Surveying the Unmapped Territories

Through the Art of Shay Kun

All the Unquiet Things, Painting by Shay Kun

Shay Kun grew up in an environment that smelled heavily of poppy, turpentine and linseed oil. And by the time he was perfecting his first vocabulary he already started differentiating the depth of oxide red from the earthy tone of burnt sienna and identifying the radiance of cadmium yellow from the calmness of cerulean blue. Well, to be fair, much of this learning was absorbed unconsciously by him from his immediate environment after he was born in 1974, Israel, to parents who are themselves noted artists. Naturally, his creative enthusiasm in those days knew no boundaries. He graduated from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, Israel in 1998 with a BA in Fine Arts and followed that up with a Masters Degree completed from Goldsmiths College, London, England, 2000. He felt the atmosphere in Goldsmiths College to be intellectually stimulating but finding his own voice needed much contemplation from his part. In the end, after much mulling over, he did manage crafting a unique pathway for himself that he may call his own. To some extent, an amalgamation of his mother’s optimism and tender–heartedness showcased by her art and his father’s way of interrogating the darkness and decay of the age through his paintings could be seen into Shay Kun’s work.

Friedrich Nietzsche once claimed, ‘You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.’ Holocaust and its aftermath had a deep–rooted effect in the lives of Shay Kun’s parents and people close to him. The artist, though born at a different time, is not unaware of it. It trickled into his consciousness since early days and now seems to be affecting his creative expression. His canvas is smeared with conflicts as could be seen in Erupted Minds, Unforgiving Gestures or Trouble in Paradise. The antagonism is not necessarily always between man and man but also between man and nature, not only about the way we are treating a fellow human being but also about how we are assaulting the only place we may genuinely call our home, the planet earth. Behind the burst of colours and surrealistic effusion lie questions – very big, nagging and worrisome questions.

From Hezi Cohen Gallery, Tel-Aviv, Israel to Lamontagne Gallery, Boston, MA; Art Labor Gallery, Shanghai, China to Alexander Ochs Galleries, Berlin & Cologne, Germany; Leslie Smith Gallery, Amsterdam, the Netherlands to Benrimon Contemporary, New York, NY; Linda Warren Gallery, Chicago, IL to Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans, LA Shay Kun’s artwork has been exhibited in many renowned galleries. The audience has been privileged in viewing the work of this Israeli painter now based in New York. Through this interview there is an opportunity of knowing more about the artist who often remains discreet in the shadow of his canvas.

Growing up how the influences of your immediate environment and your artist parents affected you? Do you see what you have absorbed then are somehow permeating into your artwork today?

I started painting in a very early age 3, 4 years old… I remember myself in my childhood sitting down in my mom’s studio — a commercial landscape artist, asking myself if these welcoming ‘greeting card’ paintings are in my genes… At that time I could only produce a pastiche of Freudian Van Gogh type of work and this affliction of sublime testimony seemed too simple and sincere to justify. In retrospect I know today that both of my parent’s work shaped my style, those untouchable materials in my youth and through my education became the only motives that put a choke hold on me and did not let go. My exploration is not a tongue in cheek, a one liner of an Israeli artist flipping the European / American sublime, but an emotional exploration of the point of departure between my mom’s celebratory landscape and my Dad’s decaying and deteriorating ones and how I can add to that my own small voice liquefying this ‘unfinished symphony’. As a first generation holocaust survivor; a son of two second world war immigrant artists, in many ways my practice is a reaction or negation to what was the conventional Israeli tradition of nature painting, where my parents too found themselves excluded as they were brought up by east European values and my work infuses both their styles while taking it to unmapped territories while bridging these crossroads. as a child … family, a slower pace in life, and a simpler sense of beauty. I believe those longings show up in my paintings today.

The distance runs out before the body, Painting by Shay Kun
The distance runs out before the body

You have lived in Israel, London and now in New York. How the varying cultural landscapes affected you as a human being and an artist?

I have always been consumed with the notion of Escape and Escapism and those items were so loaded for me that I could not have asked for a better vehicle to explore my notions in depth regardless of territory shifts. My practice is very accessible however I am not intending to feed the viewer with a spoon so it’s a given that some scripts will be lost with the viewer nevertheless he is left with enough meat to chew on. There’s an incredible creative energy in looking at what you were given as you grow up, and then making a version of it later on. You make it with much more knowledge and intelligence. It is like, ‘You’ve given me this, so I’m giving you that.’ Of course it depends on what point you want to make, art can seem angry or you can take the anger and change it and make art that doesn’t seem so angry. Anger’s been done to death recently. ‘How do you take that spirit but not copy its product? Or can you apply that spirit to where it is least expected?’

I think my work does not look sophisticated in the way that the previous generations did, because the previous generation in Israel borrowed a very high–art, international look: they borrowed Conceptualism and Minimalism, and added their own pop, cultural content to it. Choosing Minimalism and Conceptualism guaranteed international credibility. I did not feel the need to do that. I was lucky enough to attract an international art audience that is relaxed enough to know that you can make very sophisticated products from odds and ends … and not make it seem regional. It’s very international but it doesn’t need to prove it. The previous generation had a much more difficult task because they seemed to come from nowhere and they had to prove their internationalism.

In the Wall Street–corporate–80s–advertising–money world, Minimalism and Conceptualism made sense. In the sitcom–goofy world of now, people can do small, low–key things or have weird ways of working and fitting in. Artists don’t make these changes; the culture does. When art responds to culture, people get it. And when it doesn’t, then there is confusion and anxiety because people don’t get it. They don’t get what the art is trying to say. So to answer your question it is really about awareness then any place.

Teardrop Series, Painting by Shay Kun
Teardrop Series

How the formal training in art received in Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem differed from Goldsmiths College, London? Did the training received then help shape your artistic persona?

The transformation I have in the works is almost like an ‘Israeli gypsy’ that has all the positive signs of missing his mother land :) I learned valuable things back in B.F.A, but I didn’t find a product to apply them to. So I learned a lot about how to look at art, and the questions you should ask yourself when you’re making something, and the questions you should ask other people when you’re looking at something. I had a fantastic education, but the end products that people were making when I was there didn’t really interest me. There were lots of students who made works about the process of work. The intellectual atmosphere was very theoretical, but in a way that seemed dated to me, because the fact is Israel is in the middle of the Mediterranean without any real context or ability to create a unique voice. The equivalent would be if my parents would start doing Hockney knockoffs because they were told L.A is full of private pools.

Most of the ideas I explored back then came from the interaction between the virtual, real, artificial and natural. It was the late 90s and everything about cyberspace was mysterious and intriguing, I used to deal with death as a virtual experience in mixed media installation and videos, painting that had more graphicy quality to them and felt story–like. I was at Goldsmiths ‘post–freeze’ where for a long time most art was very hands–off. If you used your hands you were considered stupid. If you faxed something to a factory and had it made — something like the equivalent of three double–glazed windows — that was fine. I didn’t have any connection with that. In the early 90s I’d been to art schools in London, I started to see the work that was appealing to me and it was exciting to see that stuff: it was so much more interesting to me then Israeli Art.

Trouble in Paradise, Painting by Shay Kun
Trouble in Paradise

From Dali to Magritte, surrealism has been used as an instrument of handling the many aspects of ‘life’ by renowned artists. How do you use surrealism to register your thoughts and emotions on canvas? For an artist how subtly evocative the usage of such metaphorical objects as ‘balloon’ become in the process of storytelling?

I am trying to inverse the relationship between natural and artificial. There is no time / space continuum in the background but the foreground remains anchored in the literal world of the hot air balloon. As we drift into the atmosphere, would the earth look warped? The paintings also have references in regards to the paradigm shift brought about by Columbus and other explorers that the earth is actually round, not flat. But as we dig deeper into the archaeology of knowledge, to borrow a phrase from post–modernity, we realize that Ptolemy the Greek geographer and mathematician of 150 CE amassed knowledge from the Alexandria library that the earth was in fact spherical. This knowledge came to be lost and in medieval times people thought the world was flat again. How did something that is a universal truth come to be lost during history? These paintings may describe the intellectual thought of when humans rediscovered the earth was flat. If they had risen in a hot air balloon high enough and looked down, they may have believed that the earth looked like one of the quadrants of these paintings. This relativity towards knowledge and time fashions Kun’s work. There are no absolute answers or truths. They are all just theories, some of which are better than others.

On a more personal note the hot air balloons series I can add my personal angle and not just the intellectual scope:

The celebratory optimistic attitude actually permeates from a charged source material which I can refer to as ‘Holocaust Memorabilia’ — toy like artefacts that were carved out of wood by my parents during hiding and brought back from the war, I took these relics nurtured them back into life, repainted them and took them to a different journey involving escapism and fantasy.

Lift off and Exfoliate, Painting by Shay Kun
Lift off and Exfoliate

What inspired you in the creation of the Tear Drop series? Was it a conscious choice to invoke a somewhat sombre mood and a willingness of peering through the mist?

