Thursday, September 1, 2011

David Jien's "The Plight of the Who"

Forewarned is forearmed — you don't want to miss David Jien's debut solo exhibition, "The Plight of the Who," which opens at Richard Heller Gallery on Saturday, September 10th.

"The Plight of the Who"

The show will feature a plethora of new drawings, each one a glimpse into a fantastic existential narrative based on David's perspective on the world we live in. He characterizes this body of work as the first chapter of an epic chronicle in which all the characters are essentially versions of himself, and the events that unfold echo his own struggles with self and his own desires.

"The Plight of the Who" (detail)

David was born in 1981 on the Westside of Los Angeles, and was soon immersed in his own world of Nintendo, Legos, puzzle toys and manga. Obsessed with drawing animals and monsters as a child, he later transferred that passion to graffiti, and spent many years bending, melting and transforming letter forms upon the walls of the city. After the graffiti lifestyle turned complicated, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design, graduating in 2009 with a BFA in Illustration. He initially focused on graphite drawings of metamorphosis, alphabets, rubbery forms, alien biology and geometric psychedelia, establishing the setting of his narrative landscape and evolving his own folklore about the dawn of time, when mythological beings still walked amongst men.

"Top Wizard"

More recently, he began working in colored pencil to develop an allegorical future history about a power struggle in which human and anthropomorphic beings fight against a race of balloon-headed creatures and the cold-blooded reptilian overlords who seek to control everything. In the past year, his work has been enthusiastically received at the Pulse Miami Contemporary Art Fair and at The Armory Show in New York.

"The Plight of the Who" (detail)

Though he is still determinedly at work putting the finishing touches on this body of work, he was generous enough to give me some of his time for an in-depth conversation about his motivations and inspirations.


Erratic Phenomena: You were raised in West L.A. on a fertile mixture of Nintendo, anime and manga. Tell me a bit about the landscape of your childhood. What ideas, images and toys did you encounter early in life that may have embedded themselves in the arsenal of your imagination? Were you the kind of kid who was always drawing, or were you more interested in building things and manipulating shapes?

David Jien: I spent a lot of time playing with Legos, and my folks took me to the zoo and aquariums. I watched a lot of Animal Planet with my mom, played lots of Nintendo, and read Dragonball manga. I drew often, mostly animals and monsters and basketball players. My parents liked to buy me educational toys, so I had this really cool snake toy — I think it's called Magic Ruler Twist Rubik’s Snake Rubik Cube Puzzle. I had a pretty crazy-active attention deficit disorder when I was young, and I remember the only thing that I could do for an extended period of time was drawing. Maybe that was why my parents were so encouraging of it.

EP: What originally compelled your family to leave Taiwan and come to the U.S.? Was your upbringing fairly traditional, or did your family choose to assimilate into the California lifestyle? Did they understand your urge to make art, or would they have preferred you to become a dermatologist or a banker? Was there someone in particular who nurtured your creative urges when you were young?

David: They left Taiwan to seek the American dream. I was born in Los Angeles with a fairly traditional upbringing. They were always supportive of my creativity. There was a family friend who was an interior designer — he was a great designer and a great draughtsman, and he encouraged me to keep drawing and painting. He would hang my animal drawings in his home. He told me that I should apply to Art Center for college, because it was the best school. I was in middle school at the time, so I sort of just brushed it off, but I did end up going and graduating from Art Center. I guess it was always in my subconscious.


EP: You've mentioned the macabre and sometimes ribald writer Roald Dahl as one of your inspirations, and Dahl's dark, rubbery Vermicious Knids from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator certainly appear to have crept into the landscape of your imagination. Dahl felt that he was "conspiring with children against adults," who were "the enemy of the child – because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that is born as an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” Which other artifacts of Dahl's imagination made an impression on you, and how do you think his viewpoint influenced the direction you took in life?

