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Friday evening marked the debut of J★RYU's first solo show at Rotofugi in Chicago, entitled "The Ghost of You Haunted Me," which runs through September 30th and takes place alongside Luke Chueh's I Am Your Plaything exhibition. The Ghost of You Haunted Me encompasses 18 original works, which culminate a couple years of work for the North Carolina-based artist and include elaborate scenes comprised of materials like polymer clay, resin, acrylics, epoxy, and metal. Several of the pieces are still available for purchase from Rotofugi, though some have already been snatched up.
J★RYU was in attendance on Friday, so between his chatting with and sketching custom vinyl designs for attendees, I took the opportunity to speak with the rising artist about doing his first solo exhibition, the themes explored in the work, and what's on the horizon for him.
How does it feel to be doing your first show, especially here in Chicago at Rotofugi?
It's amazing, because I used to be a customer of theirs for a long time, so I've known Whitney and Kirby for years. I was buying from them, and to actually show at Rotofugi is amazing. It's very surreal, you know? I never thought I would be in a position to show as a featured artist in these galleries. Coming from North Carolina, everything is far away. MunkyKing is far away. PinkGhost was far away, and myplasticheart. And now that I'm a contributor to the scene, it's humbling. That's the best word I can use.
Are you still based out of North Carolina?
I am, but I'm moving to Los Angeles in January. We're setting up the Army of Snipers headquarters there, and we actually just signed the lease yesterday. I'll be staying with Aaron Martin (Angry Woebots), my manager Paulie, and another Sniper that's based out of Raleigh right now named Matt Curran, who's a stencil artist. We're all going over there to set up shop and start turning Army of Snipers more into a reliable economic, as well as altruistic organization, to use art in a way to leverage verticals for ourselves and help others with our presence around the world. Especially coming off of the Little Lotus project in December, so that's going to be cool.
Can you tell me about your exhibition here?
Sure. The show is called "The Ghost of You Haunted Me." It's basically a culmination of all of the themes and elements that I've been presenting in my custom work. I started off in the custom realm, but I never felt like I was part of it, because I look at the platforms as more of an armature; so if I could impart some of my sensibility into those customs, I would. But I think [this original work was done] in an effort to create a more cohesive storyline, because a lot of people consider me a sculptor, but I don't feel like I am one. I just use sculpture or painting to facilitate the storytelling.
In my work, it's not about the technical prowess; it's if I can convey emotive or narrative elements through the pieces. I know as a sculptor it's very easy to sometimes get caught up in the technical aspects of completing something perfect. As long as someone looks at it and recognizes that it's a ghost, or a rock, or a tree – they get the idea. The harder part to me is, "How do you impart emotion to a non-sentient environment?" You have to create it from scratch; you have to mimic what we feel and then convey it into your pieces.
Through this show, I hope that all of the elements that people have seen in my work have coalesced into a more cohesive and tightly wound story that I've been percolating for the last couple of years. There's no custom work – it's all original stuff, and they're all part of what I call "The Forest of Sorrows," which is a story that I've kind of been slowly coalescing.
Do you feel like this is going to be the culmination for you of the storyline? Will you be moving on to something new, a different kind of endeavor?
Well, the artistic side of me wants to explore other things, whether it's fetish or Japanese-style mecha. A lot of people think I'm emo, but I listen to mostly metal. So there's more of an edge to the stuff I want to do, and this scene… a lot of it is dominated by cute. [Artists like] Shawnimal and my homey Scott Tolleson – they're doing really cool objects. What I want to do is sort of bring more of a sculptural element, that's more like Sideshow Collectibles and McFarlane Toys, the kind of things that I grew up with.
But the pragmatic side of me understands that after this show, if people like what they see, that there's going to be more of me that's going to be associated with this particular aesthetic. It started off as a cathartic kind of release for me to do this subject matter, but now I have the storyline that will help carry it through, rather than being continually a reflection of how I feel. A lot of the work that people might have seen before from me was really an indication of where I was mentally and emotionally. But because of the storyline, I now have a different reason for continuing it, if I should choose.
And some of the elements will still be seen. The 10th anniversary Scarygirl show on October 31 in New York, which Nathan Jurevicius has curated – he asked almost 100 artists to participate, and it was really rad. To have someone like Nathan, who is so accomplished at what he's done, ask me to contribute my take on his characters… it's like, my fanboy type of thing. The Tree Dweller from back in the day was one of my favorite toys, and that's actually the piece I'll be doing, in my style.
The Saplings will also continue to be released, but I'll probably be moving on to other things that pique my interest, especially larger scale. I'm known for creating really small, diorama-esque type of pieces – and physically it's hard. I'm getting old, you know? I've had to use a jeweler's eyepiece, and I want to work bigger, because I have a problem with the collecting mentality sometimes. I feel that the way people collect these days with colorways and things like that is such that you start losing the individuality of the pieces. And when people display them… you just start stacking them, and you might do it by artist or color, but it starts losing the individuality of the pieces.
My pieces are designed to be in their own environment, so that when people see it and really like it, they'll think of a specific place in their home that they can integrate it into their lifestyle. I think that's very important for me to continue to do, so with my new work, it will also reflect that type of mentality. So it's not just art for the sake of art: it's also art that can be helping someone transcend the mundaneness of what we're being offered in terms of housing or lodging. I like it, but I'm not a person that creates cool characters, and then it's on to the next cool character, and there's no cohesion or no relationship there. I'm more interested in created universes or bodies of work that thematically share the same aesthetic or tone.
How does it feel to be showing alongside Luke Chueh here at Rotofugi?
Well, Luke's a really close friend of mine. Rotofugi originally asked him to do the show, but since it's a rather large space, he wasn't sure that he could fill it. So he presented a list of artists that he would be happy to show with; I was on the list, and Rotofugi looked it over and they were like, "Yeah, J★RYU would be a good person to complement him."
Because I think both of our work has emotive and narrative qualities to it. When you look at one of Luke's paintings, they always tell a little wry story, these kind of poignant glimpses into his perspective as an artist, as an Asian American, as a recovering addict – they're very unique situations from him. But to be showing with him… I don't think it's really sunk in, because I talk to him all the time and to me he's like my little brother. But I think the relevance of it will sink in later.
It's like a wedding. They always say that you won't remember your wedding because it's a whirlwind. I think this night has gone by so fast, and I've had people drive in five hours to come in and just talk – and I was that guy. I was known to fly into New York just to see a homey and enjoy his show. And to be on this side, again, it's just humbling to think that someone would even buy a piece of mine, because I know what it took to make it.
I toiled in obscurity in a vacuum in North Carolina by myself, and to know that it speaks to someone means I'm actually not alone in these feelings and these ideas. That someone else out there feels it to the point where they'd actually spend their hard-earned money is a very powerful feeling that I haven't been able to process, even two and a half years after I sold my first piece. I think about it a lot.
It's definitely an honor, though, to be associated or be considered a colleague or peer of someone like Luke, who has accomplished so much. Or even the crew that I roll with, like Angry Woebots, Scribe, Sket One, Shane Jessup, Ritzy Periwinkle, Pixel Pancho; these guys… they're just killing it. And for them to consider me a colleague, as well, it reaffirms the motivation when I'm tired, and I ask myself, "What's more important, your physical feeling of wanting to go sleep, or is it because you truly have that passion?" In the process, it reaffirms to me that it's not just a lark. I have to do it, whether I'm getting paid or being shown. It's intrinsically a part of who I am.