The Art Assassin 2

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang, or a portrait of the artist as a young failure…


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Photograph of Shay Kun looking upward into a landscape. Courtesy of Shay Kun.
Shay Kun: Drama Twins, 2009, oil and acrylic paint on linen, 60 by 60 inches. Courtesy of Shay Kun.

The return of Mister Shay Kun to the contemporary art scene. His perverted landscapes that are cultural mashups between the industrial detritus of our society and the cliched beauty of our nature fascinate our eyes from the watchtower of the pretense of concern. Kun’s humor shifts the viewers into zones of discomfort, this war zone of our mind state that someday the consequences of our rape of nature will lead towards our eventual demise. Such a profound shame that the artist tries to wake up us from. A stupor which we have to battle this encroachment of the wasteland we have created.

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 out in the American West. Considering that I live in Utah where academic landscape painting continues to overtake most of our contemporary art in Salt Lake City, I found Kun’s work to be full of absurd pathos and awesome dark humor that reminds one of the rocket science allusions in Thomas Pynchon‘s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” crossbred with Phillip Roth‘s plot against America on a bad day. The nonsense of military exercises in deranged formations will be subsumed by the mighty forces of Nature and earthquakes raining down our punitive horrors. Hummers crashing like sharpnel rain into shells and hunks of junk. The wonderful sound of silence when machine guns fall to the ground. Our collective suicide pointing to the new type of humans without this stupid concept of war and its artificial gamemanship like pornographic chess. Kun is the new visual prophet of our uncertain future.

If you have any questions about Kun’s artwork, feel free to contact the artist at

Now here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s inside details of the “assassination”:

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts (either from your childhood or adulthood) that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? How are these incorporated into the ideas for your work?

Shay Kun:       artists- always loved Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, van Gogh, Edward Munch, James Ensor, William Blake, Otto dix, David hockney, Lucian Freud, Neo Rauch, Daniel Richter, Bernini, Jeff wall, Albert beirstadt, Thomas cole, Constable, Poussin. I read over and over ‘lust for life‘ and ‘letters to Theo‘ and rehashed in my mind the life style I am about to have…. I love chuck Palahniuk stuff and Matthew Collings books a must have to every artists: ‘blimey‘, ‘art crazy nation‘, ‘it hurts‘ also Julian stallabrasshigh art lite‘ and ‘art incorporated‘, also ‘true colors‘ by Anthony Haden-Guest and I was just reading ‘seven days in the art world‘ by Sarah Thornton a good one too. Movies- Barton fink, everything by hal Hartley or where Ed Norton plays in, Stone‘s wall street, the Boiler room, fight club, Silence of the lambs, lots of horror flicks though now married life brought me to comedy dramas and I love it :)!! TV- twin peaks, 24jack Bauer is the bomb, prison break (I always thought if somebody tattooed the hierarchy of the art world all over his body they might have a chance to break in), Survivor, American idol, ‘so you think you can dance‘, the real world, Entourage (my current favorite, my ex roommate used to be involved in the film industry and knew the real Ari gold), Seinfeld, the x-files, I am a TV addict and I love to consume I guess, the info is irrelevant as long as the images are warm and lush. Magazines – frieze, Artforum though mostly for the ads and the ‘ins and outs’, Flash art love the country surveys, Artnews for the prize winners and obituaries. Sports- table tennis (my mom was a champion in 1956 back in Israel), UFC (my next mission is to attend a big night at the Mandalay bay in Vegas baby, I adore the dedication and the mix of techniques and discipline, wrestling WWE mostly for the characters, very comical and up to date.

Incorporated into my work- it just does if you look it’s somehow there 🙂

qi peng: Have you been recently during the past few months to any galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What elements within those shows inspired your artistic eye and tastes?

Shay Kun: To be honest I hardly go to see shows now, my inspirations usually do not come from contemporary art and I do not find it too interesting. I do love art do not get me wrong, perhaps much less at this point as there is too much of the same old regurgitation especially when it comes to abstract mythologies but I just rarely find something appealing that infuses a strong subject matter and penetrating technique, that I think “damn this is it”. I guess the only memorable shows from the past year for me were “who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” at shafrazi and David altmejd at Andrea Rosen…come to think of it, they were a year ago exactly yikes!  🙂 o.k o.k so I did like the martin kippenberger show like everyone else he is a kick a…artist, I am less impressed by the attitude and the myth but he had a superman‘s mind. I did like the Bacon show at the Met too, I grew up on Bacon stuff and rehashed in my youth the style of him and Freud in my works, I really like everything that is Brit.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around New York City or Chelsea where your studio is located of or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

