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International Art Duo Kozyndan Create A Love Letter to California With Traditional Japanese Paintings

From zombies doing yoga to eclectic seascapes with pandas riding killer whales to aliens strolling through California forests, Kozy and Dan Kitchens' work whimsical work has always offered a window into what their hobbies and goals are at any given time. "The work comes about based on what we want to do with our lives," explains Dan. He is the the -dan half of popular art duo kozyndan. "Where do we want to travel? Where do we want to be? This is what shapes our art shows. In the past, we wanted to go scuba diving a lot, so we made underwater scenes. When we got really involved in camping, we painted the outdoors."

For “The Golden State,” their first solo show in the U.S. since 2013, the work-life partners’ current interests aren’t readily apparent unless you’re familiar with the less glitz-and-glam aspects of Southern California.

Super Bloom | Courtesy of kozyndan
Super Bloom | Courtesy of kozyndan

The show, which opened at Gregorio Escalante Gallery in L.A. on September 2, seems to comprise two separate exhibits combined into one. In the basement, there is  terrarium-esque primitive wonderland patrons can walk through, populated with Kozy's Bunny Primitive ceramic sculptures — a room-filling expansion of the exhibit they set up at Giant Robot last year. This time there are over a hundred brand new adorable ceramic critters in the space. Upstairs, paintings (with an unusual texture to their colors, if you look closely) will depict billy goats wearing bandanas, a field of poppies, chickens pecking in the grass and cats lounging around a potted marijuana plant, among other things.

The work is stunning to look at, a major departure in terms of the craft and materials that made them, and a total shift in the actual subjects being depicted. Their past work has involved giant anime robots fighting in a harbor and people floating like zero gravity astronauts down a city street. When you take a step back from all these new pieces for “The Golden State,” the question will inevitably rise: “Why are these all painted on Japanese scrolls?”

kozyndan's ceramic bunnies | Courtesy of kozyndan
kozyndan's ceramic bunnies | Courtesy of kozyndan
Instant bliss | Courtesy of kozyndan
Instant bliss | Courtesy of kozyndan
Installation shot of "The Golden State" | Courtesy of kozyndan
Installation shot of "The Golden State" | Courtesy of kozyndan

“The Golden State” is about a lot of things, and expressed in ways kozyndan have never attempted before. Mostly, this show was about Kozy wanting to reconnect with her family in Japan. That desire began with the 2016 presidential election.

For more than a year, Trump has been an inescapable specter permeating nearly every aspect of our society, like a fume in the air we breathe, like a filter through which we all see, hear, smell and feel the world. You can’t go on Facebook without seeing reactions to him. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing about him. You can’t watch late night TV without commentary about him. And let’s not even mention the news.

Politics has invaded the art world as well, with Trump’s orange face painted on canvases, sprayed on walls, drawn into comic panels and animated into some rather insane short films, to name just a few of the ways he’s been portrayed. The fire of resistance was ignited worldwide direct response to the current administration, and for what seems like the majority of artists this year, that fire burns in every brushstroke, pencil mark, composition and concept. It burns in every piece of artwork in “The Golden State” as well, underneath its depictions of anthropomorphic chickens and coyote gangs roving through Highland Park. Every single aspect of “The Golden State” is an incredibly conscious reaction to the current climate, but different from the way any other artist is doing it.

“I see a lot of political stuff that drives me crazy [and I want to do something about it],” says Kozy. “I can make something that’s very political or satirical with Trump’s face or him covered in Cheetos. But you scroll through Facebook and 80 percent of it is people reacting to [the latest headline]. Instead of being so reactive, I had to choose a different path.”

“We started [“The Golden State”] with a lot of anxiety and were looking for shelter from the anxiety in the work,” says Dan. “But the world has just gotten crazier. The US has gotten crazier.”

Fortunately, making “The Golden State” gave them something to do besides talk about how awful Trump is. “I don’t really need to saturate the world with the same kind of reactions [as other artists],” Kozy explains. “I wanted to focus on celebrating California instead.”

“The Golden State,” above all else, is a love letter to the progressive mecca of California they have found refuge in, but when the artists talk about the incredibly amount of thought and preparation that went into making each piece, you have to wonder if they’re also talking about some sort of golden state of mind that transcends national borders and cultural differences. After all, almost every single piece of material used to make the show (including most of the paint brushes), came from Japan — Kozy was specifically trying to channel the compassionate values of her homeland into this new work.

Kozy grew up in Yamanashi, the smallest prefecture in Japan, surrounded by adherents of Nichiren Buddhism and what she describes as a largely homogenous society. Most of the population is middle class, with no trace of the major divide between the rich and the poor that we have here. At its core, Japan is a society that recognizes the impact of individuals working together for the common good. Most schools don’t even employ janitors, depending on the kids to work together and maintain the grounds as part of their regular schedule. Until fairly recently, retirement homes were almost non-existent due to the longstanding tradition of next-of-kin caring for the elderly.

Much of Kozy's time in America has been spent trying to assimilate into the culture (she moved here 20 years ago for college to study art at Cal State Fullerton, where she met Dan). Over the past year, her feelings of being an outsider to America magnified, especially highlighting her values as a native of Japan. She realized how good and needed those values are. She decided not only to reconnect with them, but to honor them in a way she never had before, even integrating more of it into her own life. Kozy began learning everything from Buddhism to traditional Japanese art forms.

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“It was our intention from the beginning to create this show about where we live and where we’re from,” Dan says. “California images done in a Japanese style. That’s how we began.” The work they’ve created over the years has always been a blending of their two cultures and worldview, but in “The Golden State,” they’ve taken that marriage to the next level: every single image depicts the cultural landscape of California, but the materials and mediums are almost entirely Japanese.

kozyndan | Courtesy of the artists
kozyndan | Courtesy of the artists

The paper for the scrolls (not to mention the actual concept of the scrolls), the room divider, the paint, even the brushes — it all comes from Kozy’s hometown. The paint is an especially poignant touch on this body of work. It’s nihonga, made in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, mostly out of crushed minerals, shells and corals, with semi-precious stones mixed in for good measure. It’s incredibly rare to see this paint used in exhibits outside of Asia, so if the work in “The Golden State” looks different from anything else you’ve ever seen before (let alone produced by kozyndan), that might help explain it.

This entire show probably wouldn't be possible without support from Kozy's family. With each of kozyndan's art shows being a reflection of where they want to focus their attention, Kozy's desire to reconnect with her family meant they would become instrumental in the creation of her art. The nihonga paint, the paper and brushes were all ordered online from Japanese art stores and had to be shipped to her parent's house in Yamanashi. For Kozy to actually do anything with them, her parents would have to turn around and re-ship them to Los Angeles. As Kozy began to get more comfortable using this type of paint and its techniques in the work, she realized it would be best to display them on traditional Japanese scrolls — the kind her hometown is best known for making.

One of the most stunning aspects of "The Golden State" is the giant ceramic sculptures based on Nichiren Buddhist prayer beads — one bracelet and one necklace. Weighing in at over 300 lbs., with each ceramic bead roughly the size of a softball, the necklace is hung in a circular ring and is large enough to cover a two-story wall inside the gallery. These prayer beads too are perfect blends of California and Japan, being traditional elements of Japanese culture, while the ceramic is made out of West coast clay.

After the duo completed most of the paintings in California, Kozy brought them to Yamanashi to begin the process of transferring the work over to scrolls. Her parents connected her to some of the best-known artisans in the industry, and during her stay, she made the trek up into the mountains to visit their workspace. "They were really interested in the whole idea [of combining California images with traditional Japanese style]," Kozy says. "They totally understood the concept and were into it. It was fun for them to work with a different kind of art."

This video shows how the transfer was done.

This trip home marked Kozy’s longest stay in Japan since she first moved to America, and it was in the return journey that the nurturing, quality time that inspired Kozy to visit to her homeland came about. International shipping was not going to be an option for transporting any of the completed artwork back to California in time for the show, so Kozy was tasked with taking everything with her on the plane. Getting the rolled up scrolls in as carry-ons was simple, but while she was in Japan, Kozy came across a traditional Japanese room divider, and knew she had to use it as a canvas. Even having it transported by a professional mover from her parent’s house in Yamanashi to the airport sounded risky in terms of safety for the artwork, so her parents, her sister and her nephew loaded everything into a van, and they all spent three and half hours together merrily driving from Yamanashi to the airport. In the rain.

At the time of this writing, Kozy is back in L.A., the artwork is done, and the duo is preparing for the install at Gregorio Escalante Gallery. "It's been very satisfying to have completed all the work. It's usually hard to tell what a show is going to be like before we hang it, because our attention span is so short, so the art usually feels a little all over the place," says Dan. "This one feels very cohesive."

“For me, working on this show was kind of a Zen practice,” Kozy admits. Wherever all this madness over the past year takes us, Kozy has reconnected with her roots and armed herself with a whole new arsenal of artistic techniques, while Dan is nourished by a newfound sense of pride in his homeland of California.

Welcome to The Golden State.

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Top Image: Nakano in Spring | Courtesy of kozyndan

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