Inside "The Golden State," the solo show from the Highland Park–based artist duo known as Kozyndan, is a brutal scene of L.A. life painted on a 96-by-68-inch screen. On one side, a bobcat creeps down a slope. This predator, though, is not quite as menacing as the larger P-22, Griffith Park's own mountain lion, who appears on the opposite slope, his claws clasped around a koala. In Lion Dines on Koala (Only in L.A.), husband-and-wife Kozy and Dan Kitchens place a fictionalized version of a real event — painted by Kozy with cat drawings from Dan — in the context of the city with Griffith Observatory and the downtown skyline in the background. Gold leaf is used to color the dry earth and a sky that looks like it may have been lit by a brush fire.
"We were very inspired by California's urban landscape with crazy animals in it," Kozy says when we meet a few days before the show's opening at Gregorio Escalante Gallery. She mentions a time when the artists themselves spotted a bobcat while hiking locally.
That story about P-22 killing a koala at the Los Angeles Zoo made an impact, too. "To me, it symbolizes the total mishmash of cultures that is Los Angeles," Dan adds.
You might think this is the most L.A. piece in the show until you catch a glimpse of Coyote Street Gang (The Best Google Street View Ever). Painted by Kozy following a Japanese practice called nihonga, the setting is Highland Park, where three coyotes roam a cracked street. One climbs the roof of a vintage car. Two others walk the asphalt, where an In-N-Out cup lies near a car tire. The painting is fixed to a Japanese scroll, made of earth- and sky-colored fabrics.
In "The Golden State," Japan and California merge. There are large ceramic pieces made to resemble prayer beads, a wall full of ema (wish cards) decorated with piñata horses, and a "super bloom" landscape. It's a reflection of the artists' cultural backgrounds. Kozy was raised in Japan and moved to the United States in 2007. Dan grew up in Southern California. The two met at California State University Fullerton, where they began their longtime creative partnership. But "The Golden State" is also a reflection on making art in the time of Trump. Dan notes that, while the show isn't blatantly political, it did come about as a result of the 2016 presidential election.
When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the two artists had different reactions. "I felt very withdrawn from it," Dan says. "I went into a depression and was watching the news and being like, I'm a Californian, I'm not an American."
Kozy, who also had been moved by news of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, began to think about her Japanese background. She says that the movie Embrace of the Serpent, about colonization around the Amazon, influenced her. "When I watched that movie, I was like, I'm a Japanese person, but I'm thinking in English and I'm trying to fit into American culture and I'm actually neglecting my Japanese background," she says. Kozy's reaction: "Maybe I should try to be more Japanese and be not apologetic and be more proud of being who I am."
This resulted in a different type of Kozyndan show. Dan says it's their "least collaborative show." Kozy took the lead. She learned how to paint with nihonga pigments, which are made from crushed minerals that occasionally lend a touch of sparkle to the finished works. She drew from Buddhist philosophy and Japanese traditions. The prayer beads, she explains, symbolize that "everything is connected."
The painting of the super bloom is influenced by Zen Buddhism in its depiction of a single moment. Kozy mentions that her parents have a company that makes ema, the cards that people use to write down wishes, and so they incorporated a wall of ema into the show. Through her parents, she was able to find scroll makers in Japan who worked on several of the painting presentations.
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The influence of Buddhism and traditional Japanese techniques extends to "The Many Splendored Prism," a show of Kozy's primitive ceramics series in the basement of the same gallery. She used a variety of firing techniques to make the 120 ceramic figures, including raku, which originates in Japan and can create a multicolored, oil-slick effect. "Ceramics is kind of like a crapshoot. You don't even know if the piece is going to survive after all sorts of different firings," Kozy explains. "Raku glaze especially, you don't know what's going to come out until you get it. That's a practice of letting go of your expectations and not sticking too much of your vision… It's a practice of non-attachment."
As for "The Golden State," Kozy explains how Zen Buddhism helped shape their art in the Trump era. "From a Zen Buddhist standpoint or a yoga philosophy, sometimes, you have this filter of the world and you see the world with your own filter, and reacting to every single thing is actually kind of not a good thing," she says. "You can focus on all the bad stuff happening and anger and crazy emotions, but you don't want to fuel this political situation with more of the same energy. Instead of focusing on that reactive emotion, I wanted to spend that same amount of energy but use it in a different way, more focused on celebrating California and wonder and love of California instead of, 'Fuck you, Trump, I want to draw you naked with a small dick.'"
"The Golden State" and "The Many Splendored Prism," Gregorio Escalante Gallery, 978 Chung King Road, Chinatown; through Oct. 8. gregorioescalante.com/#kozyndan.