"It was a good representation of all these things that interest me."
Back in his LA art studio Kour Pour has giant wooden platforms that he lays out on the floor. He covers the platforms with vinyl and draws an abstract jigsaw puzzle based on earthquake maps of Tokyo that Pour sourced from the Geological Survey of Japan. The vinyl is coated with ink, and using a contraption he built himself, Pour and an assistant apply canvas to the drawing.
This is Pour’s modern-day version of Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking.
“It’s a really physical process,” says Pour, 31. “It’s two guys on top of the canvas. There is a lot of weight and you apply this pressure. You get these cracks and fissures that move and shift and it clings and builds up. It is very planned, but the result every time, you don’t know how it will come out. It’s been a really fun thing to figure out.”
The native of Exeter, England brings a collection of his striking abstract prints as well as exquisitely detailed screen paintings to THE CLUB at Ginza Six for his first solo exhibit in Japan. It is his second overall after appearing in a group exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum two years ago.
Pour’s vibrant works explore the themes of migration, travel and cultural exchange, a byproduct of his multicultural upbringing. His mother is a native Brit who grew up moving from foster home to foster home before landing in Exeter. His father, a native of Iran, was 14 when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 came to a violent end. His family told him they were sending him away to school in England. He never returned home.
Growing up, neighbors in his hometown asked Pour where he came from. He celebrated Christmas and Persian New Year. He regrets that his father was too busy working two jobs to teach him his native Farsi tongue.
His father owned a storefront that revolved from a sandwich shop to ice cream stand to a short stint as a rug shop. Family in Iran shipped bundles of Persian rugs to be sold. Pour recalls stacks of unsold carpets sitting around the house.
During his final year at Otis College of Art and Design, Pour visited a carpet display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The experience inspired him to begin using the Persian carpet motif throughout his artwork.
“I was really interested in the rug as an object that starts in one place. It is made there, then it is exported. It moves around the world,” he says. “Then you have the different designs and patterns. Those are also influenced by preference of where the rugs are being sent, or what cultures have come in and influenced the designs. I think it was a good representation of all these things that interest me.”
The day after he arrived in Tokyo, the affable and sincere artist was at THE CLUB at 5am setting up his exhibit. A few hours later, Pour sat down with Tokyo Weekender for an interview.
What makes you excited to come back to Tokyo?
Tokyo is one of the most populated cities in the world, but somehow there is a calmness to it. In New York it is just a shit show. Get me out of here. Here there are even more people and it seems to work. My personality responds to the way things are made here and the way people are here.
Please tell me about the collection you brought to Tokyo, the Returnee series.
When I was here last time I met a friend who is Japanese, and she was telling us, I don’t remember the word in Japanese, but it translates as returnee, which is someone who has lived somewhere else and returned back to the country, and they see things differently…. It is my first time coming back, so I am the returnee. Also, looking at what I do, I am always returning. I am always looking at things that informed painting or art in general. The idea of something being new is kind of difficult. It’s not the right word. It’s things being built upon other things. Being conscious of that is important. Oftentimes when we say something is new it disregards everything that came before, which I think is problematic.
I am curious about your Tokyo Map pieces. They are based off of earthquake and volcanic maps.
Obviously I changed the colors, but [the maps] just have this appearance of abstract painting, and I really like that this abstraction is supposed to represent a city or a place. I think it’s so hard to depict a place, so I think abstraction is maybe a good idea. Your Tokyo is different from everyone else’s Tokyo. And thinking of landscape and place, Persian carpets are designed to be aerial views of landscapes or gardens, and these are the same. Aerial views looking down. I really like that perspective.
You were introduced to ukiyo-e and Japanese art when you were in university, and your themes really have to do with immigration, emigration and migration. Ukiyo-e is almost static. It’s typically about Japanese landscapes. How do you see that as a marriage? How is that style a fit for your theme?
There’s a lot of things going on. In the 1800s you see the ukiyo-e prints of American and European traders coming in on ships, and it’s like this record of Japanese depicting foreigners, which is really interesting because I haven’t seen a lot of images of the West being depicted. It’s always the West depicting the other. Also, again, the ukiyo-e print, it’s like the carpet. It is made here, and it is embedded in certain traditions, and then it gets exported to other places. Obviously the famous example is ukiyo-e was sent to France, and inspired the Impressionists.
