Industry Insiders: Hard-Working Artist Shay Kun

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New York-based artist Shay Kun isn’t like your average artist: he’d rather work than party. He was educated at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and received his Masters at Goldsmiths College in London. He’s been painting fervently since childhood, and the cleanliness and meticulous organization of his studio space is proof that he treats his passion with professionalism. His large-scale paintings involve landscape backgrounds inspired by those of the 19th century Hudson River School (Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstad) with modern intrusions and kitschy images of the everyday. He has upcoming shows at Benrimon Contemporary, New York; Hezi Cohen Gallery, Tel-Aviv and Russell Projects in Richmond. More on the “bastardizing” landscapes after the jump.

Before he became an artist: I used to work for an Israeli newspaper that had a branch here. I was in charge of the weekend edition, like, 10 years ago. I was writing about art, culture, new music, theater, this and that. I did it in my spare time but I loved to do it because I like writing, so I did a lot of curatorial projects as well, mostly in London. I love the deadlines.

On his technique: The technique is very conditional. It’s basically oil and acrylic on canvas. A lot of the stuff I like is about experimenting with images that have a certain tradition. In Israel, where I come from, a lot of the Hudson Valley or classical landscapes are said to be couch-potato kind of art. The tradition there is very arte povera, DIY oriented. And when you do something like that it has no history, and no background, and people look at it with a very weird and eerie eye. After I did my masters [in Israel], it opened my eyes to a lot of YBA artists and classical traditions. It’s vast there, and you’re learning to accept mostly your roots. I was considered, to a certain extent, bad taste. And I’m one of those artists also who only works. I’m not one of the artists who adheres to the party, sex, drugs, and rock and roll thing, which is sort of common. I hardly go out and I have a lot of shows coming up. I just work, work, work. I’m the antithesis to the hipster artist, I guess.

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On living out the family legacy: Since both of my parents are artists, we have that art interaction, but I like to keep it clear and intact when I do my own thing, and then sometimes we discuss it. But both of them are in their 80’s, so for my mom impressionism is contemporary still. My dad is actually more relevant in a sense. He looks around and goes to museums, but he’s still, in a sense, very traditional. I always had this affliction to tradition, because most of my sources are contemporary, from CD covers to magazines, clip art images, things that you use for leisure time activity. I have a linear link to what I do. I don’t follow trends, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t eat vegetables, don’t do anything really. It’s kind of like inventing a new trend. Everybody’s doing one thing. I’m just going to do a different thing. I didn’t know anything in my life outside of art for the past 35 years, and growing up in an artsy family, that’s the only thing I did. I don’t know anything to do really, except know art, know other artists, know other exhibitions being infused with that, and that fulfills me.

Questioning his life’s path: The last time I thought I was going to do something else was when I was 15 or 16. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to something in architecture or graphic design or something like that, but I wasn’t set on being an artist because I saw my parents struggle. I wanted to do something that has more permanency, something that I can control. I thought of studying for my B.A. in London, and got accepted, but it was too expensive, I went back to Israel and then did my B.A. there. So I decided at least my masters I’m going to do at Goldsmith’s in London. So then you interact with more YBA artists and start living off of productions and seeing the real deal, for good or worse. Then you start thinking, maybe I can do that for a living too, I mean why not? I have the skills, maybe not the personality. I was literally selling art since I was 16. I think in every artist’s career there are a few highs and lows, but the goal is continuing to do what you do, and have as less interruption as you can, but still be able to pay rent. I’m doing that. Every artist wants to see himself at Gagosian, or retrospective at the MoMA. My goals are more limited; I’m sort of building it, maybe in the future. But I know what I’m capable of, and what I want to achieve every year, to a certain extent. It’s not going to be a house of cards.

On the images within his paintings: I use clip art images—a lot of the time images that are used for greeting cards, or traditional messages—and I bastardize them into something more sinister. One image may be taken from a famous Albert Bierstadt landscape, and the rest of it is inflated toys. I like toys that were done really badly in a sort of impressionistic painting style, in mass production. I like that sort of imperfection in it. A lot of the set designs come from theater plays, a lot of others come from things that I found in magazines. A lot of them come from toy set designs that you see photographed in that type of setting.

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On his interests: I’m very interested in kind of hi-tech low-tech art and when you go from one place to another, how it changes the meaning, the value, the consistency or the background of it. I like to use oil, acrylic, sandstone paint. I deal with photography and video art, experimenting with different types of media. Things that are air brushed or low-tech based, that aren’t supposed to be in the traditional sense of the work. I don’t think highs and lows really play into the art, I think it’s just sort of a mechanism that people invented. If you look around, and you do the usual Chelsea tour, there’s not many artists who know how to paint to be artists, or what to know how to paint, or just paint. There’s a lot of whimsical stuff, a lot of self-help art, self-diluted art, very expressive art. There’s a certain style of how you are supposed to paint when you go to certain type of schools. I grew up in Israel, I lived in Europe, I lived here for ten years, I lived in Boston. I’ve lived in other places, so I was an art gypsy or art tourist. I picked up a lot of things, but eventually you find the voice that always comes back to you.

On the result: It creates an inner story, or a language in between the elements, because I still want them to be a part of the landscape, almost like painted into it. None of my landscapes are actually real landscapes, they are all artificial landscapes. A lot of these works were already either documented, reproduced in different technological means. I’m always keeping the sense of not painting the real painting. I always want to find something that has been mass-reproduced and then reproduce it again.

On the influence of worldwide poverty and slums in his work: To be honest I hate traveling. I like my comfort. I think art is about hard work at the end of the day, and being in the studio. So whenever I have those interruptions with like shows and this and that, its an obligation that you coexist with, but other than that I hate traveling. So, for the slums, I try to use my imagination or google-ing skills.

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On the Banksy comparisons: I wasn’t aware of Banksy until 2006-2007. Which is my fault, basically, because I just didn’t know. I read like ten magazines a month and I curate and I know a lot of artists and a lot of galleries, and I advise collectors at times on the new trends and different things, because they just ask me. I’d never heard of him before, and then when I saw I was like, “Okay, there are a few similarities.” But I think I departed to different sort of arenas and I think he’s doing something very different. I respect what he does, but I think at this point it’s sort of more of the gimmick behind than anything else: who he is, what he is, where he is. The Damien Hirst thing, the Angelina buying something. This celebrity culture around it. So I think that sort of squeezed the coherent and professional artist out of it a little bit.

On ‘art’ to the artist: I think art is supposed to be something appealing and visual. The story is never linear in art as far as I see it. At the end of the day, everybody looks at something and then they decide whether it is appealing to them or not and then they inquire further into the work. But if it really doesn’t say anything about anything you sort of pass through it. I’m trying to keep in a sort of a limbo, inquisitive moment.