Gillian Zinser

So It Goes x Curtis Kulig

Gillian Zinser
So It Goes x Curtis Kulig

Curtis Kulig is an artist most known for being a street artist and that street art being the iconic 'Love Me' campaign. To box him into those most-knowns however, would be a mistake. His new group show 'HAPPINESS' is a departure into a formal display of his more personal work. So It Goes contributor Gillian Zinser takes a visit to his studio to talk about the last ten years and where it's brought him.

GZ: You just opened a group show last week called ‘HAPPINESS’ with some other amazing artists. What was the idea behind it?

CK: Grear, Yves and I had been wanting to collaborate on a show for awhile. Grear was over at my studio while I was working on this 'Self-Help' series of multi-media works, and after talking a lot about my intention around it we decided to build out a show around all of our personal pursuits of happiness as artistic practices.

GZ: You’ve spent the last decade mostly known for your graphic ‘Love Me’ campaign, but this series is quite a departure from that whole era into a really intimate, personal space of self-reflection. So I found it really interesting that no matter how different this body of work is from anything you’ve been associated with before, you still riddled these pieces with broken fragments and almost indiscernible scraps of your ‘Love Me’ tag within. What was the choice there?

CK: I've been creating outside the ‘Love Me’ work forever, but yea this is strangely enough the first time I'm showing my more personal work in a traditional contemporary art setting. The ‘Love Me’ remnants throughout the series is probably a subconscious way of expressing the need or desire to both try and shed a dated identity that I've been attached to for over a decade, while at the same time understanding and respecting it’s inevitable meaning and mark in my life. 

GZ: What does happiness look like to you right now?

CK: Making work in my studio. Walking. Sleeping. Eating. Not going through security lines. Escaping my ego. Fresh produce. Flowers. 

GZ: What does happiness look like to you 20 years from now?

CK: A lap pool, a family and everyone healthy.

GZ: I really dig your use of mixed media - you’re such a multi-disciplinary artist: painting, sculpture, photography, collage, sketch, fashion design, zines, your staple drawings (still my favorite),  your writing (please make a fucking book already). I dunno, it just seems like the medium is almost secondary to what you have to express, which I really appreciate. Do you gravitate to any of your methods more than the others? 

CK: I know I’m all over the place. I like to paint most. My second favorite is drawing. I like curating my photos probably more than I like taking them? And yea, I'm planning on showing a bunch of writing pieces that I've been compiling over the years made on all the various hotel letterheads from my travels.

GZ: What’s your happy place these days?

CK: Downtown, by default. 

GZ: What’s your favorite word right now?

CK: I've been saying 'absolutely' quite a bit lately? But I also really like the word 'smithereens'.

GZ: What do you do to stay sane in this city?

CK: I get away enough, and when I am in the city I stray towards the water and parks. I swim at the Chinatown YMCA often. I make sure to remember to breathe. But I also begin to not feel sane when I leave the city for too long. 

GZ: You’ve got a beautiful eye for color and composition. And use of text. And strokes. I’m really impressed with your ability to create in such an equally refined and messy way. What was your process like for this series?

CK: I wanted the work to feel like a organized mess. So I worked all over the place using an ink jet, silkscreen, charcoal, oil, acrylic, tape, and staples on canvas.  

GZ: 3 things inspiring you right now–

CK:  Waking up early and not checking into any devices. Angela Bassett. Cooking

GZ: 3 things you’re allergic to–

CK: Honking cars, firetruck sirens, the fans on top of delivery trucks.

GZ: I really appreciate how this group of work is both inevitably super vulnerable, but also remains abstract and enigmatic leaving a lot up to the interpretation of the viewer. They feel like cryptic diary entries.  Tell me a bit about the symbols spread throughout? 

CK: I like you saying they feel like cryptic diary entries because while I do very consciously (and probably subconsciously) use a ton of metaphors and symbols throughout that are coming from a very personal place, I don't necessarily want to explain them to a viewer. I like the space between creation and interpretation. 

GZ: You just published a new zine that’s out now at Dashwood Books and your parents are both riddled throughout. Tell me one thing they each taught you?

