Peter Coffin: Abstraction is Flight

The Sugar Mill Museum of Contemporary Art

December 13, 2020 - February 20, 2021

1783 was a banner year for aviation. In September, a duck, a sheep, and a rooster were successfully sent aloft for eight minutes in a tethered hot air balloon constructed of paper and silk by the pioneering Montgolfier brothers. Two months later, the first free (untethered) flight carrying two men, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis of Arlanders, occurred in Paris, France. The balloon reached an altitude of at least 500 feet and traveled about 5½ miles before safely landing, 25 minutes later. Legend has it that when they set down in the farming and vineyard area near Paris, the pilots gave bottles of champagne to the startled peasants to calm their fears of demons appearing from the heavens, but that cannot be confirmed. Thus, the hot air balloon became the first flight technology to carry humans.

For the inaugural show at Sugar Mill Museum of Contemporary Art, Peter Coffin has installed fabric sections created from the gores of retired hot air balloons. These balloons, deemed no longer flightworthy, were acquired over the last seven years while Coffin was living in East Africa, England, Mexico, Indonesia, upstate New York, and now, Jamaica, from balloonists reluctant to simply discard the material. For Coffin, the process of selecting, cutting, and arranging sections from the available colors and patterns is a purely aesthetic one. While the material no longer serves its intended purpose and can be thought of as spent leftovers from the hobby of ballooning, the transformed remnants memorialize the life of each balloon’s original design and are the product of minimal abstraction, a simple edit by Coffin. 

From this point of departure, the viewer may independently continue the abstraction process. The large fabric panels of primary colors and graphic motifs hint at the experience of ballooning---a sense of wonder, levity, joy, and freedom from the mundane and earthbound. An encounter without prior knowledge of the source material engenders its own moods. While the panels, in their verdant setting, may seem whimsical and bring delight, they also signal an invasion of the man-made, something foreign, on the natural environment. Where the viewer travels in her mind is personal. 

Much of Coffin’s work, including this balloon series, is borne of the desire to instigate a process of generalized abstraction, beyond “abstraction” as it is commonly defined in the context of art. Whereas abstraction in art can begin and end with the one-to-one relationship at any given moment between a gesture and its interpretation, the relationship between interpretations (and the thoughts they subsequently generate), over multiple time points or among multiple viewers or both, is many-to-many and limitless. Coffin relays this fragment from an Adrian Piper essay entitled “Flying” (1987) as integral to the development of ideas in his practice:

Abstraction is also flight. It is freedom from the immediate spatiotemporal constraints of the moment; freedom to plan the future, recall the past, comprehend the present from a perspective that incorporates all three; freedom from immediate boundaries of concrete subjectivity, freedom to imagine the possible and transport oneself into it; freedom to survey the real as a resource for embodying the possible; freedom to detach the realized object from oneself more and more fully as a self-contained entity, fully determined by its contextual properties and relations, and consider it from afar, as new grist for the mill of the possible. Abstraction is a solitary journey through the conceptual universe.

The accompanying photographs provide a visual archive of Abstraction is Flight. They are evidence of both the presence of Coffin’s work as well as an absence, what is missing or gone---the whole balloon, buoyed by lightweight gases and flying through the air; the balloonists; and the people who lived and worked where SMMoCA now sits. 

- Jennifer Lin Cornwell, Curator

Peter Coffin was born in 1972 in Berkeley, California.

The Sugar Mill Museum of Contemporary Art, Springfarm Dr., St James, Jamaica