My work deals a lot with memory and perception, through my past travels into these dark ages and the perspectives I internalized, I realized that I am aware things are not as I perceived or thought they would be … similarly to the moment we realize looking through a rainy window the image behind the window is distorted.

The recurring theme of these raindrop paintings is the clarity of the water, the path the water has travelled to its location and the nostalgia such images invoke. Like a film noir still, this painting confront the viewer and brings forth memories from previous times. The fuzzy, off–centre colours behind the window are just as we think they should be. As we drive along the interstate of our lives our memories grow hazier in the distance much like looking through the side windows of a moving car and only seeing colours without clear, definitive shapes. These images fade into the distance and while we may remember their general shapes or colours, they are no longer present and instead become part of our memory. How distorted our memory of these events are, is what I am trying to capture. The reality as it happens — looking out of a window on a rainy day — is never remembered exactly as it was.

Even as memories fade or age, we transform this prior reality. Individually we take details and exaggerate them to fit our needs. Maybe we finished in third place in that race but it was the best race we ran and as such in its retelling we finished second because the other racer had a false start that the officials missed. We should have ‘been first’. We aspire to be first; we want our memories to make us first and in many cases it requires manipulating these past moments. This very idea informs my recent body of work.

‘My process of working is usually one of elimination; I have quite a low attention span and high curiosity rate, hence I have to be overwhelmed by a piercing image visually first in order to explore / dissect it further.’

Do you spontaneously develop the picture in your mind’s eye before executing it on canvas? Does the ‘medium’ play an important role in the development of the narrative?

A magician never tells :) let’s just say much less then you would imagine. My process of working is usually one of elimination; I have quite a low attention span and high curiosity rate, hence I have to be overwhelmed by a piercing image visually first in order to explore / dissect it further. That is why I am mostly interested in the mechanism of perception than the actual subtext. I am one of those hardcore believers that ‘practice makes a man perfect’. I love to play with highs and lows in terms of the art materials and in some works I also used sandstone paint which is used for pottery and leisure time activities as well as airbrush paint that possesses fluorescent qualities. The day usually starts at 7:00 am, I am more of a morning person than a night one … calls / emails etc. I do work also from home at times, I do not want to limit myself to the studio and lucky enough they are 30 blocks apart… so sometimes I stay home later than expected. 10am is for sure studio time until about 7 pm then I marinate, clean and think about the day.

Digital artists, nowadays, often create surrealistic environment in films and animations. How do you feel about handling the same through traditional means?

I actually feel blessed that I was born to witness such saturated environments where everything is possible, I always choose ‘the long way home’ most times it is the outmost rewarding one to explore.

How would you like to sum up your artistic journey so far?

‘Live and Let Live’ is my motto in life and art.

Monuments, Painting by Shay Kun
Portrait of Shay Kun

What Shay Kun likes…

Shay Kun has great admiration for such artists and architects as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and El Greco who played pivotal roles during Italian and Spanish renaissance. Diego Velázquez, another important figure of Spanish Golden Age, naturally appeals to his artistic senses. The classical style of Nicolas Poussin’s art does not evade the scrutiny of his eyes. The hauntingly evocative renditions of Francisco Goya move him deeply as does the symbolist imageries of William Blake’s and Edvard Munch’s. The stark contrast between the romanticism exhibited by John Constable, Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt work and Lucian Freud’s examination of the psyche through his art pique Shay Kun’s interest. James Ensor’s allegorical essays vis–à–vis Otto Dix’s realistic depictions of his time and society as well as Vincent van Gogh’s majestic interpretation of the world around despite being tormented from inside earn a deep respect from him. Modern masters like Jeff Wall, Neo Rauch and David Hockney are also held in high esteem by Shay Kun. His highest approbation though is reserved for Ludwig Meidner’s Mein Nachtgesicht or My Night Visage painted by the artist in 1913. The horrified face in the backdrop of war, destruction and collapsing ideals screams out of gilded frame.

Poignant narratives using another artistic medium, namely film, of Wall Street (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Barton Fink (1991), Fight Club (1999) and Boiler Room (2000) have a stirring effect on the artist. Reading Dear Theo and Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s compilation of Vincent van Gogh’s letters and his biographical novel on the artist, Blimey! – From Bohemia to Britpop: London Art World from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, Art Crazy Nation and It Hurts by Matthew Collings, True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World by Anthony Haden–Guest, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art by Julian Stallabrass and Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton fill much of Shay Kun’s free time. After all, an artistic journey can never be fulfilled in isolation but by successfully harmonising expressions based on internal and external stimuli.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Shay Kun