A Fatal Personality: An Interview With Brian Kokoska On Knives and Poison IV

Brian Kokoska, who can often be found with a knife clutched between his teeth or with a devious, wide-grinned smile, is one of our favorite artists working today. His paintings almost look like they belong to the hand of a child in art class working out some kind of trauma caused by alien abduction, but when you look closer, there is unexplainable magic going on. Perhaps Kokoska’s paintings are mirrored reflections of our own demons, or the artist’s – who really knows or cares – but what you will find amongst his crude oil painted visages is a sense of primordial familiarity. Maybe these creatures are our friends, or maybe they are out to kill us. What’s most interesting is the way the artist presents the work – it is never in the typical brightly lit gallery with white walls. Quite the contrary. What he does is create a totally immersive environment that is bathed with a single monochromatic hue – the walls, the carpet, the paintings, the sculptural props and found assemblage (like stuffed animals or toy cobra snakes), and, of course, knives – all one color. In one exhibition, it was a Pepto-Bismol pink, in another it was bug zapper blue, and in another it was a shade of codeine cough syrup, or purple drank. For his new solo exhibition at Valentin gallery, entitled Poison IV, the New York based artist creates a bath of swampy pale green where his evocative countenances interplay with knives and mannequin torsos that clutch green stuffed animals. It’s a complete ‘fuck you’ to the senses. Autre got a chance to catch up with Kokoska before the opening of his exhibition to talk about knives, his inspirations, sex, violence and his current must see show in Paris. 

OLIVER KUPPER: Let’s start off with talking about the faces that appear in your paintings...how would you describe these faces, creatures…do you imagine them in your head or nightmares before you paint them? 

BRIAN KOKOSKA: They are basically just from my imagination and I guess from my own life experiences. When I begin a painting there is no real clear vision for how it will turn out. So sometimes they go through multiple phases and different layers of faces and symbols are painted over and over until something new happens and then I leave the painting alone.

OK: There’s a clear evolution in your work from more detailed work to more symbolic, representational work…how would you describe this evolution? 

BK: I think it's just natural for ideas to shift and to find different ways of expressing that through the work. For example, I get sick of things really easily so I try to challenge myself by bringing in new elements, particularly sculpture and installation. The paintings are something I'm passionate about but I don't see them as the key element in my work. They are only 1 factor.

OK: Who were some artists that influenced you or inspired you to be an artist? 

BK: Early in school I was looking at a lot of German artists; Albert Oehlen, Jutta Koether, Isa Genzken, Kai Althoff...and then I started getting into American artists who I could relate to even a little better, like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman. I've always been drawn to nasty, raw, harsh work that is still totally genuine. Because I think there's too much fake shit right now (or always?).

OK: I want to bring up your fascination with knives…you have a lot of selfies posing with some scary knives…where does this fascination come from? 

BK: Yeah, I just love knives. Aesthetically I think they are so beautiful. And I love how they can be so gentle and seductive yet also super violent and fatal. I collect rare knives but probably in the pics you are referencing I'm sourcing them for sculptures most of the time.

Even when I was a child I remember loving knives. Slasher films. And my uncles used to give me the coolest dagger-rings.. like Hells Angels shit.

Here in Paris we just went to this beautiful old knife shop called E.Dehillerin and the knife maker got concerned for my safety after he saw how into the knives I was. He kept explaining how like "this one's for meat, this one's for fish...". It was nice. 

OK: You have started to do really comprehensive installations with your exhibition, choosing a single monochrome color, your last exhibition was Pepto-Bismol pink and your upcoming exhibition is sort of swamp green…can you describe your process of choosing a specific color? 

BK: I get obsessed with particular colors and then it becomes this restriction in my head that I find nice to work with. Like, putting together a show in shades of one color (or perhaps a second color, black), it feels very rewarding in some weird way. It is similar to stage design or something.. where I would imagine you get a strange thrill of creating an environment that can psychologically affect an audience.

"...I have a fatal personality so I think sex and violence are probably heightened in my work because of that."

OK: Let’s talk about your current exhibition…the title is Poison IV…what is the concept behind this show? 

BK: I had been doing a series of shows like you just mentioned in shades of one color. I was using mostly baby-colors...pale muted versions of colors that I like. So it went from baby blue to baby purple to baby pink and now baby/swampy green. For this show it will be my first solo version; in the past I've always asked another artist (Debo Eilers, Zack Davis, Chloe Seibert) to join my installation.

Poison IV will be my last iteration of the baby-color thing. I'm excited about this show because I've had the chance to make more sculptural works to go alongside the paintings.

OK: Symbols are a big part of your practice…where does this sense of ritual or symbolism come from…your paintings seem like they belong to a strange cult or religion? 

BK: I tend to use whatever symbols are stuck in my head. Like, I'll keep seeing reoccurring numbers or symbols, so then when I get to work they'll just appear because it's what I'm thinking about. They usually build up in gestures to form the "face" paintings. A lot of the imagery is sentimental to me and comes from childhood experiences or memories. But I also borrow a ton of visual language from things I collect. 

OK: This is your first solo show in Paris…are you going to do anything fun besides your exhibition while you are out there…are you more of a tourist or do you like to blend in? 

BK: Mostly just been slaving on the show so far. I love Paris though, it's so romantic. I wander the streets and it's like I'm in a movie or something. Everybody just hanging out with baguettes. I like the pace here…nobody is really faking it...they're just enjoying life. I think that's really important, ya know?

OK: There is a distinct sense of sex and violence in your work…where do you think these themes come from? 

BK: Ha ha.. Probably from my own life I guess, and from past experiences. I'm a scorpio and I have a fatal personality so I think sex and violence are probably heightened in my work because of that.

OK: What’s next? 

BK: Party in France. Gonna check out Venice quickly then back to New York. I'm gonna be working on a solo for LOYAL in Stockholm which opens mid November. Before that I'm making a baby sculpture in collaboration with DIS Magazine for their new issue DIStaste.

Brian Kokoska: Poison IV will be on view until October 10, 2015 at Valentin gallery in Paris. Photographs by Sylvie Chan-Liat, courtesy of Valentin and the artist. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE