Conversations: Cody Hudson | Varyer

Cody Hudson

Cody Hudson's work is a hypnotic blend of abstract symbols and colorful hues, offering viewers a glimpse into a world of profound curiosity. Based in Chicago, this artist and designer masterfully captures the essence of the natural world, creating visual landscapes that transcend the ordinary.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Cody about his second book, Selected Universal Portals, which showcases a collection of paintings, sculptures, and installations from 2014-2022. Exclusive to Varyer, each copy purchased from the Varyer Shop ships with a double-sided broadsheet poster and bookmark inspired by Cody's work.

(The following interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.)

Izzy Fradin: Tell me about the title. What are the Selected Universal Portals? Where did they go to and from? Where did the idea of a portal come from?

Cody Hudson: It was the name of two paintings I made a few years ago for a show in Amsterdam, and the shapes on the cover were lifted from those paintings as well. I feel like all the shapes I work with feel like portals to me. You know, something as simple as a circle can be so much more than that. When I have a whole table full of cut out shapes and I'm moving them around, One arrangement of the same 6 shapes feels totally different from the next group of those same shapes. So I use the shapes and colors as this portal, it opens up to the larger body of work that I'm working on.

IF: I'm thinking of some of your sister pieces, like the “Wandering Birds,” and how one is from the human perspective, and the other is from the perspective of nature and other animals. I'd love for you to speak to how you see perspective changing – how do they work in conversation with each other in your head?

CH: To me, all the pieces work together in some ways, and also can feel very different. A lot of times, diptychs, or multiple larger series will all develop over a very short period of time. So sometimes there's a direct visual connection between all of the pieces worked on during a short period in the studio. Other times, the work can feel very different even though the shapes all came from one sitting. Once I see a larger group of work together though, it starts to feel like a tighter group than what other people might see and I can start to feel the shapes having conversations with each other and becoming part of something more important to me than just a single painting.

I think after having your mind opened by those experiences, you don't really come back from it the same person you were before.

IF: Another thing I wanted to ask about is your fascination with altered states of consciousness, whether that's psychedelics, hallucinations, visions, or broadly the notion of consciousness. I'm wondering about the role those sorts of experiences play in your life.

CH: A lot of the titles come from pulling inspiration from things I’m reading, from life experiences, from song lyrics, or deep dives on Wikipedia and digging through old books. I’m not thinking about a theme or a title when working on the actual pieces. And the work itself isn't necessarily visually psychedelic but psychedelic drugs have played a role in my life at various points. So I think after having your mind opened by those experiences, you don't really come back from it the same person you were before. Your brain just functions differently after. You see things through a different light, good or bad.

So it's not sitting down to make this work and thinking “oh, this simple shape sculpture is related to a psychedelic experience” or anything. But by the time it's all done and it gets processed through my brain, and I'm searching for titles, it kind of all comes together and becomes influenced by that, even if the intent wasn’t to sit down and make a work about that.

IF: In some cases, the titles are so interesting in and of themselves, they almost read like a poem. Is the title always something that comes once the piece is done? Do you ever have a title in mind, and then create a piece to fit into it?

CH: I mean, I jot things down and keep notes whenever I see words I like or see a combination of them or hear something or read something that interests me. So there are always scraps of paper, or lists on my phone of words and sentences, but I never see one of those and try to make a work about it. The titles always come after, I think the work is pretty pure in how it's formed. But then I have to sit down and come up with titles for all the paintings after they're done. It usually all happens at once. It's rare that I'll make a painting and then title it. I'll make 10 things then spend a couple of days or a week thinking more about the work and trying to figure out the titles as a group. And sometimes that whole group of work will have connections in the group of titles that all relate.

I think what I like about the titles is that they become a part of the piece, even if it didn't start that way. And then, when I look at the piece and the title together, even though at some point, they felt rather different, once the title is there, it instantly starts influencing how I see the piece. Once a title is connected to the piece, It really works its way into how I will see the work going forward.

IF: Totally. It reminds me of Damien Hirst, with the title suggesting how to consider what you're looking at when it can be abstract, and there isn't necessarily a concrete narrative that you can follow. It's more about the feeling and the sentiment. One of the sentiments that I was coming across in going through the work are ideas and hope, hopefulness, and hopelessness. Notions of utopia and love, but then also disappointment and impermanence. I'm thinking of the nature of the mediums, metal sculptures and murals which have this permanence to them, and wondering if the medium plays into the emotionality of it at all.

CH: It definitely does in certain cases, I think probably more than the materials themselves, it's where my head's at when I'm making certain pieces. This whole practice… I kind of have a hard time talking too much about the finished art… it's almost like the whole process of making the art is what I'm most interested in. And in a sense, it’s almost this form of self-help. I'm making this artwork because it's one of the things that I can do to help me get through the day. And the titles can then come in and talk about ones feelings or thoughts or emotional responses, even if it's not a direct representation of what's in the painting, sometimes these thoughts are more positive than others and sometimes they kind of sink down there and get a bit dark. They are all not related just to me though, some titles are from other perspectives than my own. But the whole process of the art making is what actually keeps me positive and keeps me going.

IF: Can you walk me through how one of your pieces comes to be? You mentioned earlier arranging shapes in the studio, do you start with shapes? Do you start with colors?

