The still paintings pulse with the hectic lifeforce of an animated GIF, seeming to burst from the walls of Viacom’s Times Square headquarters in a mesmerizing array of color and geometry.
The creation of Turkish-born, New York City based Ogulcan Kush (who goes by “OG”), the medley of precision-measured shapes and symbolism is a deliberate synthesis of Eastern, Islamic art and Western modern art. This fusion of artforms is both a tribute to OG’s principal influences and a therapeutic articulation of his frustration that his U.S. work visa will soon expire, forcing him to leave New York.
“I decided to be okay with leaving the U.S., and use whatever time I had left to react to the situation with my art,” OG told Art at Viacom, which is hosting the artist’s first solo U.S. exhibition, American Daydream.
The exhibit is a nice compendium of OG’s work and style – it incorporates legacy pieces and several works created specifically for this exhibit, including a large piece that he painted live outside of Viacom’s cafeteria over several days.
I spoke to OG just after Art at Viacom unveiled his exhibition last month. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Stuart Winchester: How did you connect with Viacom?
Ogulcan Kush: Last year, I was working on Tahiti Pearson’s Art at Viacom installation, and I met the team at the press party afterward. We met for drinks one night and I showed them my work, and they told me to come in for an interview. And I went in with my pitch ready and they were like, “So we would love to have you.”
SW: Take me through the process of working for Viacom from concept to actual installation.
OG: The people at Art at Viacom were super nice, super friendly. They couldn’t have been more helpful. After we booked the show, I finished two pieces specifically for the space. Then they wanted to incorporate a live painting into the show. They were really supportive of the art, not just established artists, but emerging artists doing a lot of work and trying to come up, so I really respect that.
SW: Which works did you complete specifically for this installation?
OG: There were three – one was the live painting, and the other two were the big painting, Introspection, and the LED piece, 48 Hours.
SW: Take me through the curation process a little bit – did you come in determined to make all of these paintings fit, or did you see the space and consider what would look best out of your current collection?
OG: The latter. I was familiar with the space from Tahiti’s show, but I knew that it wasn’t a classic, normal gallery space of white walls. It was huge in comparison. So I wanted to go big because I saw that as an opportunity. I had a series of work, Limitations, where I made 36 paintings, all eight inches by eight inches, all using only primary colors, a ruler, and a compass. And I had already made those 36 tiny paintings, and this was my chance to do something big.
SW: So had you accomplished your goal with the three-color palette and said, “I’m done with that,” or was it just too limiting for what you wanted to do with these new paintings?
OG: I didn’t want to stick with the primary colors for everything I did. I got what I wanted out of Limitations by using three colors, pushing the limits of my creativity to see if I could come up with 36 new designs. I thought that I would have run out of ideas. I think I got better, with that project, with learning how to not be all over the place, with the designs and the colors, so I was more careful and more conscious of picking my color palette.
SW: When you were choosing the subject of the live painting and the other two that you created for this exhibit, did you specifically try to complement the existing works, or was there something about the space that inspired you?
OG: For the big eight-by-eight painting, I decided to make a painting on a scale that I’d never done before. One of the designs I made for Limitations was a circle within a square within a circle within a square, going to as small as I could possibly go. And I thought that if I was ever to make a huge painting, I would try to blow that up as large as I could, because I thought that it would be really cool.
The live painting was more of an in-the-moment thing. I made a sketch of what I wanted to do for three, four days, and when I was set with the palette, I decided to make a bunch of sketches with those colors, and then I picked my favorite and started executing that one for the live painting. The time constraints stressed me out a little bit, but pressure makes diamonds and I think that’s one of the strongest pieces in the show.
SW: In your synopsis of your work, you describe this exhibit as a fusion of Eastern and Western influence. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
OG: Western culture is filled with iconography and symbols and figures and representations, but in the Eastern art, in Eastern religions – Islam specifically – the depiction of figures is not allowed. So when you go to a mosque, all you see is these geometric shapes and patterns that are supposed to elevate that, that are supposed to give you this euphoric feeling. So I combined where those two cultures overlap today and tried to combine the shapes and patterns that I was drawn to without being too complicated, because I’m so interested in minimalismto try and communicate to my audience.
SW: So you’ve described the process of creating art as calming or therapeutic. In one case you created the Limitations series to help you through a period of uncertainty about your work visa. How were you feeling as you created this exhibit? Which emotions drove you or were you trying to calm as you created these?
OG: This happened in such a short period of time, and I felt a burst of energy and excitement about finally being able to show all my work together in such a unique place, such a symbolic place in New York City.
SW: The Circus Dome piece is a little more complex than the others – it is three-dimensional, so it doesn’t look as though it was just created with a ruler and a compass. Is this an example of your work evolving?
OG: Circus Dome is a new direction that I’m getting into. I’m going from making paintings to making sculptures. But I don’t want to be all over the place all the time and be average at everything that I do. So Circus Dome is turning paintings into sculptural paintings, because it’s not quite a sculpture, it’s hung on the wall, and it’s still three dimensional, but technically so is a painting. First I had to design what Circus Dome is, but on a flat surface, basically like a painting, so it was like a red-and-white striped object coming together in the middle.
SW: This is your first solo exhibition in the U.S. How does it feel to break into this new, large market, and to do it in New York?
OG: It feels amazing. It may be intimidating for some people, because of the scale of the show, but for me, I was just psyched to be able to show before I leave New York, and I’m so excited to be working with such an amazing team. Everyone at Art at Viacom, they’re so interested in what they do, it’s not just a job for them. Like when we were shooting the promo video, everyone would come up to me, like, “why don’t we do this, or do that,” and it feels like it’s all a part of the creative process. Basically, there was no time to be intimidated about the show. It was just like a boom, boom, boom, three, four weeks of just work for hours and hours and I think it paid off.
SW: What does it tell you about a company like Viacom that they invest in these artist shows even though it’s outside of our core television business?
OG: I really respect it. It’s something I think other big companies should do. Not just having art in the space – I mean, there’s Ikea art everywhere, but it almost becomes wallpaper, a piece that means nothing to anyone. But when you have artworks on the wall that someone actually did with a purpose in mind and someone actually dedicated their life to do the things that they do, that’s amazing. It’s amazing that they give this chance to emerging artists.
SW: Last question, which I ask all the artists: do you have a favorite Viacom show?
OG: There’s so much that Viacom owns that I don’t know, that I may be missing something, but the shows on Nickelodeon. When I was growing up, Nick was always more edgy stuff, like Rocko’s Modern Life. And I saw that you were doing a movie, right?
SW: Yes, a TV movie. They crew comes back from space after two decades and there’s smartphones and 3D printing, and Rocko can’t deal with it.
Kush’s vibrant installation follows a parade of Art at Viacom projects: the rippling sculptures of Marela Zacarias, the bold metallic oil paintings of Kip Omolade, the geometric wizardy of Tahiti Pehrson, the cartoonishy wondrous works of Australian duo Dabs Myla, the mammoth swirling tablecloth sculptures of Crystal Wagner, the multicolored yarn meadows of HOTTEA, and massive ceiling-dangling floral display from Rebecca Louise Law. View an overview of all past displays here.