SPOTLIGHT:

SHAWN KURUNERU

The artist on his love of comics and the significance of drawing.

Shawn Kuruneru is always making connections. In his hands, the most disparate inspirations come together with apparent ease. Speaking with Platform from his home in Canada, the artist revealed what makes the act of drawing so special, the way comic books relate to ancient Chinese landscape painting and how playing in a punk band impacted his work.

PLATFORM

I was really interested to read about how you use the philosophy of ninth-century Chinese Floating Perspective painting in your work. What exactly is that, and how did you first come across it?

SHAWN

My focus was primarily on drawing when I was in university, and I was just drawing all the time. I was doing figurative drawings and using a ballpoint pen because I liked the aesthetic that it created. When I moved to New York, I started to intern at The Drawing Center and I was opened up to more ideas of what drawing could be. I started to approach it from a different angle and to think about its possibilities. I started thinking more about the material that I was using and why I was so drawn to ink. Once I started to research ink painting, it led me to Chinese landscape paintings. My mom's from Hong Kong and my dad's from Sri Lanka, so growing up, I saw those landscape paintings, but it didn't click back then. Another factor was growing up in Canada because we learn so much about landscape painting in Canada, especially the Group of Seven in high school. Then I started to make that connection between family, growing up in Canada and drawing.

I looked more into landscape painting and that's where I discovered this Chinese philosophy called the Floating Perspective, where you see multiple perspectives at once. For example, if you see a mountain, you see all 360 degrees of it in one painting. That really struck a chord with me. I started to run with that and my work became more abstract. I started thinking more about mark-making and boiling things down to the essentials.

Guo Xi, "Autumn in a River Valley," c.1060 - c.1080
PLATFORM

You spoke about ink and the different materials involved in drawing. What specifically attracts you to drawing to make it such a focus in your practice?

SHAWN

A pencil and a piece of paper are two materials that intrinsically have little value, but then you put them together and the result becomes something greater than the actual tools. Drawing is also so accessible and ubiquitous and everyone can understand it. I really like the idea that ink is such a common material that we don't think about. If you read the newspaper, you're touching ink every day. If you sign a check or anything else, that’s also ink. And even for those growing up reading comic books, that's ink too. You just take it for granted. I think that's what has continued my interest in using ink, but I've also started using acrylic paint and trying different things as well. I don't necessarily show all of the different experiments I work on, but ink is the one that I keep using.

PLATFORM

Since you mentioned it, something else I’ve come across is your interest in comic books. I was just wondering what about comic books did you find inspiring, and what do you think is compelling about the medium overall?

SHAWN

As a kid, my cousin was into comics, and she used to show me some. At the time, I was already into drawing and Saturday morning cartoons. All of these lines on paper felt so alive. It made me so curious as to how that worked and I've also realized since that there's the Gestalt theory where if you have two dots, your mind will create a line that connects them. And I feel that’s what happens in comics; you have two panels and then you start to form a narrative. I've also come to realize that connects with the Floating Perspective: on one comic page, there can be a conversation with multiple perspectives of a person talking, like a close-up or from behind their head all on one piece of paper.

PLATFORM

Did you have any favorite comic books or characters growing up?

SHAWN

When I was in school in Montreal, I did an internship at Drawn & Quarterly and I was really into those comics. But early on, it was more typical superhero stuff. And then later on it was more independent stuff–I remember looking at Robert Crumb, for example.

PLATFORM:

Branching off of a lot of the other things that you've mentioned, are there any other things that you look to or places that you go that offer you inspiration?

SHAWN

When I was in New York, I was playing in a punk band called Diet Choke and we played together for about seven years. The band was made up of the singer, Ruby Aldridge, and the guitarist, Bozidar Brazda, two good friends of mine. I feel like that was a big influence on my work in terms of energy, spontaneity, attitude. Those are the things that come with playing in a punk band in New York City.

PLATFORM

Do you still practice making music?

SHAWN

No, it's just more of playing guitar here and there. I don't have a band right now, but when I was in New York, I was playing drums. I've just been listening to the same stuff I've always been listening to, mostly punk stuff, but all different kinds of things. I just recently watched that documentary, Miles Davis: Birth of Cool, so I'm listening to a lot of jazz now and it's really nice.

PLATFORM

Aside from your art practice, do you have any other passions or skills you really love exploring?

SHAWN

My other interest is publishing, but it connects with my art. Since high school, I’ve been making zines and then later, making collections of my drawings and photocopying them to give away or sell. At some point, I got into actually making comics for the first time. That's been a big passion, and I've continued to self-publish.

PLATFORM

Are you creating a comic book series right now? Or are they just one-off projects?

SHAWN

They're just one-off projects. A lot of the time, it's just thinking about things I want to draw and trying to write a story around it, but they're pretty journal-based. I'm just learning how to do it as I make them. And then learning about publishing in general because it's changed so much. It's cheaper to get something printed by somebody else than to go to Staples and photocopy it. And there are so many different avenues of distribution now, so I've been selling books internationally.

PLATFORM

There's so much drawing involved in that kind of work, but do you see that as separate from your art practice? Do you think about it differently?

SHAWN

I think of it as separate because for me it's a completely different way of thinking. In the comics, part of the story is how it's being made. With my paintings, I've spent so much time experimenting with painting and thinking about painting to the point where I've kind of chiseled away at what I think I want from a painting. It's just a different experience. With a painting, you stand in front of it and you have this physical and visual interaction with it. But with the comic, you have a similar thing, but there’s this narrative that starts to happen in your head when you read these books because you have these sounds and you have these movements.

When I first started making them, I was thinking a lot of how Ad Reinhardt was making those black paintings, but also making comics. He always separated those things too. I remember seeing that show that Robert Storr put together at David Zwirner where he had one room with his comics and another room with the black paintings. I think it's interesting for me to be able to make these two separate kinds of work and they feed off of one another. But I'm not interested in being Lichtenstein and blowing up comic pages. I think comics are really interesting just the way they are, something you hold and you can read at your own pace. And it's someone else's thoughts, from their brain to their hand onto the page, and then you read that. I guess that's like painting too. What makes painting good is when you put all of yourself in it, and then people can react to that or not.

Diet Choke