David: Dahl was my favorite author, he was so descriptive. I liked all of his novels, but my favorites were his short stories. I had a short attention span, so those were perfect for me. I loved how dark his stories were, and how when I read his novels I was transported to another world.

EP: How did you first become fascinated with the idea of naming, of investing people or things with their own unique moniker that defines them as individuals? Why do you think naming holds such power for you?

David: I like that you call it investing. It's really true, though! I love this idea of individuality, and naming something is just a natural way to give something importance and identity. Once you give something/someone a name, it grounds it into existence. It's like an idea is found and is recorded in time. Like worthy knights back in the day were dubbed with a new title.

EP: For many years, you painted graffiti as part of the D2R (Down 2 Rock/Dreams 2 Reality) crew. Since then, you and several other members of your crew have gone on to study at Art Center College of Design and become respected gallery artists. To what would you attribute the remarkable success of so many of your crew members? Was there a mentality or mentorship in D2R that encouraged you to set your sights higher, or was it simply a pocket of remarkable talent?

David: D2R was the catalyst for my personal art growth. D2R is a family, and we all want our brothers to do well. With that said, we all pushed each other to make the best burners, or hit the craziest spots. When I first joined the crew, there were so many talented writers, and I was just blown away with all the crazy styles and the technical skills everyone had.

Dzeas and Mers were the ones who schooled me to the game. Cyte and Rek2 were my best crime partners, since we all lived on the West Side of L.A. I wanted to get good, so they would want to paint with me. Things have changed since then, but the principle remains the same. It just so happened that a few of us attended the same art school. I remember while preparing for my entry portfolio, Cyter and I were attending Santa Monica City College, and he was already in Art Center at the time, and I just saw how hard he worked and how good he got. Plus we were always throwing ideas around. It was so inspiring, because he was always good, but he got REAL good. I wanted that too. I met Ween and Whoelser later on, and we encouraged each other to get better. So the capacity was always there, but the work ethic was key.

EP: A diminutive simian creature with a pencil mustache makes an appearance in a few of your earlier drawings. He shivers nakedly when caught amidst a crowd of imposing TRG and Azn Boyz dragons in the shower room of the county lockup, and longingly attempts to draw a girl's portrait over and over again while alone in his cell. I sense that there may be a personal narrative behind these images. Is that story one you can tell me?

David: Those are illustrations I made based on my experience of county jail. I was busted for graff and had to do a little time in the big house. It was gooner central, all kinds of hoodlums and thuggery going on in there, and it was pretty scary, to say the least. Good thing I knew how to draw a little bit, or at least better than the guys I shared a cell with. I made friends with the inmates by drawing portraits of their girlfriends and making dragon drawings for tattoos. It was all right after that. During shower time, however, everyone would go to the main hallway, so it was like a few hundred fools all packed in this one narrow hall, and half of those guys would be butt-naked and wildin' out and like giving me weird stares and stuff. So it was a bit unnerving.

EP: Much of your graffiti work had a propensity for bending, melting and transforming, and a playful or even risqué tone. You carried that sensibility forward into your early graphite drawings, which focused on naming, alphabets, rubbery forms, metamorphosis, alien biology and Escheresque optical illusions. What did you learn from graffiti that you took with you into your work on paper? How different do you think your work would be if you hadn't devoted all those years to manipulating letters to your will? Do you still feel the same compulsion to draw that you felt to get up back in the day, or do you now find yourself impelled by a different kind of drive?

David: When I started writing, I developed a simple and pure love for the alphabet. I filled many sketch books with all types of different letterforms. I discovered that with every new form you make, you can take that and make three new forms based on that one form. So the possibilities were limitless. In art school, I made lots of work but most of it was just to fulfill the assignment. I took a term off and decided to just make drawings of letterforms as monuments. I wanted to do something more personal.