Shay Kun: The MOMA bookstore is not a bad place if you ignore the art tourists, I actually found there a collector once… just make sure you are next to Marilyn minter books 🙂 since I hate shopping most of my acquisitions are done online. I do not drink alcohol or smoke so I do not like to hang out much unless it involves a meal then I am game! Restaurants: well there are many around midtown where I live which I like: Rue57, fun to sit at the bar and the Eatery on the corner of 53rd/9 ave, same old stuff but with a twist, there is also Maison a nice French bistro on the corner of 53rd st./7 ave and across from it Lindys cheesecake the best in town, close by, you will also find ‘china grill‘ great food especially in groups as the portions are hard to handle, Ruby foo’s in times square for the pad Thai, Iguana on 55th St./8 ave for Mexican and Thalia on 8th ave/50th St.. By my studio I actually like ‘Canaan‘ on 29th St. close to 6th Ave., for sushi and I often go to ‘whole foods ‘very trivial of me I know but you can’t beat overpriced good quality food.

qi peng: In your assessment, how do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work that was typically geared for the art fairs during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America?

Shay Kun: I am one of those who do not feel or see liberation by the economic climate and I witness it amongst my gallerists and artists friends, the environment basically shrunk the scene, everyone is looking for the sure bets and the bargains so it’s actually the opposite – less room to experiment and if you managed to brand yourself before the boom ended, then doing the same will actually grant you a means to an end. It’s great to change, shift things around and experiment but I think the saturated market a while back was actually more receptive to that and accommodating than it is now. At the end of the day I do not see a big comeback to the crazy rat race of 2006-07, I do see a flat line for a while that will endure the survival of the fittest unfortunately. I think you will see more gallery closings and same with the non profits, many ideas flying around about joint ventures or regrouping of galleries sharing the basics. In a way it’s a very selfish ego driven profession; at times it’s visual diarrhea and we expect people to smell it and endure the illusion that it’s a sweet perfume. Most do not succeed in doing so and I think over the next season or two you will discover that the play field changed… scope fair will get close to the armory, 24th St. will look like 22nd St. or 26th St. and a first time collector or a big heavy hitter will have the same type of respect.

qi peng: Also, do you have any favorite hobbies which you enjoy in your spare time? How do these activities inform the studio work that you pursue? Based your personal interests, are your mixed media paintings reflective of those hobbies you engage in?

Shay Kun: Hobbies mmm..not really I am a pretty lazy dude outside of my practice, I guess TV is a hobby, I like reality shows, entourage, 24 and the UFC, living vicariously through other people’s experiences can be a hobby right ? I guess I hate experiencing things myself 🙂 except maybe stand-up comedy I am a total fan and go often to Caroline’s or Gotham comedy club and also watch many recorded stand-up shows on TV. As for that being incorporated in my art, sure it does but not on a direct level I assume I like to keep it separate it’s my surrogate to boredom.

qi peng: As a graduate of both the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Goldsmiths College, what was life in the studio like back then? How does your studio practice differ today from studio time during those years? What were the ideas that you explored during your undergraduate and graduate years as a student? How has your themes and style evolved over the years? How does the Israeli and British contemporary art scene differ from that of New York?

Shay Kun: I think life in the studio was pretty much the same perhaps much less professionally oriented to cater to the outside system, there was no outside in mind, it did not play a roll, it was just about doing your thing as best as you can and not as best as the collector/gallerist thinks you can, as it looks in today’s art schools. I am not too sure I actually miss the whole studio experience that I had during my studies. I do not like to involve myself much in other people’s practices and rather see it while they are absent, my studio before I moved to Chelsea was across from PS1 in LIC, again an artist’s studio building that was literally falling apart by the minute, that was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ as I totally figured I need a studio by myself in a non-artsy environment and if I need to share then with a partner that is not an artist or at least not a painter and for the past year and a half I have been successful in doing so and maintain my sanity :). 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.

It was 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 and the real and the artificial and the natural. It was the late 90’s and everything 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 held a story like a fischli and weiss sculpture, it did not work that well. 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 90’s 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.

