. And I think in order to achieve that same distinction with the performance it will take a lot of thinking. Doing it and finding out what happens is a big part of that. It wasn’t interpreted that way at Gallery 1313, but it could have been. I find I have to think about where my hands are because where my hands are can change it from being ritualistic to erotic really quickly. If I have my hands on your breasts it is all of a sudden erotic because your breasts are so eroticized by our media.

Will: You describe it as a ritual, that it’s a ritual act for you guys. Can you explain what that means?

Adrian: In our culture it’s a means to an end, its not part of an everyday ritual that you share with someone you deeply care about. And as cliché as that may sound, it terrifies me to think that something as fundamental and animalistic is viewed in the same way as people view alcohol and drugs. The top three addictions are gambling, alcohol and pornography. It’s insane to think that we view sex in the same way as we see a mind-altering substance.

Will: How was the first series received at ESA?

Adrian: Every year the grade twelves have a gallery show. Last year it was at the Whippersnapper on College. Our big assignment of the year is due before then so we have a chance of getting into the show. It had to be a series of seven works.

Sophia: We had seven of these ones [the coloured pieces]. Our stuff was up. It took hours to put it up. Everybody was so stoked about it. The day of [the opening] we come to the gallery and ‘Sorry guys.’

Adrian: We get there early, the teachers came up to us and told us ‘you guys have to take this down.’  I feel like they were more anxious than they needed to be about it, they had made it a bigger deal than it needed to be.

Will: What were their concerns? How did they explain things to you?

Adrian: Well, it was explained to us that the board of education, the TDSB [Toronto District School Board], and the teachers union were in conflict at the time, and they explained to us that a gallery show is something that most high schools don’t do. It’s really a privilege that you get from going to ESA. And most kids in the fine arts program don’t get into the show. The teachers select those who get in based on the caliber of art they’re producing. And it would just take one parent whose kid’s art didn’t get into the show to complain and get our teachers fired. I’m skeptical about that, but that’s how they explained it. There was no arguing, but at the same time as an artist I felt I should be behind my art 100%.

Sophia: After the Whippersnapper Show we were both so upset, but after that we thought about how awesome it is that after completing our first body of work we’re already being censored. We’re doing something right if we’re already out their doing something that’s not accepted.

Will: Do you think your teachers felt that it was impossible to avoid the erotic aspect, or the potential for you art to be interpreted as being erotic? Or was it just that any comment on sexuality was not allowed?

Adrian: I think they were just being oversensitive. They were more afraid then they needed to be about it. They already push it a lot at an art school. It is far from the norm of a high school. Getting us into a gallery is something that high schools just don’t do. They’re already going out on a limb. And you push it even further, and it’s scary to them. When people are scared they’re less rational. I don’t know if it really is a question of whether they didn’t think it was possible to avoid the erotic aspect, it’s just the fact that there is the chance that someone would view it that way and make a complaint, and that was just too much for them to risk at that point. Like we said, they gave us 100% on that assignment. They viewed it as a completely successful series. It was totally what they were looking for in the context of the assignment, but it was just too much for them to put it up I guess. And then you take it out of the high school setting, and we’ve shown in a couple of different shows since, and it’s not even taboo in the slightest, it’s not even that risky.

Sophia: It stands out to people, but people don’t giggle about it that much, it’s not really that out there. Until they see us naked in the gallery. That’s where things get a little different.

Will: (to Sophia) As a woman do you think people’s reaction to your involvement in the performance is different than the reaction that Adrian might get?

Sophia: I have thought about it; being the naked girl in the gallery. It makes a big difference that he’s there. Him being there and being comfortable, and not being sexualized in any sort of way, changes things.

Adrian: It spreads out the responsibility onto two people. Like I was saying, I feel responsible for where my hands are, I have to think about it, I have to make sure that I’m not sexualizing your body. There’s less focus on one person, it’s a focus on the ritual and not on the individual.

Sophia: That’s why, when we were trying to decide what we were doing for you guys [during the photography shoot], and we thought about the doggy style position, and we wondered if we should do it; it’s different of us. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot, there’s less of a connection happening because we’re not looking at each other. We did it though.

Adrian: In the finished piece doggy style makes a really interesting composition, but in performance that posture suggests many things. I’m not looking at her. It sexualizes her body a whole lot more.

Sophia: I’m on the ground, and on my knees. That’s kinda what we were trying to stay away from.

Adrian: We did research before we started doing this art. We cracked open the Karma Sutra and read up on their explanations of every position. We tried to pick ones that were interesting and lead your eyes into the piece, but ones that also avoided eroticism. While we were doing the performance, I did feel awkward in the doggy style position, so I decided to hug her because I felt that that was the least erotic thing I could do in that position.

Will: Do you think it’s important to work with other artists? Was that a difficult step for you, sharing the creative process with someone, when usually it’s all about you and your ideas?

Adrian: It’s a double bladed sword. To be sharing it with a loved one can be easier, but at the same time it can be harder. You really have to avoid the competition. I feel like if I was working with a friend, and not necessarily a lover, there would be a little bit of a battle of ownership because there isn’t the same level of commitment, whereas here there is the commitment. We do share this; we share a lot of our lives together so sharing our art isn’t that big of a step. At the same time when it comes to diverging into our own artistic endeavors we do have to avoid any competition, we have to view ourselves as one artist and compliment each other.

Sophia: Which recently has been a little hard. We just really like to work together.

Adrian: Combine that with art school. We want to work together. But at the same time if one of us is getting crazy good marks and the other wasn’t it would become a competition, and that’s where art could interfere with our relationship.

Sophia: It’s been an amazing thing to be able to make art with another person.

Adrian: It’s a little microcosm of the grander relationship. We do compromise and we do accept each other’s decisions and tastes. I think its something you should value and hold onto if you find it.

Will: Would you hope that people see that collaborative side of the project? Is that something you are trying to convey to others?

Sophia: Definitely.

Adrian: That’s one of the pillars of it. There isn’t a single artist. There isn’t an individual. It’s cooperative. At the beginning, when we did the first series, I didn’t know whether you were okay with the whole school knowing that you were involved with me. And we wanted a critique from Mr. Varey [the art teacher at ESA]. At any rate, I brought it in [the coloured series] and it very quickly became my work because I wasn’t mentioning Sophia. And that was tough. It was tough for me, and you were pissed about it.

Sophia: Well yeah, it’s mine too. It was tricky. We were in a difficult spot. I had just lost my boyfriend, and I thought that I wasn’t supposed to be with Adrian. But eventually everyone knew.

Adrian: It had to happen. I couldn’t handle this being my art, it is our art, and we produced this together. Taking responsibility for it all made me feel guilty. I really cherish the fact that it’s ours and not just mine. As much as it was the case that I came up with the concept, I feel like I couldn’t have done it with anyone else. And that’s why I didn’t. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to work between us when we first did it, and it worked so well that it became something I had to hold on to.

Sophia: It’s one of the reasons I stayed in the city. I was going to go to Concordia, but we had this thing going. We’re on a roll here and I thought we can take this somewhere.