By Nina Blumberg
Nina Blumberg, art consultant at Samuels Creative in Manhattan and founder of the art Instagram @artstagram__, interviews up-and-coming contemporary artist Susumu Kamijo as a part of acollaboration with LA-based art company Art Of Choice.
Kamijo has gained recognition over the past few years for his mixed media paintings and drawings– in particular, ones featuring brightly-colored, abstracted poodles. His works take root in figuration, but the end result lies in a more abstracted realm due to Kamijo’s stylized placement of shapes and interpretation of texture. The artist received his MFA from the University of Washington in 2002 and is currently represented by Marvin Gardens, a young art gallery in Ridgewood, Queens. He was born in 1975 in Nagano, Japan, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
NB: Tell me a little about yourself. Did you always want to be an artist or did you come across it organically later in life?
SK: I think the seed of the creative thing came from when I lived in a dorm in college in Oregon. In the dorm my neighbor was a hippie, and you know, he was smoking a lot of weed and listening to hippie music. It was the late 90s. He was a genius and it was a hippie town. So I met a bunch of people there. Before that I didn’t really have any friends because I went to high school in Salem, Oregon. Then I met these people, I was hanging out with these people, they’re playing music, they’re taking art classes. So it was one of the things I started doing to be able to fit in with this social group.
NB: So were you studying art originally or you became friends with these people and starting taking art classes because of them?
Yeah I mean I started taking art classes in college, like when I was 18 or something. I mean it was fun, and I was interested in other things like anthropology, philosophy, writing.NB: So you didn’t necessarily think, “I’m going to be an artist?” It was more like it kind of just happened.
SK: Yeah, I was more just trying to enjoy the moment and hang out and have fun. I took writing and poetry classes too, but it seemed like painting or visual art was kinda easy. It was different and, I don’t know. In a philosophy class you had to spend like 20-30 hours trying to write a paper, but in a painting class I would just bring a painting and I didn’t have to write any papers. So I was getting good grades. I switched and decided to become an art major because that was the only way I could graduate.
NB: That’s really funny.
SK: So pretty much I liked doing it and I was getting good grades.
NB: Were you getting good feedback from your peers about the art that you were making?
SK: Yeah, so I think that’s how it started. Then I went to grad school in Seattle at the University of Washington. So It’s not like I was like “this is the only thing I can do,” but it was something I just did. I do think I’m more serious about making art now than when I was in college.
NB: Well it’s cool that you came across it more organically and then it turned into something you were more serious about. It sounds like at the time you thought you could make better grades that way but then it became more of a true passion after that?
SK: Yeah, I think it came later.
NB: Ok, so what does a typical day look like for you as an artist, in the studio (or out of the studio? Or does it vary?
It varies, but I live with my girlfriend and she’s a dog groomer, so I give her a ride to work, come back, walk the dogs.
NB: And the dogs are poodles?
SK: I have one poodle and one fox terrier. I didn’t get the poodle, it’s her dog. So should I claim that it’s my dog? I don’t know, but I walk them every day.
NB: Right, well you live with them, you take care of them. Part ownership.
SK: I walk them to the park like 3 times a day, I feed them, if they’re sick I give them pills. I used to not think that having pets is a fun thing to do, but once I started living with animals I kinda started getting attached to them.
NB: In between all of the dog walking, you make art?
SK: Yeah, I make art and that’s pretty much it. I should maybe be working harder, but I don’t know. It takes time. The dogs are always around and the poodle- I have my studio in my apartment- so this one small poodle is always sitting next to me. I built it a house in my studio and she’ll sleep in it.
NB: So she hangs out in the studio with you?
SK: All the time, yeah. So that’s really an emotional experience for me.NB: Ok, so I have to ask about the poodle motif in your art. I’m sure you get it all the time.
SK: So like I said, my partner is a dog groomer and I think one day I was helping her at her work, washing the dog for her. And I just noticed their forms and they looked good- or something- I don’t know. It’s just being around poodles, it made me feel like I should try. And I’d go out to the dog shows and competitions with her, so I’d see all these dolled up poodles. They’re very serious about it.
NB: Does the poodle symbolize anything more now that you’ve been using it a lot in your work?
SK: For me, I’m interested in the shapes of the show poodle. People take a lot of time to grow their hair.. I just like the show poodle’s form, I don’t know why.
NB: Got it. So who or what would you consider to be your biggest artistic influences? Besides the poodle.. (Hahah).
SK: I like art in general, Matisse, Picasso, etc., but I think I’m most influenced by the people who are around me. Like artists/friends I know like Anthony [Miler, his dealer] and Jonas [Wood] who I went to school with, or Dan [Mandelbaum]. The people who are around me making art.
NB: I definitely get that. I think that the people and things that you surround yourself with in life, you more easily assimilate or pick up their mannerisms and ways of viewing the world.
Have you ever had an experience or moment that was integral to your artistic career, like changed the momentum, for example?
SK: The last few years for sure. The poodles [laughing]. I don’t know, it’s like, should I be happy about this? But it’s there, so I just decided I’m going to ride it out and see how far I can take it.
NB: And what were you doing before the poodles?
SK: Abstract paintings with faces, but it seems like the poodles have caught people’s eyes.
NB: Was there a certain person or show that really kicked that off?
SK: I had a show in 2016, almost 2 years ago [at Marvin Gardens] that I had a small 14 x 17 poodle drawing in the back room. Jonas liked it, Glenn Goldberg came to see it- he’s a good artist- after seeing it on Instagram or something. I really like him and I respect his opinion. I feel like if he says something is good, it’s probably good.
NB: And you felt like it confirmed it for you after he saw it and said he liked it?
SK: Yeah, I trust him because not only is he a good artist, but he’s friends with my old teacher from the University of Washington, Denzel Hurley, who taught me back in the early 2000s. Denzel was also one of the people who first influenced me as an artist, in terms of how to perceive the artwork and how to approach my practice. I think part of me still doesn’t understand what he was trying to say.. Something [he said] stuck with me and I’m still trying to figure out what that is. It’s like a piece of good work, you can’t tell why you like it so much.
NB: I see what you mean. How would you describe your artistic style to someone who isn’t familiar with your work in a few words?
SK: From an objective point of view about myself, maybe- because I’m Japanese- I think there’s an influence on some level from Japanese printmaking. Even though it’s not really a conscious thing, it maybe manifests in subconscious ways. I like to set up certain proportions or certain structures this way or that way and I think that tends to come across like Japanese art stylistically but I’m not trying to do that on purpose necessarily. I’m also a big fan of absurdity. I did stand up [comedy] for 2 or 3 years.
NB: So you like entertaining people?
SK: I think I do care about the viewers. Again, this is not really a conscious thing, but I think I do think about audience subconsciously. Not even in an entertaining way, but something more meaningful. Like what am I giving out to the world? I’m not 100% selfishly thinking, “I want to make this because I feel like making this”; I go through a filter of other people’s eyes at some point.
NB: If you had to pull just one of your artworks out of a burning building, what would you choose and why?
SK: My deceased grandparents gave me this Japanese origami vase like twenty years ago. I’d probably pick that over my own artwork because they’re gone and can’t make it anymore and there’s only one of it.
NB: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
SK: Like I said, I tried to do stand-up comedy before. I don’t do it anymore because I figured out that I don’t have to be up in front of people, like a performer. I could just be the writer of the material. I don’t have to use my own physical body to get attention. So maybe I’d be a writer if I weren’t an artist.
NB: What do you think the role of the artist in contemporary society is? Or your own personal role as an artist?
SK: One has to think what kind of artist they want to be. There are people whose main goal is to keep making work. And not stop, because they love making and doing. Other people just want to be famous artists. I want to be famous, but I don’t want to be too famous. And I think it always happens that things chase after you. You just do your thing and everything else follows. That’s the most natural way of going about it.NB: So what’s next for you, project-wise?
SK: Well, it seems like the poodles keep getting bigger and bigger.
NB: Do you want to or are you trying to branch out from that?
SK: I’m doing other works simultaneously. It’s fun and I have a couple shows coming up, so I’ll see how people respond.
NB: Where are the shows?
SK: I’m doing a show in LA next month, at a Japanese store called Tortoise [General Store]. They have a new design store that just opened there. I think the have a gallery space where the work will be displayed. My girlfriend has a dog competition there so I’ll just do it around the same time. I’m also doing Milan Art Fair in April with this Belgian gallery called Stems. I have a couple other things in the works, but those are the set ones that I can mention.
NB: Is there anything else you want to describe about the way you work, like in terms of technique specifically?
SK: Well, I can talk about the poodle drawings. I’ve tried so many times to do a painting of a poodle, but the poodle for me has to be a drawing for some reason.
NB: Why do you think that is?
SK: The pastel pencils and oil pastels that I use for drawings just work best with the subject. I don’t know why, because you can cut this really hard edge. If I were to do like oil paint, it’s just too blurry and wet. There’s something about it- the dryness and ability to smudge maybe. But I think maybe it’s something I’ll figure out in a couple years why it had to be this way. It’s something about the drawing though that it has to be on paper.
NB: But other subject matter you’re fine with doing paintings, like the faces?
SK: Yeah, I do acrylic or oil paint for those. Maybe I should try harder to make the poodle into a painting. But every time I do, I just fail.
NB: Well, I think if in your mind it makes sense, there’s not necessarily any reason to switch. If it comes out the best when it’s a drawing rather than a painting, there doesn’t have to be an explanation as to why. Maybe it just is what it is.
SK: Yeah, maybe that’s it.