Three days before the opening of her latest show, "The Drawing Room," Audrey Kawasaki was busy re-creating her studio in the window of Thinkspace—a sort of artistic mannequin advertising the pencil and paper etchings within. Around 5'2, Audrey struggled a bit to hang a vintage Ouija Board above her desk before moving on to the decidedly easier (lower) sketch on an adjacent easel. Nearby: anatomical charts, vintage birdcages, porcelain owls, metallic keys to long-lost boxes and, of course, preserved butterflies and pieces of wood.
Across Los Angeles, plastic and shellacked insects were being glued into my straightened and whitened hair. In one of the few other interviews she gave, the first paragraph mentioned the artist was not a fan of interviews. And Andrew Hosner, curator at Thinkspace, had two pieces of instruction regarding the show: that there wouldn't be a line for Friday's opening, and that I was welcome to show up while Audrey installed her drawing room, but "she really, really hates interviews." In an attempt to assuage her fears, I decided to dress up as one of her most well-known drawings — "Lydia" — which also turned out to be one of the most difficult to transfer from the page to our dimension, further revealing that Audrey's world is her own. In this titular piece, one of her traditional pale nymphets lightly touches her fingernails to her puffed pink lips, other hand caressing a centipede, her hair a melee of beetles, moths, snails, worms and, in this realm of eros and thanatos (life and death drive,) an assortment of other critters that feed on decay. Lydia is topless, and looks at the viewer with blue-shadowed, come-hither eyes.
All I had was the pale skin. It took an hour and a half in the salon to straighten my curls, whiten my hair, and affix the insects I had procured the previous two days at various natural history museums, costume shops, and overstock science supply companies. This was prefaced by an awkward 45 minutes in a beauty supply shop where two women were kind enough — or frightened enough — to paint my face as Lydia's, with cobalt eye shadow, coral lips, sanguine cheeks and mascara that I "simple had to have." Some two hours later, after shaving my chest and underarms (tip: don't just use an electric razor, you'll cry in pain each time you put on deodorant for a week,) I walked into Home Depot looking like Lydia (tip #2: don't visit Home Depot dressed as a sexually conflicted 12-year-old male with an insect infestation in your hair.) But the raised-eyebrows, sneers and less tacit remarks - "Halloween's over, dude…or whatever the hell you are" - did not dissuade me from the possibility of the notoriously demure Audrey being sufficiently at ease around one of her paintings to engage in conversation.
Body shaved, shirtless, a surfeit of bugs in my hair, just the right amount of makeup, I knocked on the window of Thinkspace where Audrey finished hanging a butterfly. Odd looks abounded, but I was let in. Audrey scanned me, tilted her head, and smiled.
"Who are you?"
Audrey Kawasaki was born in 1982, the daughter of two Japanese immigrants who met in Southern California. They, along with her grandmother, instilled in Audrey an appreciation of her Japanese heritage (she's more comfortable speaking in Japanese than English,) and fostered her talent early on. Following some metaphorical and literal wandering and adolescent "craziness," she immigrated herself - to the East Coast - spending two years at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, focusing on Fine Arts Painting. One of the leading art schools in the United States, the Institute has a long roster of distinguished graduates, including Mad Magazine's Dave Berg, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and multi-hyphenates Rob Zombie and Robert Redford. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes, who wrote Ghost World, based his script Art School Confidential about his time at Pratt. In the film, a professor (and failed artist) has these words of encouragement to give his drawing and painting class:
"Now I don't have any particular wisdom to impart to you people, except to say this, these four words: don't have unrealistic expectations. If you want to make money, you might as well drop out right now—go to banking school, or website school - anywhere but art school. And remember, only 1 out of 100 of you will ever make a living as an artist."
