Tomorrow night (June 13th) in San Francisco, artists and designers Kai & Sunny will be putting on a show at the 886 Geary Gallery entitled The Matter Of Time. The London-based duo are known for their stylized representations of nature where their subjects are broken down in to geometric shapes and elements. Featuring color applied with ballpoint pen to their typically black & white imagery in this new body of work, the pieces deal with the passage of time.
We recently sat down for a Q&A session with the two ahead of the exhibition. Enjoy the interview below along with some shots from the studio…
Arrested Motion (AM): So firstly, a little about yourselves. You met at Epsom School of Arts where you were carrying out your art degrees. Did you plan to start working with each other back then or later? Was it an organic process that brought you together as collaborators?
Kai & Sunny (KS): When we graduated, I went to work for Mo Wax records designing record sleeves and Sunny went to work at Maharishi creating artwork for their clothing. It was a couple years later when we reconnected and began working together. This was back in 2003. We formed a fashion brand called ‘Call of The Wild’. Starting the label was a great introduction to working together. We had a studio on Hoxton Square in Shoreditch, London. There were lots of people starting labels during this period and was a fun time. It was an important learning curve for us and taught us how to work together.
AM: What strengths do you collectively draw from working together that you couldn’t do apart? Is there any overlying methodology for how you work together?
KS: We’ve worked together for over 10 years so during that time our approach has changed. Our process has definitely grown organically and we have naturally grown together as our own tastes and references have changed. Luckily, we have similar tastes and we trust each other’s judgment. Our strengths are similar in terms of what we bring. We discuss ideas together and work on pieces together.
AM: How frequently do you encounter rock/paper/scissors moments when working together?
KS: We often have disagreements but we resolve them and move on. Sometimes, an idea Sunny has I’m not that into turns out great. This works the other way around too. We have different ways of getting our point across. I would say Sunny is way more tolerant than I am and is more diplomatic in his feedback, but I know what he really means.
AM: You walk the line quite comfortably between designers and as fine artists. What sort of division of your time do you work to, and what sort of division do you strive for?
KS: Our time is mainly taken working on fine art pieces and getting ready for the next show. However we still take on a few commissions. We’ve just completed a book jacket commission for Penguin for a re-release for Vermilion Sands by J. G Ballard. We are fans of his work so it was a great book to work on. This book gave us an idea for one of the pieces in the show. We’re also currently working on a collaborative fashion range and decks with Element Skateboards for fall 16 season. We both love skateboarding so a great project to work on.
AM: Book cover design commissions have played a big part in the design side of your careers of recent times. Do you have a particular project that really had a personal connection to you?
KS: When we started working together and created the label ‘Call of The Wild,’ people started knowing about us a bit more. We were approached to work on other commissions and a book by ‘David Mitchell’ called ‘Cloud Atlas’ was one of our first commissions. We didn’t know anything about ‘David Mitchell’ at the time, but the book went on to be a huge success around the world. We owe a lot to this book and the voice it gave us. We’ve worked with David since this point and have huge respect for him as a writer. He’s written us short stories for a couple of our shows in response to our work.
AM: It seems as though some of the design commissions you’ve undertaken have been a two-way street. For example, after designing the cover art for Cloud Atlas, you asked author David Mitchell to author a short story to accompany your Caught by the Nest project. How much do you value these reciprocal relationships?
KS: Completely, and as I mention above David has had a huge impact on us. Our trust for each other over the years has grown and we are profoundly proud David has written two stories for us. One for our ‘The Flower Show’ at Stolen Space in London and our ‘Caught By The Nest’ show at Subliminal Projects in L.A. We have created the art and designed lots of David’s books.
Most recently, we were commissions to create the artwork for ‘The Reason I Jump’ a true story about a boy with Autism. David wrote the intro to this book and it’s is a very personal book to him. This book became the inspiration behind our L.A show. David wrote a short story for this show. The story was called ‘Lots Of Bits Of Star’ and that was the name of our last show at Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York.
