In this week's newsletter we sit down with the marvellous Shay Kun to talk about the absurdity of history, the American landscape and Indiana Jones.
AS: Your work deals frequently with the elements of the sublime and the "awe"some in nature. Have we lost our sense of the sublime nature given how we currently treat the environment?
SK: I think my statement here is the best way to describe my thoughts regarding the question, I am optimistic by nature hence these works are an infusion, a hybrid of absurdities. Drawing on the style and subject matter of the Hudson River School, particularly Thomas Cole’s reverent paeans to nature and Albert Bierstadt’s awestruck visions of the sublime in the American West, these works captures the grandeur of nature. Despite acquiring a newly cultured look, these landscapes that were made with all the sincerity and attention, are transformed into a juxtaposition of nature and its human invaders, who appear in the guise of tourists or adventure seekers. The contrast between these contemporary characters and their stylized environment is abrupt and, despite their small scale, they’re an almost offensively inadequate substitute for the deities or characters of noble bearing that filled their place in painting of the past centuries. The elements populating these series of paintings of the American west are small but obnoxious, infesting nature more than enjoying its restorative powers. While Cole and his colleagues ascribed spiritual qualities to the environment, and warned of the destruction being caused by expansion, here the damage has been done. Lakes are littered with junked cars and pristine vistas blighted by tightropes, rickety bridges and other evidence of human interlopers. Still, what these visitors leave are their traces; they have not overwhelmed the environment and its magical possibilities.
AS: Your work is deeply informed by the styles and beliefs of the past, yet is also deeply humorous. Is all history somewhat absurd?
SK: Most of the ideas I explored started from the interaction between the virtual and the real and the artificial and the natural. It was the late 90's and everything having to do with cyberspace was mysterious and intriguing, The counterpoint between our desire to achieve technological progress in the military and our restoration of plants and animals is delineated within the idea of battle in the American west. My works is full of absurd Pathos and dark humor. My cultural mash-ups between the industrial detritus of our society and the cliched beauty of nature fascinate me from the watchtower of concerned pretense. My humor shifts the viewers into zones of discomfort in the encroachment of the Wasteland we have created. So the works are very much grounded in two separate lines: my fascination with soldiers and army life through my own experiences in the Israeli army, and the perception and alternations that occur in computer games, simulations and other 'disaster' spectacles. I try to infuse my serene scenarios, which often combine a hybrid of the american-israeli landscape, with the simulated touch of the synthetic, that is, when art is transformed through technological means and is repainted. Into all of this I try to inject my personal stories and visions.
AS: You write that "there are no absolutely answers or truths. There are just theories, some of which are better than others." How does your painting practice help you explore these ambiguities?
SK: As a first generation holocaust survivor; a son of two second world war immigrants & celebrated artists, in many ways my practice is a reaction to or negation of the Israeli tradition of landscape painting. My parents too found themselves alienated from this tradition as they were brought up in Eastern European and my work infuses both their styles while taking it to unmapped territories. There are elements of the work that are like an 'Israeli gypsy’ missing the motherland. 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 landscapes and my dad's decaying and deteriorating ones and how I can add to that my own small voice to this ‘unfinished symphony’.
AS: If you weren't a painter you would be a ___?
SK: A tough one, I would say maybe an archeologist as I really like to sink my teeth into the past. Perhaps a modern ‘Indiana Jones.’
AS: If you could charter a hot air balloon to anywhere, where would you sail?
SK: Probably the coast of Israel, ‘home is where the heart is’ and the Mediterranean coastline is one of the most magnificent spectacles in the world.
See Shay's other images from the "Take Off" series, Armed & Dangerous and A Short History of Nearly Everything on ArtStar. And read his biography here.