Like so many contemporary artists, Nathan Cordero, 36, dabbled in the world of graffiti and street art before turning to his current medium of painting and carving on found wood. Along the way, he’s been mentored and championed by two significant figures in the local art scene: the late painter Troy Dalton, and Renny Pritikin, director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, where Cordero currently has a solo show, Are You Destined to Become Your Mother? which runs through August 20.
How did you come to work with Troy Dalton?
He was basically my introduction to fine art, because I’ve always drawn comics and read comics, did some graffiti, got interested in graffiti and street art. He was a high-school teacher for a little while.
What high school?
Cache Creek: a little tiny high school where I grew up. … He discovered our old town hall and purchased it for really cheap and turned it into his working studio. I helped him clean it up; he hired me as his assistant after that, and that was my introduction to fine art.
What town was this?
Yolo. (Turns his wrist to show a tattoo that says “Yolo CA” in cursive script.)
Did he encourage you to pursue art?
Yeah, he always encouraged me. He encouraged everything I did. Me and him were good friends, but we would also have deep conversations, and I’d never had that opportunity before. Writing poems, I was always comfortable reading them to him, because he would give me his thoughts. I would read him something and he would offer me something else to read. It was my opportunity to be trained scholastically and professionally.
What was the earliest work of art you created?
It was acrylic on canvas, abstract. It was a piece of canvas that he’d [thrown] away. I painted over what [Dalton] had painted with a bunch of different colors. I got a lot of good feedback from his friends and him, so that was one of the things I started doing. But then eventually, I kind of went off into other things.
I discovered wood by chance. A door was damaged in my room, and I started peeling away at the door and noticed texture and noticed color. I’d never noticed two colors working with each other before, because working with [Dalton], he used all kinds of color … but when you look at the brown wood grain and contrast with white, it was just beautiful, and that’s when it took off.
How did the show at the Nelson come about?
Renny, he had the first Flatlanders show. He saw my work somewhere. He came to my house and chose two pieces for that, and that was my introduction. … He’s always had my work in mind.
When I moved back from New York to here, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just got this space (gestures to his studio), and he came over and saw my work. I hadn’t really built anything, but he trusted that I was going to build something good and offered me a show right there. … I asked him, “How big is the space?” and he said, “It’s pretty big.”… The whole time I was thinking I’m gonna fill this space no problem, and then I went to see it in person and I was like, “Oh my god, what did I get myself into?” Turned out that I had too much work; we had to take some of the work out.
Some of your work is carved assemblages of small objects that don’t seem to go together at first. What is it about these small items that interest you?
Most of my work is built based on the material itself. The Things series, the insects, the safety pins and the razor blades and whatever are really detailed things. I found this group of wood … that is so sturdy that if you sand it down and you paint it five times, you can actually cut really fine detail into it. … The ideas are there, but the ideas come out when I work with the material and I see it.
Some of the text in your work comes from fashion magazines, but you don’t strike me as someone who would be a reader of those magazines.
I grew up with my mom, and my mom was really fashionable. She was always really into trends. … She would buy Vogue, Elle, Mademoiselle—she would buy all these fashions magazines and she would look at the pictures and read and just pull things from there to express herself. I always looked at them myself. … The title of my show, Are You Destined to Become Your Mother?, it’s really odd to see that title on the current issue of Real Simple but also see it on the cover of an early ’70s issue of Vogue. … The title parallels with my mom’s recent death, and I thought that was a perfect title for expressing what I’ve done. … It’s just, like, perfect.