AM: You’re famed for your collaborations of recent times. Where did your associations with Shepard Fairey and Alexander McQueen originate?
KS: Shepard showed interest in our work a few years back and bought a couple of our pieces. We met up at Art Basel in Miami 3 years ago and he offered us a show at his gallery in L.A called Subliminal Projects. The collaboration then happened in conjunction with the show. We have huge admiration for Shepard and to work with him was definitely a high point in our careers. It was also a high point to work on a project for Alexander McQueen. We didn’t get to meet him though which was a shame.
AM: Screen printing has been your medium of choice for a number of years . I’m interested to understand how you arrived at using this medium…
KS: It’s a medium we were introduced to when we had the fashion label. We did lots of fabric prints so got to know how the medium worked. When we started applying this process to our artwork we had a good understanding of what we could do. We started pushing the medium to its limits. Our work is often detailed and made up of elements. We would draw these elements and then refine them digitally. Silkscreen made sense for our process and we loved the finish it gave to our pieces.
AM: What about the materials you have been using lately? You seem to be pushing the boundaries in terms of ‘surface’ to work with. How different is copper or the other metals you’ve been working with recently to traditional paper? Does the medium influence the design or does the artwork influence the choice of medium?
KS: Over the last couple of years, we have been working with wood and metals and we have had some great results. I would say it’s trying to push the medium further and see what results we get. As we become more comfortable with these materials we are pushing what can be done. We are exploring how detailed we can make a piece, how the material changes the feeling of our work etc.
AM: Where does your interest in nature and natural elements come from? I like how you have been pushing further abstraction of these elements in your recent work.
KS: We both grew up in the country so I believe it reminds us of our childhood. We use nature in our work to connect with people. Abstracting these elements gives our work a different meaning and provokes thoughts and memories. We like our images to have layers. Our pieces can feel serene but at the same time have intensity to them.
AM: Recent artworks have also seen you experimenting with ballpoint pens in original line work. These pieces look incredibly labor intensive. Can you elaborate a little on this process?
KS: We’ve worked mainly in black and white for our previous shows and love the strength monochrome gives. It allows you to focus on the shapes. It really worked with our pieces. However we love colour and were thinking how we can start introducing colour to our work. StolenSpace asked us to be part of a group show. The show was called ‘Spectrum’ and black and white just didn’t work. We’d been playing with these colour pens and started getting interesting results. It was perfect for the ‘Spectrum’ piece. We began with straight lines and have slowly worked more variation and movement into each piece. These pen pieces are less about individual shape and all about the line work. Colour suited these. They are labor intensive but we love the results.
AM: These ballpoint pieces form the backbone for your new exhibition ‘The Matter of Time’ opening next week in San Francisco at 886 Geary Gallery. Can you tell us a little more about the work in the exhibition?
KS: The works in The Matter Of Time revolve around the passing of time. The ballpoint pen pieces explore the turning of tides and time for reflection. Tides can be peaceful and innocent, while also wild and chaotic. This series balances the serene with the intense and the fragile with the stable. Seemingly innocent natural subjects are layered with hidden undertones, hinting at the subversion that occurs in the wild and beyond.
AM: Aside from group exhibitions, this will be your first time showing in the city. You are making the trip out for the exhibition. What expectations do you have about showing in SF?
KS: I haven’t been to San Francisco for about 9 years so I’m sure it has changed a lot. I loved it when I was there last. If our time in L.A in 2013 is anything to go by Sunny and I will have a great time. From my experience Californians are really friendly and welcoming. Can’t wait!
AM: I guess this is the closing of a trifecta of sorts; following your show at Subliminal projects in LA and Jonathan Levine in NYC. Where do Kai and Sunny go next after this exhibition?
KS: I know, it’s been a great few years and we’ve enjoyed them all. Next year we are bringing it back home and are having a solo show at the gallery that represents us in the UK, StolenSpace Gallery, London!
Discuss Kai & Sunny here.