CH: It varies quite a bit. Sometimes I will do sketches and draw stuff and then make small painted studies to see if those work and then from there to a larger painting. But I'd say the bulk of the work starts with just cutting out shapes out of paper. I cut out a whole table-full and move them around, see how I feel about them, see how they make me feel, digitize a handful of the ones I like, and then I start using the computer to aid the speed of moving around and being able to scale stuff. Some get really layered, some stay super minimal. Then that gets converted to a painting, or a sculpture, which is also one of the connections I like between the works, there's a very one-to-one feel. You could see a sculpture that has a very similar shape to one that might be happening in a painting just because I've worked on those in a similar time frame or mental state. And even if they don't end up in the same show together, all the work from that grouping will feel very connected to me even though the process of how they are made is very different between a large-scale steel sculpture being made by a team of fabricators and a painting on linen I’m making by myself in the studio.

IF: Absolutely. I'm curious about the use of color, you tend to have a very minimalist pallet. What is that process for you in terms of color, is it something about the feeling?

CH: Yes, definitely related to that. I've used this description before, it's me trying to understand the color. That's why doing the book was interesting, because I could see six months to a year long periods of time where I used a very similar color palette, and then I'd switch and you can see the change. A lot of that was because once I locked into one color, I'd start to try to figure out, you know, what is it? What do these colors mean to me, what are they trying to say? What feelings do they evoke? Once I kind of… not necessarily figure it out… but once I feel like I've got something out of that color, then I tend to realize it's time to move on.

It's not as interesting to just use a color once. I feel like I want to know more and that takes more exploration. Even if I can’t necessarily translate what it is they are trying to say, in my head I know I can feel it. And once I feel it, I start to think it’s time to start figuring out what the next colors will look like. I really got into doing them in larger groups, as opposed to doing every single painting completely differently. It would almost be too mentally distracting to start over each time instead of just figuring out this bigger idea over time and seeing where it goes.

IF: It almost feels like you have a relationship to each of the colors that you develop, and you come to understand them almost like a whole person that has these different emotions and play off of each other in these interesting ways. They have relationships with each other.

C: Most of my color palettes maybe last six to eight months. I don't know if one's really ever gotten farther than a year or two. But yeah, I do have relationships with them. It's like you become friends with them. And then you're hanging out for a few months, and then it’s like, alright, we’re getting a little too comfortable here, I think it’s time to find some new friends.

It's like you become friends with [the colors]. And then you're hanging out for a few months, and then it’s like, alright, we’re getting a little too comfortable here, I think it’s time to find some new friends.

IF: Another thing I wanted to touch on was music. Do you listen to music while you're working?

CH: Yeah, pretty much all day long, every day. There's music playing in the studio from the morning when I get in until I leave. I can’t listen to podcasts or the news. The people talking distract me too much. It's genre-based usually, I'll start the day off with more ambient music or piano music for a good three to four hours and then it's slower guitar music for a bit, move into more of a country feeling sound, and towards the end of the day it's a little more up-tempo.

IF: I'm curious about where your fascination with the Cloudbuster came from because I had to look up what that was.

CH: I don't even know how that started, it's just something I found online and thought was pretty wild. It's kind of like that with any form of research. There's this weird high of doing all these paintings or sculptures and getting them done. And then there's this deadline of now coming up with titles for them and trying to formalize the thoughts that went into this group of work. And that usually leads me to start researching. I definitely dig through Wikipedia a lot. You can get on some pretty great rabbit holes by just following link to link to link to link. And I somehow ended up [on Cloudbuster] and started reading more about the machine. It worked its way into the titles for two paintings and a print series that visually really don't have that much to do with [the Cloudbuster]. But at the time, in my head, they totally went together, it all made sense to me when I was working on it.

IF: In the introduction, Andrew Rafacz says something about how your shapes started in the background, and over time the shapes in the background eventually morphed into the foreground. And in the more contemporary pieces in the book, there's a greater sense of landscape and depth. I’m curious how that perspective change came about for you. Was it something intentional, or was it something that happened sort of naturally over time?

CH: I think it was more naturally over time. I think also, with the amount of work I'm making, I need to keep changing it to keep myself excited or interested in it. It keeps evolving in my head. When I first started doing more shape based work, it was very minimal and there was not much overlap at all. Very simple – three, four shapes at a time. I still wanted to use that same language, but wanted to push it out there in some other directions. A lot of the paintings that I do now, to me, look like a landscape painting, or a still life, or even some portraiture going on in there, even though most people maybe won't pull that out of them. But I still want to use that same language I have been using for years to tell these visual stories, or to have these emotional connections to things I'm making. With the landscape ones, none of them are based on an actual landscape I've seen, they're imagined landscapes. I'm not looking at a photo and saying, I'm going to try to make the coast of Big Sur, even though that scene might be in my brain somewhere. I'll never make an actual still life and try to replicate it with shapes. Once I start building something abstract in my head, pretty quickly though, it turns into that for me. It starts to look like a tabletop, It starts to feel like a still life. They don't start that way, they start purely just moving stuff around and exploring and being free. But then pretty quickly, one piece will, to me, look like a landscape, and then I'll keep pushing in that direction. I don’t ever start and say oh, I'm gonna make a still life painting today. It usually starts with a blank square and some shapes and letting them kind of talk to me and tell me where they want to go.

I don't even really sketch as much as maybe I should. If I sketch then I'm gonna try to bring that sketch into the world, I'm losing part of… I don’t know if enjoyment is the right word. But part of the thing that's most fulfilling about it is this process that's happening when the shapes are moving around, and something's kind of happening in my brain. So it's less about a sketch and trying to replicate something. It's not the same as just letting the process happen and seeing where it goes. Once they are done, somebody can be like, oh, I see a landscape, this one is a still life, this one is just purely abstract. But none of that was the goal when each piece started, which kind of all ties back to the titles. The titles truly inform how the pieces are viewed without having been connected to the piece itself in the beginning. But once they're together, they become a total thing for me that can’t be separated.

Below are two playlists curated by Cody inspired by his own studio listening. Press play during your next creative jam.