Audrey left after two years. Or, to borrow another line from the film, this from a student: "I'm a living cliché just like the rest of these guys. I'm the guy who keeps dropping out and changing his major just because he's afraid he really sucks at everything." Though it wasn't solely Audrey that had these feelings of self-doubt—her professors, and the New York art scene at the time, focused on conceptual art and resisted her figurative, illustrative style. Having just sold 1060 giclees at an open sale would indicate that Audrey is that 1%. And while the artist is typically coy, or naïve, about her accomplishments, she does acknowledge with a sly smile that when it comes to her professors, "I showed them. I wanted to do this, what I'm doing, but they said no. So I left."
Returning to California, Kawasaki found herself stymied creatively. "I lost it for about a year after the crap from my professors. I couldn't do anything," [laughs] "Then, playing around, I found it again." But like the struggle in her paintings between death and life, feminine identity and its obverse, to-tear-the butterfly-or-not, Audrey brims with contradictions. Seconds after reluctantly admitting her success, she adds, "I haven't been strong throughout." Though this is one of the few contradictions not difficult to reconcile—she's incredibly, obsessively, persistent. A signature element of Audrey's is the use of wood, and though she seems to master the material like some savant lumberjack, this wasn't always the case—she initially sent her prints to someone else to place them on the wood. "I got so much guff from people asking 'Why would you do that?!' But I couldn't work with it well enough yet, I was still experimenting and stuff. A year or two later, I started doing more of what you see now, but back then, I was taking a pen and essentially carving into the wood." Those who've seen one of her creations in person know that any tree would be happy to give its life for Audrey's cause; it seems as though it grew the way it did - a knot here, a line there - to compliment her own lines and knots of hair. Now, each of her pieces is born on wood, with only "some vague idea with sketches" beforehand. Less removed from its living phase than paper, the wood's texture — though she sands it down smoother than paper — adds life to the already kinetic women, given movement by their potential energy. Like Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment,' Audrey's Girl exists in the ideal second before or after The Event. Where she to paint them a second earlier or later, the piece, like Lydia's hair, would fall apart. In Tear Me, She'd have ripped the butterfly. Death Of A Swan, the diaphanous soul of the bird, perched on Her shoulder, would be out of frame, its formerly intact skeleton a pile of bones.
Singular, definite article — Girl, She, Her — because while Audrey has produced myriad pieces, each woman haunting the wood or paper have the same genetic makeup, its deoxyribonucleic acid ATGCs of Audrey's own struggle with sexuality. "She comes to me in many forms, but that's my main attraction—she doesn't live anywhere specifically, she's just somewhere in here [points to head, motions to drawings]." And She "continues to struggle because it's been a constant struggle of mine." The Kawasaki Girl has the qualities of an ingénue, inciting some to postulate that the works are representative of the psychosexual conflict specific to that stage of development. Their namesake resists that interpretation; though Audrey acknowledges many young women go through periods of sexual uncertainty, "it goes on not only in your adolescence." Just look at Her development. The Kawasaki Girl came into existence long before the first sketchpads Audrey posted online. "I started drawing, like, school time. That young. She just popped up. It was not me doing it, either, she came to me. I was always drawn to images with that theme. Looking at them now…oh, wow. I still remember those images. Magazines. Tones. Colors. Models." Though She was drawn into existence, or used Audrey as a conduit for Her conception, She's now only alive for "short periods of time, for little bursts." She's most alive, Audrey says, when she begins drawing, then when putting in the white, feminine, light tones. After that, "Psh!" and Audrey waves her hand, as if clearing away smoke. "Sometimes," she adds, "I try to do something and She says 'No!' I'll usually listen, but there's times when I don't, even if She's telling me 'No! I don't like it!' and I'll keep doing it, and finish it and it will totally not work." (But, she laughs, she usually does listen — "It's not a lot that I don't" - and if she can't find Her in one piece, she'll try to find Her in another one.) She (Audrey) is careful not to spend too much time talking about Her, as if doing so would chase Her away, scare Her off. And Audrey sounds disappointed admitting that her girl is only alive for these bursts.
