Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kozyndan's Ominous Ecotopia

Kozyndan, a.k.a. Dan and Kozue Kitchens, are a dynamic illustration duo best known for creating detailed drawings of real places and populating them with a whimsical coterie of creatures, such as a school of voracious bunnyfish, Japanese salarymen dressed as schoolgirls, or a pair of amorous rainbow sea slugs. Their simultaneously cute, disturbing and poignant images resonate with a deep concern about the future of our environment.

(Click the title link on the panoramics for more detailed views.)

Last summer, while I was writing the material for the upcoming Heroes & Villains book, Kozyndan gave me an interview that shed some light on their motivations. Since the book can't be of infinite length, I thought I'd share the whole interview with you here.

Kozyndan portrait from Heroes & Villains

Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your families, and your experience of growing up.

Kozy: I grew up in Japan in the countryside outside of Tokyo. My dad went to school for fashion, and my mom was very crafty. They both play music.

Dan: I grew up in Orange County, California. I don't know if that is a good thing, or a bad thing. I certainly didn't fit in there. On the other hand, I never felt the need to rebel, either. I just kind of went along with it. It did give my mind a lot of time to wander, though.

"What's Next, USA-chan?"

EP: The two of you met at Cal State Fullerton, where you were studying illustration. At first you were friends, and later your relationship deepened. Many would marvel at your ability to work together at home, day in and day out — with Kozy concentrating on drawing environments as Dan mulls over characters, then later sharing equally in the painting phase. Do you think the way you built your relationship upon your underlying friendship is part of what's made your working rapport so successful?

Kozy: We worked together pretty naturally. We disagree pretty naturally and calmly, and we settle creative disagreements like a couple having a mild fight.

Dan: We rarely get too angry with each other in general, though, and there isn't much separation between our creative collaboration and our relationship as husband and wife. It’s all kind of fluid, and one bleeds into the other. If we do happen to have a big argument in our personal life, then it’s hard to get work done together on our projects. By the same token, if we are having a major creative dispute there can be some very silent dinners and withheld sex. It all melds together.

Kozy: Almost all the time, though, it’s very easy to work together, and I do think it goes all the way back to how our personalities complement each other — this is how we became such good friends, and then started dating, and then slipped easily into collaborating.

"Pacific Drift"

EP: You believe that humanity is on the road to destroying everything beautiful with its greed, so naturally your work exhibits a deep concern for the environment. Into your cautionary tales of pollution choking the oceans and polar bears clutching their last scrap of sea ice, you insert a note of optimism in the form of whimsical characters such as voracious bunnyfish devouring the trash monsters of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and amorous sea slugs enlivening the streets of Soho with rainbow slime. Are you really ready to write (or paint) an elegy for nature, or do you still feel some hope for the future?

Dan: I think we are definitely ready to write that elegy for nature. Humanity will certainly not change its ways. It’s going to be worse and worse. People can live without the animals — people don't care. Even when I talk to people in our own circle of friends, it’s pretty apparent. If I tell them that their favorite kind of sushi is going to be extinct soon, they want to eat as much of it as possible, since they figure no one else will stop eating it, so — “Fuck it. Get it while I can.” This will be the way of most species on the planet — we don't ever see them and don't notice their numbers dwindling, so it doesn't have much impact on us. I don't see there being any huge global change in the human perspective that will end up stopping this cycle.

EP: In your panoramic pieces, you take an everyday slice of the world — a street corner in San Francisco, a coral reef, a train platform in Tokyo, a forest in winter — and create a realistic widescreen backdrop. Then you add fantastic, unlikely elements that elevate the everyday images into comical, surreal social commentaries. The title character in "Kin-San's Business Trip" is Kozy's father, who is depicted among his fellow salarymen on a train platform, all of them dressed in schoolgirl uniforms. The image is both cute, disturbing and poignant at the same time, commenting on a jumble of cultural mores that both define and limit their adherents. Looking back, what do you think you achieved with this image?

Dan: I don't think we've ever wondered what we have actually accomplished with our images. We usually think every panoramic is a dismal failure, and don't know that it has any merit until people are buying it and commenting on it. Honestly, those images are rather draining for us to make, and they are rarely what we had in our minds, so we never feel like we have accomplished anything until we get an outside point of view.

Beyond that, though, this particular image is expounding upon and extrapolating such obtuse subject matter. I don't think that our fans, before or after seeing this image, will spend much time pondering the rigidity of salaryman culture in Japan, or the differences in the representation of masculinity between Eastern and Western societies. I think the trick of our art is taking this kind of subject matter and turning it into an image that is strange and amusing. I think it's less fun if people know exactly why this train stop is filled with salarymen who are dressed as school girls, but I like knowing where the idea came from and seeing how it was filtered through Kozy and me. I hope that the viewers find that fun, too. We never put a description of our panoramics in our shows, artist statements, or anything. When people see one of them in our exhibitions, they are just guessing what it all means. We love to eavesdrop on their reactions to them. Some people are dead-on in their assessments, and some of the theories are really comically incorrect. That is something we hope to accomplish with all of the panoramics.

