An interview with Ran Kunst

An interview with Ran Kunst

Recently I was interviewed by Manuela Klerkx, a veteran in the international art industry.

How do you view human existence with its current problems and challenges?

I think that, as individuals, we are facing similar internal struggles that our ancestors (and their ancestors) have faced. Having said that, for us as a society, things have changed a lot. Just like the introduction of the printing industry changed the world drastically, current technologies have had a huge impact on our society. The way in which we share information has reached extreme levels which allows everyone to have a voice that can be heard. Obviously, in a world with close to 8 billion people, many of those voices are better left unheard.

What have you done for the last 30 years, where have you lived?

While I grew up in Amsterdam, I decided to leave at the age of 21. I spent 28 years abroad where I started a family and built my career. I studied graphic design, but did not enjoy the field since computers had just been introduced into the industry. These computers had subpar capabilities which limited my creative output at the time. After having worked as a store designer at Tower Records and a few other odd jobs, I discovered new opportunities in the field of design in the early days of the internet. Computers had improved drastically and they became a legitimate tool to design on, especially since the output was consumed on a similar device. 

Since the late 90’s I’ve been active in the internet industry as a product designer and entrepreneur, working mostly in small and dynamic start-up companies. Product design consists of a wide range of tasks of which visual design is only a small element. At the end of the day, it’s finding solutions for challenges, translating vague concepts into tangible products and telling engaging stories.

You recently returned to Amsterdam after having lived abroad for decades. How do you feel about this move?

My family and I decided to move back to the Netherlands during the Covid outbreak. It took some planning and we ended up back in the Netherlands during 2021. It’s interesting to be back and look at the country I grew up in through the eyes of an adult. The biggest impact this return had on me is the pace in which I’m now living my life. Everything is calm and mellow as opposed to the hectic life we lived abroad. This has given me more time and peace of mind to concentrate on my art. Also, I forgot how much art is embedded into day to day life in the Netherlands which is something I took for granted when I lived here as a young adult.

You stated that you’ve been creating art your whole life but only recently felt the need to push it. What's the reason behind this?

I’ve been drawing my whole life and started painting back in 1991. As a 6 year old kid I stated with confidence that I want to be a visual artist when I grow up. My brother and I were raised by a single mother who worked hard to keep our heads above water. My guess is that this had an impact on me and it’s most likely the main reason why I decided to take a more secure route.

When I started painting I did play around with the idea of pursuing a career as an artist. I had my first exposition and sold some works, but eventually wanted more stability. Therefore I built a career that allowed me to express my creativity in different ways while having some financial stability. Unable to put down my drawing tools, I continued drawing and painting on the side. Over the last few years I started to expose my art to co-workers which led to more sales.

When I recently visited your studio, I realized that your recent work revolves around a character which you call a ‘Shouter’. This character appears to take on the identity of characters we recognize from movies, comics, politics and more. What is the idea behind this character?

I always enjoyed creating visual characters with rich background stories. The Shouter character was born about 8 years ago. Working in the highly competitive tech industry, I’ve encountered a wide variety of people over the years. Many are convinced that they have exclusive access to the one and only truth. They talk but fail to listen. Put some of these talkers together in a room and talking quickly turns into shouting.

While observing this behavior, it became clear to me that in many cases this shouting persona was nothing more than a mask - a costume so to speak - to hide insecurities and other perceived flaws. Meanwhile, my Shouter character continued to develop during doodling sessions in meetings. Drawing this character became an obsession up to a point where it now just naturally flows out of my hand.

I started exploring the relationship between the Shouters and their costumes. Slowly these costumes started to lead lives of their own. Currently, in many of my works, it’s not even clear who’s in charge, the Shouter or their costume. Naturally, the Shouters I encountered in my day-to-day life were just an introduction to where the world was heading. Today, whenever I turn on my phone or computer, I’m confronted with Shouters.

I’ve always been a big consumer of media, from music to cinema and literature. Most of the media consumed by people today consists of user-generated content. This trend gives shouters across the globe a stage. Recently I started exploring the relationship between these Shouters and characters from traditional media. This includes characters from my childhood as well as characters from current pop culture.

You work with acrylic and brush on small, medium, and large-sized canvases. Although the paintings have a graphic aspect, up close, you can see that they are hand-painted with great attention to color, technique, and detail. Is it important to you that the 'Shouters' are painted, and if so, why?

While I’ve created Shouters in different formats, my current emphasis is on single-edition hand painted Shouters. I do not use any templates or stencils, making each Shouter truly unique. When I use digital tools to create Shouters, they’re close to perfect. In real life though, Shouters are far from perfect. I challenge myself to make them look as if they’re perfect since that’s how they want to appear to the world. Once you get closer, you start seeing flaws and imperfections. I like that idea.

