Cody Gunningham sits in the center of his narrow but roomy studio on Main Street, Over the Rhine. The storefront  windows are blocked from the street with canvas, but the high ceilings make up for the lack of natural light. The walls are vibrating with large colorful patterns and swaths of marigold yellow and kelly green- paintings hanging stacked one above the other from floor to ceiling. Gunningham is sitting casually, legs crossed, at the center of the ordered chaos, cigarette in hand.

image, @codygunningham, instagram

He speaks naturally and with ease about his work- as at home here as he is in his living room. Before meeting, I knew Gunningham’s work largely through his Instagram account which chronicles his very active artistic life. He lives in OTR, steps from his studio and, from an outside perspective, lives a rambling artistic life style made up of days sketching in Collective Espresso and long nights working in the studio. He posts images often, of his own work but also of the artists who inspire him- Matisse, Picasso, and Gauguin.

But what interested me about Gunningham’s paintings is their confidence. Their unapologetic boldness and the ease with which each element is added to these buzzing works. “I’m more confident in what I don’t know then what I do know” Gunningham says, “I practice what I don’t know.” This attitude is critical in Gunningham’s work; he’s not going stay in one place for long. His interest lies in finding new challenges in his everyday subjects. “I’m not a politician, so I don’t make political art. I’m not into money so I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money. I’m a painter, so I make paintings”.

Table Arrangement (yellow),

Gunningham graduated from The Art Academy of Cincinnati two years ago. He didn’t always know he wanted to pursue art as a career; he began his education studying business. At the Art Academy, Gunnigham initially majored in drawing but after junior year found himself immersed in realistic painting. His brief foray into realism never felt quite right. After graduating, Gunningham went back through his sketchbooks, finding new and unexpected inspiration in his past sketches. “Drawings are more playful. I use drawing as a vessel to expression. Working from my drawings allows me to express the painting and not compose it.” His new work, which is bright, bold and recalls elements of Fauvism, is wildly different from the dark European inspired paintings of his thesis and a step outside of his comfort zone. “I can’t have one foot in one door and expect to walk through another.” Thus, Gunningham has thrown himself full force into his new body of work.

Audience is very important to Gunningham and has been a major player in his painting since college. “My work is not just for other people in school; it’s for a larger audience. Artists don’t work in a vacuum; I want my work to be accessible.” Gunningham does however acknowledge that Cincinnati has not always understood his voice. “I’ve found that people here appreciate more realistic or representational work… It’s tricky being a young artist making expressive art in a city that isn’t always open to it. That’s why the mural was a good experience, it’s there for everyone, anybody can enjoy it.” Gunngingham is referring to one of his most recent projects, a mural of a floral pattern painted on a garage door at 120 E. 13th Street.

@codygunningham, Instagram

Gunningham’s attitudes about Cincinnati have much to do with the fact that his life centers around Over the Rhine. He’s lived there for 5 years and watched as the neighborhood has changed. At 13 he moved from Florida to Dayton, later moving to OTR when he began at the Art Academy. The urban neighborhood was a culture shock. It didn’t seem fake like his suburban home. “It’s changed a lot in 5 years,” he says, “there are two neighborhoods in OTR now. Working on this mural felt like I was making something that was there for everybody.”

Working on the scale of a mural is not new to Gunningham. His work is often larger- almost wall sized. He described to me that he sees his work in investments. Small investments and large investments- weighing their returns. He might do a small painting in a day or a few hours. Large paintings may stay hanging on his studio walls for much longer. He usually works on multiple paintings at a time- moving from canvas to canvas in one sitting- this allows him to step back and stop the paintings from becoming too “precious”. He tells me many of his canvases have been painted over 5 or 6 times. “The only mistake you can make in painting is not taking the risk of making one. If you don’t let the painting fail, it will never succeed. Every choice is a layer, a texture- there are no mistakes in painting.”

Flower and Vase with Skull,

His working style dictates a studio with more wall space then windows. His current studio is ideal for his work, allowing him to be immersed in the community while maintaining his privacy. His front windows are only partially blocked- giving glimpses of the overwhelming color inside. He doesn’t advertise that his studio is open but won’t turn away someone curious enough to try opening the front door. He appreciates the store front. “It makes me feel like this is a job.” Regardless, he spends most of the day outside or in coffee shops. “The studio is a place for painting, the real world is a place for drawing. My paintings are influenced by my drawings, not the other way around; I paint the things I don’t see in my studio.”

@codygunningham, Instagram

Gunningham’s work is aware of its historical influences. He makes direct references to Monet, Matisse, and Picasso in his newer paintings. “You’re always going to have your back against something. You’re always going to be compared to something else… I make paintings of things I want to see. Sometimes that means starting with someone else’s work. For me, painting isn’t an artisan’s task, it’s not as much about technical. Monet did it better than I can, but what can I do to them that he didn’t? What can I bring to this subject that is different?” “The first piece of art I realized was art was Picasso’s Weeping Woman. I was fascinated by it. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t understand it.” He says it was this work which drew him to art making and great individuals like Picasso have continued to drive his curiosity.

When he told me he was originally from Florida, I couldn’t help but see a connection in his work to the aesthetic of a warmer climate. When I mentioned it, he knew immediately what I was referring to. “The connection is less about Florida and more about the idea of warmth. Places that are closer to the equator develop differently, things grows differently… I wouldn’t say my work is about escapism, it’s more of a reaction to my surroundings, more about creating the something that I want to see and feel.” He is clear to state that although his work is bright and often intuitive it isn’t made without great intention. “Serious work can still be enjoyable to look at and playful.”

@codygunningham, Instagram


@codygunningham, Instagram
@codygunningham, Instagram

Gunningham’s work has been receiving more and more attention. He has several shows lined up from Cincinnati to NYC in the coming months. He plans to continue his work where it may take him. He’s looking towards New York City in the coming years. His notoriety outside of Cincinnati can be attributed to his very active social media presence. His Instagram account (@codygunningham) is regularly updated with new work. He says he’s gotten many opportunities through the account- attracting buyers from across the country. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the attention, which isn’t a shock to me as Cunningham has cultivated a very successful online persona. “Our generation enjoys the excuse to go do something- to go out and make pictures. It’s interesting to follow someone who is active in their account and doing things. Social media allows me to show the quick things, things people would never see otherwise- you can track the difference in drawings from day to day. It gives me an outlet to make something new all the time.”

In his studio, we are sitting across from each other. He looks like a portrait of himself, the artist in his studio. He almost blends in with the island behind him that holds his overflowing supply of paints, spray paint and brushes. He is fully immersed in the surroundings, inextricable from the work papering the walls around us. I look forward to seeing where Gunningham goes next as his paintings are sure to shift as they have with his changing surroundings and attitudes. Fortunately his future projects, regardless of his location, will continue to be shared generously online with us where we can track the subtle but meaningful shifts in everyday inspirations.

–Chelsea Borgman

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