EP: Though you still create paintings that are completely hand-made, you are best known for your hand-drawn and digitally colored work. How do you decide whether to finish a work on the computer or in gouache?

Kozy: Actually, for our exhibitions, most things are handmade. The computer-painted stuff is mostly limited to illustration work and any work that is done in that panoramic style. I guess we choose which to use depending on what seems right for the image, but generally it plays out that everything is painted in traditional media unless it’s commercial work or a panoramic.

We do the panoramic style that way because that’s just how it happened. The first panoramic came to be because Dan liked this long drawing I did of the interior of our apartment for a class project while we were in school. He decided he wanted to color it, but he didn't want to mess up my original, so he scanned it in and colored it in Photoshop. I joined in and helped him work on it, and we found it was really nice to be able to work on the same piece at once. So we just kept making them the same way. At this point, the work is so intricate that I doubt we could do it as well with traditional media. It would take forever! We are too OCD to take years on one image, so Photoshop painting suits the detailed style of those images.


Dan: Yeah, and commercially speaking, clients will often request that "style" of ours, so we use it to create those commissioned images, as well. The result is that we have this particular body of work that is all done in Photoshop. I did those four “Seasons of the Bunny” posters in Photoshop as well, but that is mostly just because it made sense at the time. The “Uprisings” image — the first, and most well-known, of our homages to ukiyo-e — was originally created in less than three days as a cover illustration for Giant Robot magazine. It made sense in so many ways to use the computer. First and foremost, it was just faster to do so, and we were given a tight deadline. Beyond that, we were hoping to make an image that was all about these opposing things coming together — Kozy and I, East and West, past and present, traditional media and future media, Hokusai and Kozyndan. That was what that cover was all about. Since people liked it so much, I decided to make it a series of images, and I just used the same medium that I made the first one in.

Beyond necessity and the happenstance of the creation of a few early images, we don't have much need to use the computer, and thus most of our work is done by hand unless we have a limited time frame.

"Fishy Greetings" for Sanrio's Small Gift show

EP: Rather than specializing in creating high-priced original work, you've made the choice to make affordable reproductions available to your fans. You've also embraced the idea of your work enhancing products such as Puma athletic gear. Did these decisions come out of an egalitarian impulse, or were they predicated upon a practical streak endemic to illustrators? Do you ever have second thoughts about the commercialization of your work?

Dan: Both of those things are true, and we never had second thoughts about the commercialization of our work. Commercialization is about accessibility in our eyes. When we were starting out, we basically first showed our work on the internet, a place where anyone in the world could access our work for free. We were poor college students making work for ourselves and people like us. Given that, it just made sense to make prints of our work and not focus on spending months and years on high-priced paintings that most people who would get our work could not afford. The accessibility of this still makes sense to me, and still works for us financially, so we don't see any reason to change that.

"The Bunnies Fall"

EP: You two are quite open about your sexuality, both online and in your work. Do you think your being a married couple makes the frank eroticism in your work less threatening to viewers? Is this part of your work in some ways an attempt to foster a healthier, more honest approach to sex? Where do you see yourself going in the future with this subject?

Dan: Is eroticism threatening? It shouldn't be. If that’s the case, we are going to make way more dirty art in the future. We have barely broached that subject, really. Aside from having naked people here and there and a handful of illustrations about sex, we don't do much more than just live and not hide the fact that we don't practice monogamy. I do hope that we are leading by example though, I guess. The world, and this country in particular, sure could use a healthier attitude towards sex. It’s so bad how our culture, and even our pop culture, turns us all into prudes. We are afraid of our bodies, afraid of pleasure, and so many people are doomed in relationships because they expect real human beings to act like characters in romantic comedies, and that they must ascribe to clichés proffered in such entertainment.

"The Posterior Sea" (sketchbook)

Kozy: We both enjoy sex and nudity and exploring new people and we are both rather rational in our approach to our marriage. I don't think it would hurt for some people to be a bit less rigid in their thinking about sex.

Dan: I am not sure how this will manifest itself in our art, beyond what it is now. Perhaps we'll tackle the subject much more directly in our paintings. If so, given what kind of artwork our fans associate us with (cutesy bunnies and the like), we would probably just surprise them with something really over the top — outright pornographic dirty. None of this cutesy anorexic girls hugging animals while looking half-stoned kind of shit that is so popular, but something far more obviously dealing with sex and desire. Otherwise, maybe we'll just write a book on our lifestyle.