Elton John has not had the number of unique costume and hair changes of The Kawasaki Girl. I ask Audrey if she sees an insect in the backyard and says, "That would look really good on a naked 12-year-old." Audrey laughs, "Are you seriously asking me that? I don't think that!" Worthy of shocked exclamation points at the question is debatable, as many of her drawings are erotic nubile nudes — Humbert Humbert would be her #1 fan — surrounded by shells, skeletons, hummingbirds, butterflies and exotic marine and terra-firma flowers. The pinned butterflies, porcelain owls, deer horn and anatomical chart of her "Drawing Room" installation only buttress my claim. Once again, Audrey is exceedingly coy about the genesis of her ideas, or perhaps it truly is as simple as she suggests, "I'll see a shell, and like the way it looks. I don't go collecting on the beach." Pressed, "They're visual. And I'm attracted to the natural patterns and lines that they have. They're felt visual. I was actually against butterflies before, but now appreciate them for their beauty." As for all the bones, gutted shells, the death-head moth of Ishiki, these thanatos elements, beside these women turgid with eros, Audrey shrugs, "Death and life. That's right on. I don't know how to explain it, though. I am drawn to those elements, I admit."
She's not alone. "The Drawing Room," was not a solo exhibition, though Audrey's name figured most prominently on the postcards and one-sheets as she curated it. Stylistically unique, the themes present in the curator's work were varied under the graphite of Brian Viveros, KuKula, Stella Im Hulberg (whom Audrey co-created a piece with,) Amy Sol and 21 other artists. A consummate blogger (she has three,) constantly posting updates about her art and inspiration, she met a few of the curated via LiveJournal. "Some are artist friends that have shown regularly in my circle, some I got connected to through blogging. I've been inspired by them as a blogger and an artist." She was also cognizant that some don't show much as they're street artists or illustrators and, unlike her professors, wanted to give them the opportunity to express themselves. The through-line across the frames seemed to be the feminine mystique, that double-edged mysterious power that women hold over others and also simultaneously holds them down. Missing the pun, Audrey nods at this overture and says, "That's why I'm drawn to them."
Andrew Hosner, Thinkspace's curator, obviously had never checked eBay for one of Audrey's prints before assuring me there'd be no line for the opening. With markups of 300-1000%, and with Audrey releasing two giclees that evening (her originals sold out long before the show opened; there's a waiting list of over 250 for an original,) a block-long of fans waited from the window display down the sidewalk of Santa Monica Blvd. Asked why they were there — some had lined up 3 hours beforehand — the answer was universally, "Audrey Kawasaki's prints." The first person in line, who had left work early and waited 5 hours, sprinted to the back of Thinkspace and, not knowing what the final price would be, purchased the two framed examples — 1/200 — of the available prints, Uria and Hakuchou no Shi ("Death Of A Swan".) Two hours later, all 400 prints would be sold out. It was one of the most ecumenical lines I've seen for a vernissage, ages and races all over the almanac. While her fans have no problem elucidating why they're attracted to Audrey's art — "It's beautiful." "It's erotic." "It's mysterious." "It's sensual, but I can still hang it up in front of my kids." — the object of the praise struggles to come up with the reason for her monumental success. "Maybe…because female forms, and femininity, are more acceptable now?" She thinks a few more beats. "I don't know." Indeed, while working on a separate article for Artillery on the sex-toy as art, Judith Glover, an industrial designer in Australia who works with ceramics, had this to say about her ideal partnership: "Lately a good friend of mine has introduced me to heaps of contemporary erotic artists like Audrey Kawasaki and Miss Van. Imagine getting either of those to do a graphic on a toy…OOOH LALA!" Kawasaki seems at the epicenter of some artistic movement, or, at the very least, the art-world's Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. I looked around at the art hanging on my walls and found that with the exception of one artist — Banksy — I was able to connect the others, with a minimum of effort, to this 'contemporary erotic artist.' Gary Baseman, illustrator, painter and Dunny grand priest, was a single degree removed as he was waiting in line for "Drawing Room." Some were a bit trickier, but I still don't think I'm stretching: as I initially interviewed Audrey, it was announced that Barack Obama had become president-elect; Shepard Fairey's "Progress" and "Hope" hangs one wall over from Audrey's prints. Two removed. (And, I would learn later, it could actually be one as both Kawasaki and Fairey had pieces in the Capro Nason 15 Year Anniversary Group Art Show.) Another, a painting by Misha of Mathilda from "Leon" ("The Professional") happened to be who Audrey dressed up as for Halloween this year (her boyfriend, photographer Bryan Cowe, went as Leon.) And perhaps if I followed her during opening night of the show, she would have walked past a Banksy—in the midst of a packed crowd that had to be mitigated as it quickly became a fire hazard, a line growing to two blocks, fans shaking with excitement to meet her, commenting on the (self-designed) lotus tattoo on her wrist, Audrey asked her boyfriend if he wanted to duck out for a walk. It was wholly Kawasakian.