I think my themes evolved more into the art history arena while still maintaining old influences, my work dealt more with art history than before, a teacher of mine who I think is a great lecturer, told me a couple of things that stayed with me along the way, he said first do not be an art tourist, stick with something you like and try to refine it and research it to death, do not go and do everything because you can – it’s not healthy for a long term career and second, art is like a bottle of wine:  if you pour it to ten even glasses you will never get drunk but if you drink straight from the bottle at once you will…. so treat your practice the same way. I think all the art scenes are basically the same everywhere – you will find all the spectrums and obviously you get to know and familiarize yourself with more of the people you see there due to the size of the scene. One thing I can point out is that they take themselves a bit less seriously in their diva status then Americans do, and acquiring art back in Israel is more of a status value because someone else has it already, whereas educational or research experience can be found more in Europe and the U.S. To be honest Israeli art was very similar to Israeli sports; we always thought we are the center all these years but when confronted with ‘reality check’ we were proven time after time how farfetched it is yet we kept our heads up and I think the whole global PC situation helped in the past few years to make us feel we are more integrated. A collector friend actually talked about it with me lately and asked me how come, since it’s not major news, most of the art collectors and the majority in the entertainment industry are Jewish and many hardcore Zionist, why isn’t there an Israeli Hirst or Tom Cruise, is it because we ourselves are the biggest anti-Semites or we are not good enough or it’s just a bad coincidence, I will let the readers judge 🙂 .

qi peng: Assume that you could create your own personal museum of artwork. Which artists or pieces would you include in the collection and why? What things do you like looking when you are at art museums or galleries anywhere? What types of artwork does your personal tastes gravitate towards?

Shay Kun: My personal taste does gravitate to epic figuration but I like stuff that is pretty trivial: a vase, a hat, a pot somewhere between Morandi to the sci-fi works of Glenn Brown. I like it, I think, also more in terms of the mundane copy then the virtuosity, I hate empty pictures (unless it’s a Rothko) I like them to be full and busy. You either have hands-on or you have hands-off. Once you start to use your hands you get a certain look. It’s like when kids at school had jumpers that were knitted by their moms, rather than coming from the Gap. They looked weird because they were thicker and bubblier. Even if their moms were perfect knitters, it didn’t look machine-made. I think painters today are extremely skilled and extremely knowledgeable and they use their skills in different ways. Painting has always had the ability to be eclectic in its borrowing, now artists just make a unified picture which looks less fragmented.

In a museum or gallery setting I mostly like to look at the other people looking; it gives me more pleasure to think of what they are thinking then the visual ‘treasure’ in front of me. I also kind of like aristocracy art: Velasquez, Goya, rococo etc. I like saturated art something that is over powering and I do not mind overkill either and decadence is a blessing. Definitely Ludwig Meidner self portraits they are haunting, Otto dix, max Beckmann, George grosz and German expressionism obviously it applies as a war reflection of disenchanted humanity. As a second generation of holocaust survivors; the gaze in their pieces, use of colors and movement always forced me to acknowledge how volatile and momentary my existence is.  As corney as it sounds the ability to bring a mid range voice (like the UN if you will) gives me ‘breathing room’ to believe I am still valid in a world in which everything has been overly done with a twist which hopefully makes it desirable again. I like David altmejd, Bernini, Nigel cooke, Dexter dalwood imaginary spaces where a crime has been committed or speculated and most of the Zwirner painters, a close colleague and a strong sculptot, Tiago carneiro da cunha who shows at fortes vilaca in Brazil, he presents to me the paradigm of visual excellence. Jeff wall or actually everything in a neon light box, just love it 🙂 Vik muniz chocolate series, the best one liner in photography and of course peter Davies top one hundred artists paintings of the ‘ins and the outs’, clever…

qi peng: On another light note, do you have any favorite cuisine or dishes that you enjoy? Considering that food is essential for the artistic soul, what things do you enjoy about meals either prepared in a restaurant or home setting?

Shay Kun: Either sushi or steak, I hate vegetables but will ignore it in a good spider roll nothing else compares…I must have one or the other every day…I do not cook or host at home, so fresh direct delivery once a week is a savior. I also of course love Mediterranean food especially hummus, I can eat hummus almost with anything same as Americans eat ketchup with theirs. ‘hummus place‘ is a good place to start, it has several branches across the city and Hungarian food too especially cheese blintzes, my mom is a super cook and donated recipes to many books on the subject so when I travel to Israel she knows what I am expecting:). Last but not least I am putting out the word out there for a cilantro sauce someone should really do it, it can be done like pesto sauce only with cilantro that will be a hit ! 🙂

qi peng: What is the methodology behind your paintings which often use both oil and acrylic from start to finish, from preparatory studies to the completed work? What types of materials and equipment do you use to create your final artwork? How do you determine which materials go into a particular paintings? Also what is an average day like within your studio? Do you use assistants and if so, how are they incorporated into your studio practice? Why do you enjoy using oil and acrylic in the same work rather than sticking to one for a particular work?

