An Interview with Kozyndan: Zen and the Art of Bunny Primitive
The artistic marriage of collaborators Kozyndan has been charming the contemporary art world with their quirky and surrealist pan-Asian take on pop art for some 15 years, achieving a fiercely loyal global fan base who follow the weed-fueled adventures of this cheeky universe of pandas, rabbits, whales and human guardians. Using a language of light-hearted, sex-and-drug puns, cross-cultural visual cues, hybrid aesthetic styles, and subversive cuteness, the husband-and-wife team paint, print, sculpt, and merch through an eclectic evolution that is both personal and creative, as well as material. The most recent and rather expectation-defying results will be on view at LA’s Gregorio Escalante Gallery this September 2nd.
The Golden State, their first solo show since 2013, and the first in the US since 2011, encompasses a suite of new paintings and two very different large-scale ceramic sculpture installations, all based on recent experiences exploring the terrain—both geographical and internally personal—of their own identities. The subject matter includes signature, unique animal imagery, from rabbits to wolves, chickens, tigers, and goats, lovingly familiar to their fans, as well as more abstract and esoteric references from Buddhism and nature. A terrarium-like landscape will fill the entire downstairs, and many of the paintings are to be finished during a summer residency in Japan, to more authentically reflect an aesthetic of mediation and myth that has captured their heart. Juxtapoz sat down with Kozyndan in their LA studio to find out where this is all coming from. —Shana Nys Dambrot
Kozy: Some artists do one thing over and over for 15-20 years. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s a cubicle of the mind, and I don’t want to be that person. We’ve always tried to do something different every time we can.
Dan: There’s a trajectory, or a journey, where, as an artist, you start making your art and then maybe your career starts to build, and then you get to a place where you can do it for a living. Then that career as an artist takes you to places, introducing you to people and changes your life path—and then you start to pick up all these other interests, and you discover worlds of new things because of doing this job. Your art inevitably reflects those new experiences. It’s not so much about the evolution of an aesthetic per se, it’s more like the work itself changes because it’s reflecting the real changes happening in your life, and in you. There’s always a push and pull, and it keeps going like that, and you end up making something totally different than you did 15 or even 2 years ago.
Shana Nys Dambrot: The new work for Golden State has your familiar style, although there is definitely a new look and feel to both the paintings and the sculptures. While being as authentic as ever to who you both are, what has been changing?
Dan: I feel like this art is more true to who we are now as opposed to who we were then. It’s not such different subject matter… even with the ceramics—the bulk of the sculptures are all rabbits, our bunny primitives that look like they were made 10,000 years ago—and we have done a lot of rabbits over the years! But I will say this: There’s definitely something more peaceful in the art now, something more quiet and subtle than it used to be. I’m a much less aggressive driver now, too! That’s me, and then there’s the other part, the journey she, Kozy, is on.
Kozy: Through the last year, I was following what was going on with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and thinking about how I have spent so much time trying so hard to fit in among my American friends and act American and tone down the Japanese side of me. And it just hit me so hard how the Native Americans are getting fucked over, and I started to think that maybe it’s not so bad to be more nationalist, more proud of being from somewhere else, somewhere different. I feel that American culture is basically a colonization, and I really don’t want to do that to myself. So now I’m like, fuck yeah, I’m just going to do Japanese stuff from now on. That’s how this started for me. That’s been the last year.
So, even though it doesn’t look like political art, this work is very much a response to the catastrophe of current events. But its sweet tone firmly breaks the cycle of divisive self-righteousness, and offers unity as a real alternative. That also explains some of the stylistic reinvention. You’ve related recent trips to Japan, visiting the world’s oldest Buddhist temples, and for a variety of reasons, Kozy especially has made the effort to research not only Buddhist but also Hindu philosophy. That might naturally be life-changing. Is that where the inspiration for the huge wall-size ceramic prayer bead installation came from?
Kozy: Well, yes, of course. Also you might not know that my family’s company is in the business of mass-producing the supplies and accoutrements for Buddhist temples, monks, shrines—beads, prayer wish papers, incense holders, whatever. Kegon Buddhism expresses the philosophy that everything is connected, and thus, because you might influence the future at any moment, how we treat each other is the most important thing. You can’t wait, you have to manifest the future with every second that you have. That’s what the prayer bead sculpture is about, and in a sense, the art does the same function as the original beads. It encourages people to slow down and think these things over. So it’s about that too—it’s about all of it. It’s all connected. It’s about who I am, in more than one sense. As far as the paintings for Golden State, I started exclusively working in pigments called nihonga, very special and traditional Japanese paints. These have profound meaning not only to me, but to Japanese culture—that’s part of why I wanted to use them.
Once again, it’s not only the style but also the material that is reflecting this new phase of your life in and out of the studio. As well as ceramics and Japanese paints, you are also going to be working on scrolls as you finish the work in Japan this summer. Besides the new materials, would you agree that the images themselves seem more sentient, and a little bit more refined?
Dan: I’m thinking about our old work, and how we tried to pack so much into it, and make so many jokes, and have so much stuff going on. Now I feel like the work has more space to breathe and is more calm. And that’s about who we are now and how we feel like people need to be like right now, given everything that’s going on in the world.
Kozy: Yes. I wanted to make something that’s less hot and reactive because political art is very time-sensitive, it has a short shelf-life, and after 20-30 years, it won’t age well; it becomes dated.
Dan: And when there’s so much stuff going on that you could react to and feel like you should react to, it’s fucking draining! So this is just sort of like putting stuff out there that doesn’t add to the fray. The quiet moment is a form of resistance, beauty and simplicity is a form of resistance, in a way. Also for me, from my Western side, which is different than what she’s doing, for me being Californian, thinking about our brief history and the personality of the state, we have an ethic and vibe that’s very different than the rest of the US. I’ve been exploring and studying it, taking in the immense scale of the beauty that we have here, having magical moments alone in a place, fleeting quiet moments that don’t last. It’s a parallel journey from an American point of view, chasing the emptiness of that Wild West desert myth, the environmentalist spiritualism. That’s the kind of stuff we want to share with people as an antidote to the tumult. It’s a real action against the panic. They can be here with this, instead of out in the battle for a while.
Kozyndan’s Golden State will be on view at Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Los Angeles from September 2–October 8, 2017.
Photography by Birdman Photos.