I'm Lydia," to Audrey, throwing one hand up against my lips, the other gripping the millipede dangling from my hair, "One of your pieces." Her eyes widen with recognition. "Oh, oh, oh," (she has a tendency to repeat words like "Oh" and "Yeah" in the triple—when talking about her transported studio and the upcoming show, she says: "I'm still working. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Those are done, but for here I want to have other stuff.") Following her exclamations, she breaks out into a smile borrowed from one her pieces, a grin that is the combination of terror at this shirtless stranger with insects in his hair and appreciation at the three-dimensional realization of her artwork. I tell her I'm aware of her aversion of interviews and thought that she'd feel more comfortable talking to one of her pieces, "Though you seem most comfortable laughing at it." Audrey asks if it would be alright "I mean, if you'd be ok," for her to take a picture of me, and with me. This is Audrey: I dress up at one of her creations, crash her show, and she, self-consciously, asks if it would be alright taking photos of me. Before the actual interview begins, we have a few similar exchanges to this one:
Me: "Do you want to sit? I don't want you standing."
Audrey: "Do you? You can take a seat. Are you cold?"
Me: "I'm fine."
Audrey: "I'm ok. We can stand. No, I'm ok." [laughs]
I began asking her what not to ask her. With her tendency to smile and laugh when nervous (I'll still take it, I'm a laugh whore), but need to consider any question posited, she doesn't deny she dislikes interviews, "I just…the questions like 'What's the meaning of art?' how can you even answer that!" I assure her I won't ask that, or about her process. "Actually, process I don't mind." "OK, what's your process?" "I don't like talking about the mental process." "Tell me about the physical process, then." And it continues like this for 30 minutes as Audrey "yeah, yeah, yeahs," ponders the question, if not the answer, and intermittently laughs at my costuming as we move through all the quotes she gave above. Yeah, yeah, yeah—she hasn't done a lot of products — just Gelaskins (stickers made for laptops, iPods and cellphones,) but she plans on creating boxes and wooden jewelry, as she's begun working with laser-cut wood; "I never thought of that. Huh. Interesting"—over how movement is created by the about-to moments in her drawings; Laughs over my question "Why did you give Lydia such difficult hair?" before sobering up and thinking aloud, "The hair says something in my pieces. I think. I don't know. In this show, I played around with hair a lot." We're standing in front of that hung Ouija Board, an ideal location for Audrey to discuss herself and her work. All are places where life and death meet, a welcome center of contradictions. But part of the attraction is this not knowing, and just trusting in the magic. For Audrey, this means trusting The Kawasaki Girl will always be there. "I'm happy with her being there, nagging. If she did leave me, that would be the end of it." Audrey's eyes look up and to the left in thought. "Unless I found someone else." ■