Q&A with Resident Artist Ian Kuali’i
There’s an elegance that emerges from the collision of influence in Ian Kuali’i’s work. As styles collide, his work retains its own blend of color, fluidity and beauty. And yes, those intricately engineered designs are rendered from a single large sheet of white paper using an exacto blade.
“In the beginning, I viewed it more as arts and crafts — like someone cutting dollies or paper snowflakes for Christmas,” laughs Kuali’i, a native Californian with Hawaiian roots.
Seeing the work of Kara Walker — known for her detailed black-and-white silhouettes of antebellum era United States — Kuali’i linked his love of stenciling from his street art background in SoCal to the transformational power of paper far beyond the hobby lobby.
“From there, it was an easier thing for me to see someone really killing it in the fine arts game with cut paper,” recalls Kuali’i. “It allows for a very simple process to be embedded with a sense of power.”
We spoke with Kuali’i during his residency at Red Bull House of Art about his journey as an artist and how his earliest influences continue to help define his work today; how storytelling plays a role in his work; and how a love for urban decay and his time in Detroit line up quite nicely.
How did you find yourself embracing the idea of paper cut outs as a defining medium for you as an artist?
Much like anyone else that belongs to the urban contemporary art realm, I got my start in graffiti writing. It was around 1984. The LA Olympics, Lionel Ritchie, hip hop, the West Coast rap scene really starting to take off, kids breakdancing — it was a bizarre contextual framing. All of our minds were blown. My older brother immediately took to it. The rest of us followed. All of the kids in my neighborhood were Mexican gangsters from the most part. Immediately when they saw other brown kids on stage breakdancing, everyone said, “I want to do that! I want to stop gangbanging and start popping and locking.” My mother was actually our elementary school playground monitor. She would help us bring cardboard to the playground and breakdance during recess.
Graffiti writing was definitely a part of that whole scene. From graffiti writing, I wanted to simplify the process. I found stenciling through that. I ended up just appreciating the cut more than spraying. I started figuring out ways to cut paper so I didn’t have to have such obvious ridges. I wanted to understand the weight of the paper and maintain its structural integrity. It’s a super challenging engineering approach from the standard stencil cutting way.
There’s definitely a feel for those early influential moments that speaks through your work.
It’s totally that weird hybrid between all of these subcultures colliding with each other. When you take skate culture, the punk rock culture and hip hop from southern California — all of them are kind of pushing for the same sort of crossover of diversity instead of it being segregated pockets of people. Everyone converges. It’s a beautiful thing.
When you start looking at more of the motion of how some of the cut paper flows and the construction of it — or deconstruction, rather — you start seeing the basic motion of letter form from graffiti. You start seeing the motion of something in passing from pushing a skateboard. There’s a whisper of an old pattern from an Eddie Reategui mini-deck. Even with the cut elements, there’s power.
What attracts you to the concept of urban decay and how has it been reflected in your work for this upcoming exhibit at Red Bull House of Art?
Mainly with the background elements of the painting, I always play with the concept of urban decay. What attracts me to urban decay is the struggle between man and nature. Man says, “This is progress. This is civilized.” Nature responds, “No, here’s some weather for you.” All materials are subject to decay in some way. That’s a freeing element for me. Whenever I do portraiture, there’s always some sort of story — even if it’s super veiled — that speaks directly to that person’s history.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper