San Francisco based artist Kota Ezawa confronts the spectator with motives that are not at all unfamiliar. They are a part of a collective memory and evoke certain recollections – even though Ezawa renders his motives increasingly flat. His use of color further underlines their two-dimensionality. In his conversation with Sabrina Möller, Ezawa talks about the origin of his procedure, stolen works of art, and his current show at the Christopher Grimes Gallery.
Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas – in your current show, Gardner Museum Revisited’ at the Christopher Grimes Gallery, you present works dedicated to motives that are firmly established in the history of art. The 13 works that appear in your Light Boxes have one thing in common: the originals were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. What made you decide to reproduce these works in your showing? Why were you interested in them?
The theme of memory has accompanied my work for a long time. I’m not really all that interested in the artist’s status. What really matters is that these images are nothing but a memory and no longer exist as actual objects. Another aspect is also fundamental to me: the conjunction between perception and the memory of those paintings and what they mean. Stolen paintings contain this dimension of memory.
For the Christopher Grimes Gallery show I did a lot of research about stolen paintings. By pure coincidence, the security camera recordings from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum appeared online around that time. Animation being my works’ main component, the paintings I had already started worked very well with the imitations of the security videos.
The choice of works at your showing ‚Gardner Museum Revisited’ seems obvious. Besides art history, you also work with photographs that were, or still are, important to our collective memory. Are there any specific criteria, that make you chose the motives for your works? How important is (art) history in your work?
If you listen to the music that plays in my studio, you’ll get to hear about everything – from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Mariah Carey. The themes of my work aren’t much different. Some are really complex and very intelectual. Others are accessible for anyone.
The first work I used this procedure on was The Simpson Verdict. The underlying idea was to transform an archive image into an animation movie. Later on, I noticed that the trial footage reminded me of a tableau vivant. Its precisely this relationship with history painting that caught my attention. I literally encountered my subject by chance. The quest for new subjects is not a planned procedure. Instead, it’s a spontaneous process.
You employ Appropriation Art by using the motives with all their contours and light-dark contrasts, and by flattening them. The photographs and paintings become completely two-dimensional, without any structure, depth or shade of color. What remains are colored surfaces and contours, that still manage to convey light-dark contrasts. Has there been some sort of a moment of origin for this procedure? For you, what changes, once you flatten the original motive?
Around the year 2000, I once drew a house and also did an animation of the drawing. Back then, videos used to be of very poor quality, and that’s why I had to simplify these pictures. I also found that those reduced and simplified pictures were able to establish a more direct comunication with the spectator.
About 150 million people in the US had watched the broadcasting of the Simpson verdict. When my works were shown in museums and galleries, several visitors approached me: they couldn’t remember the original. My film was their only recollection. Of course, this has nothing to do with my film being better, more beautiful, or more important. It’s more about my film being a visual synopsis. It’s easier to remember a compressed version, rather than a long version with all its details.
Regarding my formats, there is no specific rule that I follow. I want to convey content, but I also try to create some sort of surroundings – a space. As for my current showing at the Christopher Grimes Gallery, my intention was to create something that could replace the originals.
Despite the flattened perspective in your works, the light-dark contrast is one of the most decisive factors that determine the colored surfaces. However, your choice of color seems to drain the initial motive of some of its warmth and livelyhood. Can you tell us about the role of light, another essential element in your Light Boxes, in your work?
The choice of color in my works is completely subjective. I wouldn’t be able to explain what makes me pick them. There may be cultural factors involved as well: I grew up in Germany. And I can’t shake off the impression that Germany is not really a very colorful country. It’s mostly dominated by shades of brown and grey. This is reflected in my work. And then there’s my Japanese father. At home we had lots of Japanese dishes and silk paintings that are marked by the tenderness of their coloration. Not too long ago, a Chinese art critic said that my work reflects the sun bleached colors of California.
I used to consider myself an experimental movie maker. It was by accident that I ended up in the gallery world. My first gallery exhibition project was the History of Photography Remix, a series dedicated to still images. Initially, I had conceived those works as a slide show. The slide projectors turned out to be a rather poor means of mediation. I therefore decided to place the works in light boxes and to show them in a bigger room. The light boxes establish a certain analogy with a TV set, something that I find thrilling because of my background in video art.
Once you’ve decided on a motive, how does your work process continue? How do you proceed, and what digital programs do you use to create – and to flatten your works? Is there some sort of a filter or a program?
First, I redraw the image on my computer. To do so, I use a regular Wacom Tablet and a pen. Instead of a hand drawing, I do vector drawings: a technique mainly used my graphic designers, and less frequently by artists. Takashi Murakami for instance works with this technique.
I studied fine art in Düsseldorf and San Francisco but never received any formal training as a graphic designer. After I had already started teaching at the California College of the Arts, I secretly took Adobe Illustrator courses on the weekends, in order to get that knowledge. My training had been more about ideas and concepts than about practical skills.
Currently, the media you are primarily working with are light boxes, film, animation, and print. But at some point, you always return to painting. What makes you pick one medium rather than another for a specific motive? How does the medium change the motive’s effect and the way it is perceived?
My goal is to create a certain tension between my work and the form of presentation. Sometimes I choose a medium that doesn’t seem logical at all. To give you an example, I’ve tried to create a relatively modern picture using the old aquatint technique: the motive were the NASA pictures of the Earth that had been taken by astronauts. On the other hand, I’ve taken old pictures and have transformed them into digital animations. Besides, I actually really enjoy working with different media. That’s why I might first do an animation, then a sculpture, and finally a painting.
You primarily conceive your works as editions that tend to be dependent on your choice of medium. The original function of this media was its reproductive potential. What role does the reproduction of the works play for you today? How would you describe your relationship between your originals and your digitally produced works?
In the 90s, when I was a student at the art academy, reproduction of works used to be of paramount importance. Back then, video was a way of translating art into a democratic medium. The idea was to record everything on VHS tapes that can be easily distributed among the population. I’ve lost this idealism. Not every one of my works can be an unlimited edition. The economy of the art world doesn’t work like this, and the people who are actually able to buy art, are relatively few.
Nevertheless, I always return to the edition as a convention within the art world. And I still really like multiples. The edition that is now on show at the Christopher Grimes Gallery constitutes no more than just a fraction of my artistic output. In San Francisco I work with the organization The Thing Quarterly. They produce editions with artist such as John Baldessari. Unlike galleries, they produce unlimited multiples. The large number of copies makes the works very affordable, and they can be acquired by a large number of people.
// Sabrina Möller
CHRISTOPHER GRIMES GALLERY
916 Colorado Avenue • Santa Monica • CA 90401 • USA