It's very different though. With graff, it's about the moment — you make it fast, speed is the key, you do it and you leave, maybe you get a picture of it and all you have is this 4x6 photo. Sometimes you'll never see it again. It's very ephemeral. With the drawings, they are made slowly. There is a sense of duration, instead of a fleeting moment. Also, graff is made to be big and public, the drawings are much much smaller in scale, which gives then a intimate sensibility.


EP: One of your earliest visual influences was Nintendo, which is where you were introduced to isometric perspective, as opposed to the linear perspective that is taught in most western drawing classes. Isometry depicts things as they are perceived by the mind, rather than the eye. For example, parallel lines are parallel, and as such, they never meet at some imagined vanishing point on the horizon. In isometric perspective, the viewer hovers in an indeterminate viewpoint while the world is laid out before them with each dimension in the same scale, regardless of its distance from the viewer. Isometric perspective has for millennia been a feature of scroll painting in China, where it is known as dengjiao-toushi, or "equal-angle see-through." Even today, it is commonly used in CAD architectural renderings. When do you think you first recognized that Nintendo's isometric view allowed you to see things differently than they are seen by the eye? Did you find yourself drawing in that perspective before you even knew what it was? How does the almost omniscient viewpoint of isometry "read" for you on an emotional level?

David: My grandparents had wonderful Chinese scroll paintings in the house, and I admired them even as young child. Then in grade school, I played lots of role-playing games on my Nintendo. Also, all the Lego instructions were drawn with isometric perspective. It made sense to me and it felt normal to make art this way, to organize information this way. For as long as I remember, I have always made my drawings in this format. I've made art with single point perspective too, but only when I started art school.

"Group at Level 3"

EP: You've characterized your work as an existential narrative founded in your view of the world we inhabit, and your place in it. While your earlier drawings establish a setting and explore the folklore of the dawn of time, in which mythological beings still walked amongst men, your more recent work concerns a later power struggle between humanoid creatures and a race of balloon-headed aliens. Do you envision this narrative taking place on an alternate plane of reality, as if we have been allowed to see into a secret level of existence? Or is it an allegorical perspective on our human frailties and the precariousness of our civilization? Where do you place yourself in this epic showdown between good and evil?

David: I realized after completing the first few drawings that most of the characters in my work act as self-portraits. That through the work, I was able to express all my deepest ambitions, desires, fantasies, regrets and concerns, and bring these things to light. I feel that everyone at some point in their lives has to deal with an inner struggle, and that this universe is perfectly designed to give human beings the optimal conditions under which the choice between good and evil can be made. My drawings are my inner struggles manifested through a cast of characters. I am a whorider, I am a lizardman.

"Hurrah 4 Us! Birth of the Chosen One"

EP: Chinese hand scrolls, which generally depict various stages of a single scenario, take the viewer on a journey through both space and time in a continuous picture which is constantly being unrolled on the one hand and rolled up on the other. Much of your work could be seen as a glimpse into a continuing narrative of this sort, especially pieces like "The Who Riders" and "Hurrah 4 Us! Birth of the Chosen One." Do you sometimes envision your work in this way, as if time passes from right to left in a constant unfurling story, perpetually revealing itself and then passing into obscurity as the next scene slides into view?

David: Yes, all the pieces are connected somehow, so to show this, I made them read from left-to-right or right-to-left, open-ended on both sides, very much like in side-scrolling video games (Metroid, Contra, etc.) and Chinese silk scroll paintings. It's a tool used to show time passing.

"Ride or Die"

EP: Your recent piece "Ride or Die" appears to be a tribute to the great graffiti writer-cum-contemporary artist Gajin Fujita. Raised by a painter and an art conservator, Fujita had the ideal grounding to marry the graffiti stylings of his East L.A. K2S graffiti crew with the traditional chrysanthemums, goldfish, geisha and samurai of his Japanese heritage. Was seeing the fine art world embrace the work of an Asian graffiti artist who grew up in the barrio one of the things that encouraged you attempt to make that leap yourself? Could you tell me a bit about the inspiration for your own "Ride or Die"?