Shay Kun: 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 then the actual subtext. No assistants used only my computer, projector for outlines and one pair of hands to execute. I am one of those hardcore believers that practice makes perfect…most of the works start now with some acrylic background but soon after I go over it with oil I rarely leave a few small details as is, eventually I love acrylic as it dries fast and gives it at times the more graphicy element but for the backgrounds and the sceneries oil is the best answer, I love to play with highs and lows in terms of the art materials and in some works I also use 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 7am 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. Noon is for sure studio time until about 6-7pm then I marinate, clean and think about the day.

qi peng: With your Jewish heritage, do your explore any themes which are related to your personal heritage, particularly the fact that your parents are both Holocaust survivors? Why are you drawn to the works of the Hudson River School, particularly Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt? How did you get interested in becoming an absurd landscape painter? What elements draw your eye and imagination into use of imagery from the American West mashed up with ecological damage such as junk cars, human interlopers, and military personnel? What things are you hoping to poke fun at?

Shay Kun: My works are very much inherited and routed in two separate lines: my fascination with soldiers/ army life through my own experiences in Israel, serving in the army and the perception and alternations of that in computer games, simulation and other ‘disaster’ spectacles. I try to infuse my serene scenarios which combine many times a hybrid of american-israeli landscape of the midlands with the simulated touch of synthetic feel when art is transformed through technological means and being repainted, into that I try to inject my personal stories and visions.

The suburban really interests me. And the domestic – lots of European artwork is domestic, you can’t get away from it. It’s a complete continent fascination. For example if it’s made by a British artist or the artist lives in Britain, they’re going to do works around the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, getting up, having dinner…. If you look through the whole of British art, it is always about that. Making Conceptualism and Minimalism domestic was the late 80’s. You can’t fight the domestic in western culture, its part and parcel of one’s national cliché.

I like suburban trash, I like suburban culture. I like the idea of not making a connection with the coolness of the center. There’s something kind of low-grade about suburban values, and there’s something about getting it right and getting it wrong at the same time. Suburban culture bastardized the mainstream, but not necessarily in an aggressive, punky way.

On the other hand 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. 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 remember myself in my childhood sitting down in my moms’ 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 parents’ 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‘.

There’s incredible creative energy in looking at what you were given as you grew up, and then making a version of it later on. You make it with much more knowledge and intelligence. Its 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 generation’s 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 didn’t make this change; the culture does. When art responds to culture, people get it. And when it doesn’t, then there’s confusion and anxiety because people don t get it. They don’t get what the art is trying to say.

qi peng: What is your opinion about tourists and adventures seekers, particularly those people who are part of reality television such as the show “Survivor?” Why does public thrive on thrills and fame-seeking without meaningful lives? How do you delve beyond the superficialities of life?

Shay Kun: I think the people who are adventure seekers or a part of reality TV do not necessarily supply thrills to those who have superficial lives, it’s a form of entertainment that tests physical and social skills, I actually told my wife once that perhaps if Survivor was two weeks for 5 million dollars and not 39 days for a million I would consider. 🙂  most people think that the neighbor’s grass is always greener; this mentality is the reason of the reality inflation. I actually think it’s more of a voyeuristic habit. People can find a meaningful purpose in eating burgers every day, I say kudos.

qi peng: What has your experience been like working in the gallery system, particularly Davis Castillo Gallery, BUIA Gallery (now defunct), and art fairs such as Artforum Berlin? What are some of your future projects or exhibitions that you will be pursuing soon? Will these new artworks be an extension of the themes and ideas that you are examining now or perhaps a different direction instead?

Shay Kun: I think an artist eventually needs galleries to expose his work to audiences he will not be able to reach by himself, especially when it comes to art fairs. However my experience with most galleries is that they really mean well and at the end their success is yours but in daily life I think an artist really needs to rely on his own skills to promote himself and make the best work he can. A gallery is a team and artists have too much ego to be team players, so it’s a give and take situation; hopefully it’s a delicate balancing act. I am working on a show in Boston at Lamontagne gallery in Jan 2010 and at the same time on a project with Loushy art and projects in Tel Aviv, followed by hopefully a show at Linda Warren gallery sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, it will surely be an extension of the same themes but stay tuned for surprises:).

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with your readers and fans of your kick ass paintings and upcoming exhibitions or projects here?

Shay Kun: Live and let live. There’s no point making a copy of the same old thing. To make art, you take something and do something new with it.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

July 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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