"Hiding In Disguised"

EP: You've been prominent in this neighborhood of the illustration scene for a few years now. How has it changed since you first realized you were part of it?

Kozy: We don't know what neighborhood we are in. We never try to get out and meet the neighbors, really. We don't do many illustration projects. We don't go to many art openings, aside from our own. I guess I'd say that it has grown a lot. There is definitely a newer generation of younger, brightly creative and talented artists coming up. They have a lot of energy and new ideas. Sometimes it makes me wonder if we are already too old!

"The Kachido"

EP: How do you feel about the "fine art" world's snobbery toward illustration?

Dan: Does that still exist? If so, I don't think much about it. It has certainly never made its presence known to us. Of course, we don't really have much interest in the "fine art" world, either. I think people with illustration backgrounds are doing just fine showing in proper galleries, now that a movement has emerged of narrative surrealism, pop surrealism, or whatever. I think a lot of galleries are specializing in it now, and it’s particularly why artists here in Los Angeles have been getting so much exposure worldwide. Galleries are only resistant to something until rich people are clamoring to buy it. I think that has already happened for artists who don't bother to refrain from doing commercial projects. This makes sense in the society we live in, where there isn't anything that isn't commercialized.

EP: In the past, you've mentioned an appreciation for the work of children's illustrators Wanda Gag, David Wiesner and Andrej Dugin & Olga Dugina, as well as cartoonists Jordan Crane, Chris Ware and Winsor McCay. Kozy, you've said that you're more inspired by "traditional art" than by that of your contemporaries, and you pay homage to some of your favorite artists in pieces like your Amsterdam panorama, "The Flooding of the Prinsengracht." What painters from the past move you powerfully, and which aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?

Kozy: Honestly, we do not spend much time looking at art. I don't know that I can answer that anymore.

Dan: The further we get from school, the less interest we have in traditional art or other artists in general. Other art is not something that is often on our mind. We do not go to art openings, and we do not go to museums much. Art isn't something that holds a lot of power to us. Maybe it's because it's our job to make art, but I really don't want to spend much of my free time looking at art. I think both of us are much more in awe of nature than any "brilliant" thing a person makes. I don't know really what to say anymore about "art" or the art world, past or present.

"A Moment of Contact"

EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?

Dan: Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

Kozy: Good choice, Dan!

Dan: Thanks, Kozy! He kind of threw in everything but the kitchen sink with that one, and that is something we tend to do in our work as well, so it’s inspiring.

"Kindred Spirits"

EP: In your blog, you've documented your travels to exotic locales all over the world, and these environments have made a huge impact on your work, particularly your panoramics. What is the most moving experience you've had while exploring the world? Are there places you're still dying to visit?

Dan: Recently we were diving in Indonesia. Waaay out in Indonesia — off a tiny island in the Raja Ampats, off the coast of West Papua. We were at a submerged reef and our native guide told us the current was strong and that the visibility was bad, but "We go dive." Given that, I decided to leave my camera rig on the boat and just enjoy diving unencumbered. The visibility was bad and the current strong, but we made the best of it. The currents bring nutrients which bring the fish, so there was lots to see. Got some good shots of a wobbegong shark, touched a sea snake. (Don't try that at home, kids.)

We made our way along one side of the reef and then back around the other side, and then moved up to the top of the reef, which was in about 27 feet of water. We were just going to explore the coral heads around the top of the reef until our air ran low. I was checking out some lobsters, and looked up and saw Kozy looking at me — past me — her eyes bugging out. She started pointing furiously in my direction. I turned to see the biggest manta ray I had ever seen heading straight for me. It swooped up and over me, so close I could reach out and touch it. It was easily 14 feet across. It swam past us and then circled back around. We drifted slowly over the top of the reef and watched as it circled around, again and again. We could look this massive graceful creature in the eye, and see it study us. It was utterly calm and exciting at once. It stayed with us for twenty minutes, until we had to surface. It’s hard to explain the connection that we felt in those minutes — hard to explain the joy of happening on such a gorgeous animal. We dove other spots that were known manta dive sites — sites where they come to feed or to be cleaned by small reef fish, and have encountered many mantas at those sites. But this one was just so unexpected and so large, and stayed circling around showing curiosity about us for such a long time. I was nearly in tears when we surfaced. I couldn't stop smiling.

Kozy: Right now we are very focused on chasing this kind of experience with nature, with the ocean. I guess we are just chasing after ocean ecosystems that haven't been destroyed by humans yet.


EP: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Kozyndan: We look forward to being underwater. We dream of being underwater. We plan to be underwater more. Goodbye, landlubbers. Stick it in yer ear. Peace out.

Kozy diving in Maldives with morays

1 comment:

sMacThoughts said...

I admit I'm not familiar with these artists or their work. Thank you for a great interview and coverage. :)