David: Gajin Fujita is a wonderful painter, and I admire him and his work a lot. However, "Ride or Die" has nothing to do with Gajin or his art. "Ride or Die" is simply a scene within the grand narrative. The rider's name is Deca, and she is riding to save the child. I do use some graffiti tools as weapons in my art. My characters will often wield spraycans or scribers as weapons. Right now, my pencil is my rifle.

"Yellow Fever"

EP: Recently you began making some rather explicitly erotic work that carries echoes of the same traditional Japanese erotic prints or shunga that Gajin Fujita draws from in his work. Your recent piece "Yellow Fever" touches on your dissatisfaction with the current state of sexual inequity between Asians and whites, depicting a highly formalized interspecies orgy with some darker undertones. Tell me a bit about the inspiration and motivation for that piece. When did you first encounter a piece of erotic art, and what was your reaction to it?

David: It first occurred to me in high school that all the Asian girls were going out with white dudes, including many of my friends, and that hardly any white chicks were dating Asian guys. I was like, why are all these white guys stealing all my women away from me? It was frustrating! And I felt bad feeling this way, 'cause these were my homies. Well, I know now that it has a lot to do with the media and how Asian men, white males and Asian females were and still are portrayed. Also, I found a really cool eastern art pillow book at an old book store, and all the people in it were doing it in all these crazy positions and stuff, and I thought it would be fun to make my own sex drawings. So the "Yellow Fever" drawing was made out of frustration and my wanting to make a erotic drawing. I didn’t know it at the time, but all the characters in the "Yellow Fever" drawing are me in my desire for all the Asian girls. But it made me feel like a cold-blooded lizard man. Weird, huh?

"Collector, Dog and Several Gold Objects"

EP: You've recently completed a series of rather similar pieces which depict collectors standing alone, with just with a pet and the mysterious shining objects they have acquired, each rendered in a different metallic leaf. What inspired that series? Are they a commentary on greed and the isolation it brings? Why did you decide to make three of them?

David: I made more than three of them. The objects in the drawings are important, because they will be used for something grand in the future. I will reveal this maybe in my next show.

"Collector, Cockatoo and Several Copper Objects"

I have this crazy obsession with collecting Japanese vinyl toys. I want all of them and I spend my time and money to get them and I don’t want to share. Lots of people like to collect different things. Good collectors specialize in collecting specific things. These collectors in my art are very passionate collectors, and they are also very wealthy. They are out to acquire certain precious objects. It's a solo love affair, and it can leave them quite isolated, but it's important that someone cares enough to build this great collection and preserve them and care for them.

"Collector, Cat and Several Silver Objects"

EP: A year or so ago, you set aside graphite and began working in colored pencil, a move which appeared to precipitate an obsession with tiny, intensely rendered patterns. I understand that much of your work is drawn under a magnifying lens, and that your larger pieces can take up to three months to complete. Why do you think you have such an interest in pattern? What sustains your attention while you're working within such rigid strictures? Is there a sort of self-hypnosis element to it, as if rendering pattern functions as a sort of mantra?

David: I like detail, I like looking at detail. When you go to an art show, there is always that guy who has his nose right up to the art. 99% of the time, that's me. The patterning is just another detail, and it's a great way to break up space. And it can be very beautiful! I guess I just have a high tolerance for tedium. I'm always trying to push it to get finer. The details are a way to suck the viewer in and to get them to stay in my world. It's time-consuming, but it's time that I treasure. What pushes me to do it is the result — to see it all finished. I use magnifying lenses and fine lead pencils, which I sand to an ultra-fine tip when I need to, like when I draw hair or fingernails.

"Tombstone #1"

EP: You've occasionally been plagued by comparisons to Paul Noble's obsessive font-based drawings of a utopian city development gone depressingly awry, which is one of the reasons you've evolved your vision toward a more colorful narrative direction. Of course, to quote Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun," and I'd say it's almost inevitable that anyone making graphite drawings of landscape in isometric perspective will end up with some correlations. What do you think of Noble's work, and what would you say to those who would make that invidious comparison?

