Oakland artist Ezawa’s work shown in S.F.’s Haines Gallery
By Lou Fancher
Oakland-based multimedia artist Kota Ezawa is at heart a sculptor. Much like the carver who sees an indigenous mythological god in a hunk of wood or the artist able to envision evocative Roman goddesses in cold, formidable blocks of marble, Ezawa removes a given source’s “extras” to reveal the essential imagery. Although his abstract work materials involve digital animation, slide projections, light boxes, archival photos, film clips, vector drawing software, paper cut-outs and watercolor paint, he is a consummate storyteller.
Ezawa says in an interview that his work is similar to holding up a mirror to ourselves, to past and present societies and events. Using iconic, well-known images extracted from general or art history, popular culture, cinema, television, archival documents and current news, Ezawa begins a deconstruction process.
Found film footage is used to create his distinctively sharp style of stop-start, blink-length-transition animations. Camera-recorded images are redrawn using a computer vector technique rather like cutting shapes with clunky scissors before painting the drawings with traditional, handheld brushes. During the processes the “repurposed” materials are simplified and flattened. The often potent content depicting protests movements, scenes of powerful forces suppressing individual freedoms or interpersonal tension translates into something equal to an annotated version of larger, dramatic stories.
Ezawa’s work has been exhibited by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, among others. Currently on virtual exhibit at San Francisco’s Haines Gallery, his Bay Area-relevant “National Anthem” video and other works are included in an online viewing room. His roughly 2-minute video created in 2018 for the Whitney Biennial 2019 was sparked by the sight of former NFL 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling in 2016 during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Ezawa grew up in Germany as the son of a Japanese immigrant to that country. Now living in the United States for more than 20 years, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His awareness of Black Panther protests in the 1960s and the recent Black Lives Matter movement cause him to reflect on the “genius” of Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice, police brutality and the oppression of people of color. Most protests are distilled into slogans — words and phrases — but the act of kneeling was entirely nonverbal and staged on a national, highly-visible platform, its impact instant and profound.
“National Anthem was completed before the current BLM wave of protest, but it has seen new interest again,” says Ezawa. “I’m not the newspaper, depicting everything that happens in the world, but it’s a good testament to the work that it has become relevant again.”
The work when viewed at the Whitney exhibit, where it hung in a prominent location along with the art of 50 contemporary artists invited to participate in the prestigious showcase, launched a roller coaster of praise and criticism. Ezawa says the “negative sting” of a handful of critics was overwhelmingly counterbalanced by thousands of people he met at public talks and exhibitions who expressed gratitude for having their existence represented and the work’s powerful impact.
“I myself thought Kaepernick’s protest was a beautiful gesture and my work was honoring this country. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand my art. Some critics criticized its accessibility.”
Ezawa is aware that when addressing controversial topics — like O.J. Simpson’s trial or kneeling during the national anthem — in artwork, songs or public statements, a U.S.-born artist can “get into deep trouble.” As an immigrant, he’s certainly faced challenges, but he also enjoys special liberties when commenting on American society from the “fringe of the cultural mainstream.”
There is a degree of emotional distance that leads to work Ezawa says is universal, his ultimate goal. Furthermore, because the core imagery is largely familiar, his art does not speak to an elite art club, nor is he attempting to shift public perception 180 degrees. Viewers are free to determine their own stories for the paintings and videos that result from a creative process he compares to long-term romantic relationships.
“You have to be able to get along with a piece for a long, long time,” he says.
Asked about presenting art from one country in another country, or upcoming projects that might focus on his homeland of Germany, Ezawa admits, “It’s a tricky thing. I did a show in Germany with American imagery, and reactions to it went kind of cold. The national anthem protests were moving. I felt a kind of solidarity with the people involved, but I have a more complicated relationship with Germany.”
Overall, Ezawa believes his art delivers an emotional spectrum, despite the volatility of the source material.
“I’m not into happy art, but I also don’t want to only embrace gloom or sadness,” he says. “There has to be in my art the hopeful message and also the tragedy in our lives.”
Separated from some of his family in Germany during the pandemic, he finds solace knowing they are connected by shared conditions. Relocating to Oakland in 2014 after 20 years in San Francisco, he finds the two communities entirely unique. He embraces Oakland’s proximity to nature and mix of cultures but can’t ignore the pockets of poor and rich people in his West Oakland neighborhood and the tension between “those who are thriving and those left behind.” Applying the heart and eye of a sculptor, Ezawa predicts future works still too fresh to discuss will continue to whittle and hone vast, universal stories of protest expressed, justice gained and lost and freedoms won.