Color plays a key role in my work. I’d like to pretend that I spend hours selecting the right color scheme for each painting but the truth is, it just happens intuitively. While I do create bigger pieces, most Shouters are relatively small. The idea behind that is to make them more accessible and affordable, especially since they work great as series. One Shouter tells a nice story but a series of 3 ,4 or 5 make an even bigger impact.

I don’t intend to limit the Shouter character to paintings. I envision limited prints and even potentially some merchandise. Eventually I’d like to make 3d Shouters as well in the form of art toys or even a large sculpture.

How would you like your Shouters to be perceived? Who do you make them for?

My goal is to have the Shouters become a desirable collectors item. There will be a limited amount of Shouters per collection making the owner part of a relatively exclusive club. Obviously I hope that people buy my works because they feel a connection. Each unique Shouter tells its own story but leaves space for the owner to make it their own. I recently sold 4 Shouters to someone who told me that, for them, each of the pieces clearly represented one of their kids. The story doesn’t end when I finish the painting. I love that.

Do you recognize yourself or other people that you know in your Shouters?

While the Shouter is based on the people surrounding me, something interesting happened during Covid. The response to Covid forced me to close my newly founded start-up. I was in New York at the time and had to travel back where the whole country went into complete lock-down. Everyday, another piece of my freedom was taken away from me and my family. During that time, I slowly started to see myself represented in my Shouters. This process provided me with more empathy towards the Shouters and somewhat influenced their visual representation.

What are your thoughts on the internet in relation to visual art? There’s been a lot of talk about “Instagram art” which is very colorful and accessible but has no real depth. How can you convey depth and meaning of your art in a digital environment?

I believe the internet is just another tool that can be used when it comes to art. It provides a lot of opportunities to those who know how to utilize them. Using computers to create art is not new but the introduction of new technologies will definitely have a lot of impact on the art industry. We’ve seen how blockchain started the NFT hype and, more recently, how generative AI has the potential to disrupt the way we think about art. I’ve worked with these technologies so I don’t fear them. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of how these technologies will influence the art scene.

I’m confident that many people in the art world are not too happy about recent developments. My guess is that this is not very different from the way people, in the traditional art world, reacted to Andy Warhol back in the day. Eventually things will settle down and we’ll understand the role these technologies will play in the future of art. I don’t believe that they will completely replace what we call traditional art.

I do think that the internet makes art more accessible to a much wider audience. As an artist I understand that this creates a lot of opportunities but also has the potential to influence my creation process. Getting instant feedback on your work is great but could influence your next piece and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Do you sell via social media? Who are your buyers?

Even though my career has been basically online, when it comes to my art most is happening offline. Knowing from up close how social media works and what goes on behind the scenes, I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan. I am active on Instagram and am amazed by the way TikTok has taken over the world but I can’t say that I’ve sold much online. Most of my sales have been offline by people who have seen my work from up close.

I’m not sure if this is a result from my social media presence or that my work just clicks better when experienced offline. Some of my sales were the result of a combination of the two; people who saw the work online but purchased them offline after having experienced them in real life.

Can you name a few artists that you admire or to whom you feel affiliated and why?

The first time I recall being a real fan of an artist was when I encountered Keith Haring’s work as a young child. I loved his use of color and how with a few simple strokes he was able to tell a story. Through him I discovered artists like Andy Warhol and Basquiat who I admire not only for their work, but also their approach to art. At a young age I connected to Mondriaan’s works as well, again for their simplicity and use of colors.

When I matured a bit I started showing interest in artists like Jeff Koons who taught me that the rules are there to be broken. I always enjoyed street art and designer toys by artists like Kaws and Takashi Murakami. More recently, through social media I’ve been exposed to artists like Luke Chueh whose work is amazing in my opinion.

I wouldn’t limit this list to traditional artists though. I admire how people like Beeple are at the forefront of digital art. Illustrators like Dick Bruna have had an impact on me as well. Tokidoki, also an illustrator, was able to connect with a business partner and turned his art into a thriving business. I admire that as an entrepreneur.

In the music industry I’ve been a fan of disruptive artists as well. I’m fascinated by how artists like Radiohead, Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper have found ways to bring their art to the masses without worrying about traditional financial models. This is the stuff that inspires me.

How do you view the future of the artworld and where do you see yourself as an artist in 10 years from now?

I believe that the art world will see changes in the future. My guess is that with the help of recent technologies we will see a shift to a more decentralized art scene. The potential to earn from art will grow which will in turn open up more people to become artists. With AI taking over many aspects of our lives, creative thinking will become an increasingly important skill for humans to have. The educational system will have to adjust to that so let’s see how that will influence a new generation of artists.

Personally I’m ready to take the next step in my journey as an artist. I want to challenge myself to become a better artist, in all aspects. I want more people to see and engage with my work.

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