By Terri Ciccone
It’s kind of hard to sit back and then remember what it’s like being a kid. Not your “childhood,” but being “a kid” specifically. A friend slaps a bracelet on your wrist that immediately curls up. Your brother yells that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon is on, but your sister is occupying the TV watching 90210. You conquer your Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo as you sit among metallic Pogs and trippy Lisa Frank folders, snacking on War Heads and Fruit Roll-Ups. All the while a toy is beeping somewhere in your closet (you assume it’s the Tamagotchi you have been neglecting.)
Ken Kosces’ work chooses to remain in this world. His work and living space could easily be confused with a little kid’s bedroom, and this is something he would probably take as a compliment. Ken is one of the artists in Mushroom Universe and you can check out his art at BushwickGallery.com.
It’s hard to take a step without getting a pom-pom, a googly eye, or a pixilated cut-out of 1990s era icon stuck to your foot. Bursts of color seem to mask every surface of the space, and while it at first seems like child’s play, something deeper begins to resonate. Something starts to churn up in your mind, you seem to be brought back to a different time.
His pieces are colorful, explosive and a bit chaotic. In his collages, paper is layered upon paper. Distorted yet recognizable images of video game landscapes, pixelated guitars, furbies, sports stars like Magic Johnson and TV stars like Brenda from 90210 cover each other up, fighting for your eyes’ attention, and your mind’s memory on the neon poster board. Some collages are a mix, with a painted background or a drawing in the background, layered with paper, googly eyes, pom poms and cut-outs.
“You go to art school, they try and hit you with all these classical ways of doing art, the history of art and these academic ways of learning how to draw and paint,” explained Ken. “But you actually forget the things you do when you’re growing up before you get to a university, and I kind of realized lately there’s something messed up about that.”
While Ken explained this method to me, he shuffled through different shapes of paper cut-outs and video game music that he had created, and plans to incorporate into his work, played in the background. “It’s like reconnecting with things outside of like formal training and embracing like, stupid materials arts and crafts and kids materials.” He begins to toss the cut-outs down onto a painting, letting them fall and land where they please, then rearranging them so slightly.
“I’m a painter when it’s all said and done, an abstract painter. The difference is I’m not using paint in the way they did in the ’50s. I’m trying to use these pieces of things.” He throws down the first “piece of paint,” an image Shaquille O’Neal which lands sideways on the canvas. Another makes a “dat” noise as the cut-out hits the posterboard. This time it’s Chris Mullin, followed by Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, until a mini basketball team artfully presents itself. He begins to fuss with the pieces.
“I accumulated this as a consumer, as someone invested in pop culture and all the stupidity that that comes from. But now that I have them I’m transforming it to something else and as the formal training of an artist goes and the formal eye of the artist to make this the most interesting way,” Ken explained very matter-of-factly.
I found his use of the word “stupid” which he used throughout the interview very interesting. He described many of the materials as stupid, as well as a lot of things referencing pop culture. But I think he means it in the way that pop culture, however low brow or “stupid” it can be, has a great power. At this point, I asked Ken about something that I observe happen often among museum goers that may not be so into the arts. What if when people see his work, they become intimidated or confused? If they don’t find the immediate answer in his pieces that they are so used to getting, they might use the “a five year old could do that” defense. Those dreaded words I often hear when someone seems intimidated by abstract art. “A 5-year-old can do it? Well turn it on its head and do it like a 5-year-old. That’s my response. It challenges high art, it challenges museum art and popular culture and the perceptions of art.”
Ken’s medium is not paper, not googly eyes, not glue or paint – it’s pop culture from his generation. Pop culture, as “stupid” as it may be, has the power to reach and identify with millions of people all over the globe. It can form groups and commonalities across races, genders and classes and even amongst those who don’t speak the same language. It has the power to make waves, fight for change and say things and have them heard.
“I’m just trying to make something beautiful when it comes down to it,” Ken said, “and it’s unapologetic in its nostalgia.” I wouldn’t call that stupid at all.