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Kaz Oshiro’s “Painting Problem”
Balancing Realism and Abstraction

By Paul Schmelzer

How do you make a painting without making a painting? This is one of the key questions for Kaz Oshiro. Despite eschewing the label “sculptor,” he makes uncannily realistic objects such as a full-size replica of a garbage dumpster or a column of wood-paneled Sony bookshelf speakers. The twist: his three-dimensional works are paintings made using canvas and stretcher bars, a reality viewers would likely miss were it not for an open backside that reveals the underlying structure.

Born in Okinawa but a Los Angeles resident for the past 25 years, Oshiro creates pieces that occupy a kind of middle ground—between Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, representation and conceptualism, painting and sculpture. In a recent conversation, he discussed his work in the Walker’s Lifelike exhibition and how he creates it to help address his “painting problem”—a desire to progress in his art from exacting realism to hesitation-free abstraction.

Paul Schmelzer

Tell me about your earliest works. Did you start with more traditional painting: flat canvases on the wall?

Kaz Oshiro

Right. I remember back in the early ’70s, when I was still a young teenager, I went to a burger joint near my house, and there was a photorealist poster, an American diner, Richard Estes–type reproduction. I was wondering if it was a photo or a painting. I still remember that. That was an early interest in contemporary art….

In 1986, I came to the United States, to Los Angeles, to see what’s going on. Then I started going to school there.

Schmelzer

Did you go through an abstraction phase, or did you always stick with that initial impulse for realism?

Oshiro

When I was in high school, I was into Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, that kind of Pop Art. Then I started to study art and got to know all different kinds of ideas, like John Cage or Nam June Paik—that kind of conceptualism—as well as West Coast Pop like Ed Ruscha. When I started, I was mimicking Andy Warhol: Pop on two-dimensional canvases.

Then I started to question myself. Everything’s been pretty much done. Abstract or representational: it doesn’t really matter, it’s pretty much done. Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, they kind of nailed it, and that was the end of painting, in a sense. Even if you have a conventional canvas, you don’t have to paint it. The format itself really tells it’s a piece of art.

But I wanted to continue my practice somehow, and I started to think: what’s left that I can do to satisfy my soul? Since the canvas itself is a work of art, I wanted to make painting that is discreet. Like a suitcase left on the floor: probably, people wouldn’t notice what it is because I leave it in the corner. Before they find out it’s a painting, they walk away. I think that would be a great compliment.

As a student, I was really passive. I didn’t feel right telling people, “Hey, this is what I’m doing.” So I tended to get away from that kind of exhibitionism. I thought that by making an object out of a canvas I’d be able to achieve what I want to do, which is practice making things physically. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have to explain much: it’s a still life sitting on the floor. It’s a painting. Since it doesn’t look like a conventional painting, people just walk away. I felt better, because I didn’t have to explain. I was able to physically be able to make the work to satisfy my soul.

Schmelzer

Two things about this piece: one, it’s so realistic, of course, that it fools the eye. The other is that the back is exposed to the viewer, thereby revealing your process. Since every painting has a back, is that more about positioning your work in the realm of painting, or is it telling people not to be deceived by this thing that looks like what it’s supposed to represent?

Oshiro

It started as paintings that sit on the floor. I was dealing with my own painting problem. Then somehow the convention of painting started to become an object and then came off the wall and sat on the floor…. I consider myself as a painter. I didn’t have any intention of making sculpture. Eventually, I felt I had to make them in these sculptural forms.

Schmelzer

Then why not be a sculptor? Why the resistance?

Oshiro

If I could paint without any hesitation, I’d do it, really. I think the abstract painting is one of the highest forms of art. But in order to get there, you have to deal with so many historical issues. For me, it’s: how can I paint like de Kooning or without any hesitation? That’s how I started; I can’t really paint without hesitation, so I started out as a representational artist, making representational art, but at the same time I thought I’d be able to manipulate this idea of abstraction. When you see the surface—the scuff marks and scratches and everything—I’m actually making abstract marks, in a way.

Schmelzer

One painting that comes to mind in discussing this is Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale - Attesa (1964–1965) in the Walker’s collection, where he slashed the canvas to both reveal the underlying structure of the painting and rethink the artist’s relation to the picture plane.

Oshiro

Yeah. After he slashed it, it moved beyond being a painting to be sculptural. That’s the kind of issue I’m interested in. Trying to find the right balance between a sculptural painting or abstract or representational.

Schmelzer

You mentioned Pop Art earlier. In terms of the Pop artists of the ’60s monumentalizing the mundane, do you see yourself as being in that realm? Are you critiquing Western consumer culture or celebrating it?