David: To be compared to Paul Noble is a compliment. The man is a masterful draughtsman. I admire his work ethic and his superb attention to detail. I mean, the guy spent eight years working on his project! There is definitely something to be learned from that! With that said, I had not known about him when I made my pencil drawings. It was only afterward that someone showed me his stuff. I was like, "WOW! This guy is off the chain!" My changing of direction was necessary because there were other things I needed to explore — color and narration, specifically.

"Army of Meadjs" a.k.a. "The Who Riders"

EP: I'm more intrigued by some synchronicities between your work and the uneasy dystopian futurescapes of Torsten Slama, which also reference Chinese landscape painting, and sometimes employ isometric perspective as an artifact of their allusions to architectural renderings. Slama's universe is much less coy and self-absorbed than Noble's, and appears to be offering allegorical glimpses into an alien-industrial future. He speaks of "an ever-expanding ecological consciousness that has turned into a form of Malthusian misanthropy, where many believe the world would be better off without people." Do you think perhaps you and Torsten Slama share some of the same motivations or influences?

David: Torsten, another great artist. His work is highly legitimate. But again, very different motives in my work. I see my work more in the stem of Henry Darger or Trenton Doyle Hancock. It's mythology-driven. I still have hope in the human race. Aesthetically, Slama and I have many similarities (Chinese painting, isometric viewpoints, colored pencil).

"Destine 2 Rise/Alvaro Sanz"

EP: Who are a few of your favorite artists, and what do you find most profound about their work?

David: Al Trigo Sanz for his courage
Devin Strother
Nobuyoshi Araki for his honesty
Philip Guston for his honesty and boldness
Pablo Picasso for his vision
Trenton Doyle Hancock
Vermeer for his sensitivity to pictorial design
Marcel Duchamp for his questions about art
SENTO FTP for his style mastery
Howard Finster for his boldness and encouragement
Joseph Cornell
David Altmejd for his imagination
Keegan McHargue
Van Gogh for his color
Henry Darger for his stories
all my D2R peeps
and the Kohga ninjas.


EP: Is there an underappreciated artist working today who you wish would get more attention?

David: My good friend Leo Eguiarte makes some amazing paintings! Like some real cyberdelic next level stuff! Like if the Species chick and Megaman had sex, the bastard child would be Leo's work. Super inspiring! The dude is out there!

Also Mike Alvarez, he does those awesome portraits, like straight up on some nostalgic miasma mode. So good!

And this guy Andrew Ho, he's on the comeup, the dude can draw with the best of 'em.

I like David W. Chace, because he’s doing it for all the right reasons.


EP: If you could have just one classic piece of art hanging on the wall of your studio, what would it be?

David: "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch.

"Trey OG Level Up!"

EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?

David: Daily life, my friends, my fam, and this really cool band Yellow Magic Orchestra.


EP: Tell me a bit about the work you'll be presenting at your debut solo exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery, which opens on Saturday, September 10th.

David: This show, "The Plight of the Who," is the jumpoff to my story. I am using this body of work to establish the setting and introduce some of my main characters and their motives. It's the first part of an ongoing narrative, the first chapter. Blue egg-headed creatures (the charis) and cold-blooded reptilian humanoids and other anthropomorphic characters inhabit this world with the humans. Lizard men hold position and power. They are evil creatures with no moral code or standard. They live as they wish, completely carnal and hedonistic. They live for all the pleasures this world has to offer and will do anything to attain them. Our heroes, the whoriders, are protectors of freedom, love and righteousness. They ride for truth and virtue. I like the new work I'm making. I'm incorporating some new elements, such as collage and air brushing. It has been a lot of fun making the work. I hope to take the viewers to the 8th dimension.

"Wildstylin' at Bat Mountain"

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

David: Go see my good friend in Chile and make more art.


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