CK: My mother taught me how to behave and my father taught me how to catch a baseball.  

GZ: Did you do anything for Mother's Day?

CK: I called her and sent peonies, of course. I love her.

GZ: What was your first thought this morning?

CK: Is it raining?

GZ: You’re known as a street artist in most circles, which is funny to me ‘cuz the minute I step into your studio or walk into this show, that's the last thing I’d call you actually. You have such a comprehensive body of work already and such a small fraction of it is your graphic tag stuff. How do you relate to the idea of having been seen as a street artist and would you agree with me if I said you seem to have almost shed that part of your creative identity?

CK: It's all about the balance, right? I mean, yeah, while I don't at all personally consider myself or relate to being a 'street artist', the truth is that thing I started over 10 years ago has somehow afforded me the impossible life of an artist where I get to wake up everyday and create. But like so many people in all kind of creative fields, I wouldn't have been able to build such a huge body of personal work without that commercial work to support it. So yeah, like most things a decade old, that side of my work doesn't feel the most relative to where I'm at and what I feel the need to say or express today...but I'm incredibly grateful for what it's allowed me and continues to allow me to do.

GZ: Well said. What makes you unhappy?

CK: Most politics and choices people make that negatively effect the planet.

GZ: What’s one thing you’re sure of?

CK: I don't think I am.

GZ: What’s inside your fridge right now?

CK: I thought you’d never ask. Blueberries. Blackberries. Papaya. Pecorino. Perrier. Unsweetened Almond Milk. Salted Butter. Arugula. Cornichons. In that order.

GZ: I’m really into the way you presented your video installation piece, '36 Men’. What was the intention/story behind the film?

CK: The film is essentially just 36 men in my life who were all asked to repeat the words 'Love Me' for 3 minutes. While the final piece is an edit of all of them combined, I actually found the process of going through each guy's 3 minutes of uncomfortably searching for meaning in the phrase the more interesting part of the process and plan to show that side of the project in the future

GZ: What's the best sound in the world?

CK: Leaves in the wind is nice. Chet Baker? Water?

GZ: What do you want this very second?

CK: I want to continue this conversation! 

GZ: If you could make dinner for anyone ever who would it be and what would you make?

CK: Alice Waters. And I would microwave her a beige TV dinner.

GZ: Culturally,  we're all sort of obsessed with this idea of happiness being the goal. The thing to reach for. Attain. I mean you've created a whole show around the idea. but what's your personal relationship to the pursuit of happiness?

CK: Funny enough I don't actually believe in the pursuit of happiness. I more so believe in the pursuit of wholeness. Of course I believe in being aware of the things that make you happy and following those impulses - but I think looking at happiness as 'the goal' is a really dangerous idea and has lead to a fear of sadness which seems like a contemporary disease in Western culture. We're being taught that happiness should be the default position when really wholeness is what we should be striving for and sadness, frustration, failure, disappointment and all the other things that make us who we are are just a part of that. 

GZ: What’s something you’ve forgotten?

CK: My memory's shit. But I've been attending school and doing brain building apps to work out my memory muscles.


GZ: Make me a quick mix tape:

- Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen
- Sister Brother by FJ McMahon
- D'Amor Sull'Ali Rosee by Maria Callas
- Dead End by Quincy Jones
- All of Nina Simone
- You're Not The One by Sky Ferreira

GZ: I fully approve of all except that last one. When was the last time you apologized?

CK: Earlier today.

GZ: What happened?

CK: Just had to apologize to someone for acting like a psycho.

GZ: Makes sense. What kind of work are you interested in showing next?

CK: I'm showing a series of drawings at Agnès B. in September here in NYC, designed a 25-piece Fall/Winter line for Bedwin and the Heartbreakers that comes out in Tokyo this December, designing a flower shop inside Montaigne Market in Paris this June, and doing an installation for Aquazzura in London.

GZ: If you were guaranteed the answer to one question, what would it be?

CK: What's it all mean, man?


Curtis Kulig's group exhibition, Happiness, runs until May 19th at 450 West 14th Street, NYC.

Photos and interview by Gillian Zinser.