Oshiro

I’ll say both. I was born in Okinawa in 1967. That was the era when America still occupied the island. Because of that the culture, I grew up with was a mix of American and Japanese…. I grew up with American consumerism. In Lifelike, my paintings sit on the floor, near Andy Warhol’s Brillo box. The Brillo box is also a minimalist work. I think my work is something that relates to his sensibility.

Schmelzer

There are some great conversations that are going on between art objects in this show: your suitcase relating to Warhol’s boxes, your dumpster to Fontana’s work. Talk about your stereo speakers and how they related to Donald Judd.

Oshiro

The idea really comes from Donald Judd, how they’re installed. Every time I saw a Donald Judd piece, I started to see big speakers on the walls. Then I said, OK, and wanted to make a painting that mimicked the idea of Minimalism. That’s what it is.

Schmelzer

What about the dumpster? How do you select which objects you choose to make into paintings?

Oshiro

If you know the construction of a painting, you have a wood frame and you stretch canvas over it. So that structure is kind of important, and you can’t really go beyond that. The objects I’m making are boxes. If you see the conventional painting frame, it’s kind of thin. But in my case, wood stretcher bars become a box and then I stretch canvas over it.

I’ve been making trash bins and dumpsters for awhile. Sometimes I’m not sure why. Somehow I’m really attracted to it. You see dumpsters everywhere in the United States on the street. I drive around town. In LA, I have to drive everywhere. Somehow I always see things on the street, and everything’s coming from my memory.

Why I paint them? First of all, I like the shape of the metal big box. You see all kinds of marks on it. The [form of the] dumpster allows me to paint the way abstract painters do. That’s one of the things I like about painting dumpsters. To me, it’s existing between representation and abstract painting.

Schmelzer

All three of these pieces of yours seem to have a reproduction of the mark of the user on it. This isn’t just a factory made object—or a representation of one—it has scuzz and filth all over it: there are stickers, stains, and scuff marks.

Oshiro

If I make the object pristine, it’s like telling people, “Hey, look what I can do!” That wasn’t my intention, because I wanted to make the work discreet. If people see scuff marks, if it looks like it was used by someone else, it looks like a found object. People have seen a lot of found objects in the gallery space, since Duchamp. People think, “OK, this is the object an artist brought into the space,” then they leave. I wanted to make my work that way. I didn’t want to catch the attention of the viewer, rather I want people to walk past without knowing what it is. I thought that would be a compliment.

Schmelzer

Insofar as you can convince them that this is the thing they think it is?

Oshiro

Right. The difficult thing is, in the gallery space, everything becomes art. That’s a problem, placing it inside of the white cube. But when I started, I didn’t have any intention of having a gallery show. In school, I was thinking I want to have that in the studio so when my friend comes to my studio and asks, “Where’s your work?,” they’re not going to see it.

I see myself as a still-life painter trying to become an abstract painter. I’ve been trying to develop myself and continue to practice to make better paintings for myself. I don’t know if I’m getting better or becoming really bad, but that’s how I see it.

Schmelzer

You’ve said a few times that you want to paint without hesitation and move toward abstraction. Is this a personal interior struggle for you, to let go of regimentation?

Oshiro

I think so. I love all the great painters who lived before me. If you think about Gerhard Richter, he balances out abstraction and representation. If you think about Picasso, he was a still-life painter and then became an abstract painter. To me, that’s the biggest issue—that’s the kind of ideal move, I think. A lot of artists start as still-life painters and then become abstract painters: de Kooning, even Jackson Pollock. To me, probably the best thing you can achieve is if you can move to abstraction.

Kaz Oshiro installing Zero Case Spinner (gun metal-torn FRAGILE stickers), 2011

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Kaz Oshiro, Zero Case Spinner (gun metal-torn FRAGILE stickers), 2011

Private Collection Family Hunting, the Netherlands. Courtesy the artist and galerie frank elbaz, Paris. Photo: Kaz Oshiro

Kaz Oshiro, Zero Case Spinner (gun metal-torn FRAGILE stickers), 2011 (detail)

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Installation view of Kaz Oshiro’s Dumpster (Flesh with Turquoise Swoosh) (2011) in the exhibition Lifelike

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Concetto Spaziale - Attesa (Spatial Concept - Expectation)

Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1998

Kaz Oshiro, Sony Bookshelf Speakers, 2003-2004

Courtesy Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica. Photo ©Douglas M. Parker Studio

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1969/1982

Collection Walker Art Center, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edmond R. Ruben, 1981

Kaz Oshiro, Sony Bookshelf Speakers, 2003-2004 (detail)

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

White Brillo Box

Walker Art Center, Gift of Kate Butler Peterson, 2002