You put an emphasis on the viewer of your work. When you bring this abstract ukiyo-e to Japan, did you have reservations about how Japanese would receive your style?
My studio is in Inglewood, which is really close to LAX, so I get a lot of visitors from out of town. It’s really interesting to see how they respond to what body of work. I had made this piece, a screen painting, and my American friend said, ‘I hate it.’ Then I had a Chinese visitor who said, ‘This screen painting is the best painting you have made.’ It is interesting for me to put something out there and see how someone will respond to it based on their personal history or their culture. Here in Japan not everyone is going to react to it the same way. We will see how people respond to these. I have a show in San Francisco right now, so it will be interesting to see how the response there is compared to Tokyo. It is kind of great that it is happening at the same time. For me that is exciting. I don’t have the answers, otherwise that would be boring. What would be the point?
Some of your earlier work was based off the merchants traveling the silk road. Does your new Mystic Wave series follow similar themes?
Before I was just interested in putting images together and seeing what would happen. Now, I am thinking there is more of a theme to each painting. In the past I have made paintings that definitely have this idea of movement, of travel or migration, where you have figures moving through a landscape. This one you have the wave, which you see everywhere. We have bowls at home that have this pattern. You will see it in fashion. It’s that idea again of something being taken and turned into something new. How it changes and how the meaning changes over time.
On the theme of transiency, why is that something that is important to you?
All of my friends in LA are from elsewhere. I have a Korean friend from Chile. His first languages are Korean and Spanish. He and I will go to a Mexican restaurant and they will speak to me in Spanish, and he will respond. When I grew up, I looked a certain way and people assumed something about me that was actually incorrect. I do think about identity a lot, but I think sometimes people get carried away focusing on my Iranian heritage. ‘He makes Persian carpets,’ but I think it’s more about the movement and being mixed race and moving through life that way and how I can have a similar experience to you. We are from totally different backgrounds but we probably have a lot in common, in terms of moving to someplace new, being uncomfortable, learning new things. I like that, because it doesn’t separate people. It connects people because it is based on an experience you have, rather than how you look, or where you are from, or what language you speak.
Not only in America, but worldwide, there is this rise of the nationalism sentiment. Do you feel that art is even more important?
It is. But art can also be used in that way, too. There are traditions of art being manipulated to represent nationalism. We have to think about that carefully. That’s why diversity in art is really important. You have to represent different types of people. We have to think about that. At the end of the day they are just paintings. You should just enjoy them, their color and texture. But somehow it ends up with these conversations…. I have always made work like this, and then in the past few years things changed a lot. I don’t know if it was intended to be political, but people are going to put that onto the work. That is not in my control. That’s okay. That maybe takes me in a new direction. I like that. That’s how life is.
Do you see many Middle Eastern artists breaking into the scene?
No, not really. I think the last, I saw (Iranian visual artist) Shirin Neshat in LA earlier last year. She debuted a new video work of hers. There are a few Iranian friends in LA, younger, that are making art that are starting to have shows. It’s funny right now in the States because obviously there is a lot happening politically and they talk about diversity, but I find sometimes that it is not as diverse as it could be. It is slowly getting better.
Are there any modern Japanese artists that you are keeping an eye on?
Artists like (Kazuo) Shiraga, I really love. That’s action painting. I know Jackson Pollock is action painting, but I think Shiraga should be kind of, when you think of action painting, it should be him. Every time you see his paintings there is so much energy, you feel it. Then when I started art school in 2007 at LA at The Museum of Contemporary Art, there was a (Takashi) Murakami exhibition, a retrospective. It was his earlier work, so you see him working through different styles. At LA we are lucky because we have Blum & Poe, and a gallery called Nonaka-Hill, and right before we came to Tokyo they had a show of Japanese art from the 1980s and ‘90s. One massive yellow sculpture was done by Noburu Tsubaki, and then Yukinori Yanagi. [He makes] these flags made of sand, and then the ants are crawling through them. I love these, because for me the flags represent a place, and then the ants are crawling through, almost traveling through them like breaking the border. I am excited because I saw the Mori Art Museum is having an exhibit with lots of Japanese artists and the [Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo] reopened and so I am excited to find more artists I am not familiar with. It’s exciting for me. I tend to be interested in what is happening everywhere else in the world apart from just America and Europe.
Kour Pour’s exhibition at THE CLUB runs through June 12.