Monsters attack from all sides at artist Brian Kokoska's studio. The life-sized canvases that ring the room rumble with claws, breasts and maws. Rendered in a shifting palette of pinks, greens, blues and the occasional flash of cadmium, his malformed figures seem to exist in a constant dream (nightmare?) state—suspended between reality and the sublime. Stare too long or get too close, they tend to gobble you up.
Tall with bleached tips and bright eyes, Kokoska looks at home amongst his demons and their organized chaos. The 27-year-old lives in Midtown but commutes daily to Brooklyn, so one doesn't need to guess where he might find disorderly inspiration. Devilishly charming, Kokoska is a living extension of his art. His calamitous compositions land somewhere between Philip Guston, Dana Schutz, and Helmut Middendorf. Like Guston and Schutz, Kokoska's work manages a certain tenderness amidst its satanic overtones.
When I arrive, Kokoska hands me a water bottle. Needless to say, hell is hot. A wall of windows turns his studio into an impromptu solarium but also provides the necessary light for the long hours he spends toiling. Unlike his semi-skilled peers, Kokoska doesn't sketch out his paintings beforehand; he completes them over a couple of intensive days or weeks. "These ones happened really naturally, I like that bettter," he says. Each piece is stretched and worked on solely by Kokoska, so the final piece operates under the same auspices as Abstract Expressionism: action, reaction. The artist's labor, both cognitive and physical, sits on the surface. The work is unabashedly instinctual to emphasize the visceral qualities of oil paint. "I tried to make an acrylic painting on canvas once. It wasn't for me," he says.
Symbols that Kokoska habitually returns to—dice, numbers, bones—appear like constellations out of the gestural strokes. These are the points one uses to orient themselves in a frenetic world. Eights are especially prevalent; sometimes they look like infinity signs. "They are more OCD obsessive things that I think about all the time than about symbolism," he says of the compulsive repetitions.
Trauma Sauna, his upcoming exhibition at ASHES/ASHES gallery in LA, will show these new paintings alongside sculptures by other artists. When conceptualizing an exhibition, Kokoska prefers to keep walls and floors activated even if that means relinquishing a bit of the spotlight. "I like to include other artists when it works. It's absorbing them into my work," Kokoska says. "This time around since the paintings were so figurative that I wanted to find monochromatic sculptures, something simple."
For ASHES/ASHES, Kokoska selected Neighbor by Ben Stone, but at his studio, a blackened cast of Popeye's Olive Oyl stands guard—Kokoska decapitated her. Her headless form wears her globular skull like a ball and chain. "The cast comes in the right colors, she was wearing a red dress," he says standing over the body. "I like her face. She looks like she is chewing tobacco or smirking." Olive Oyl isn't Kokoska's first venture into figurative sculpture. He's transformed a handful of pop culture characters into gargoyles and hints that he has many more up his sleeve. Everything that he touches gets remade to fit into his world.
His exhibitions are often conceived of as holistic installations. Sometimes he paints the walls, sometimes he coats the floor. His color schemes are often monochromatic—they treat the white cube like a theater. His cartoonish compositions become the characters in his dark comedies.
Kokoska's black humor is catching on. While he couldn't yet divulge much—not on the record, at least—the young artist has a busy couple of years ahead. In September, in addition to Trauma Sauna, Kokoska will be participating in Reality Bytes, a group show at the Frank F. Yang Art and Education Foundation in Shenzhen, China, curated by Goedele Bartholomeeusen, alongside other young artists like Meriem Bennani.
The longer I stay in Kokoska's studio the more friendly his beasts become. Their toothy smiles, moon-faced silhouettes and pointy nipples are increasingly appealing. The acerbic greens, muddy blues and meaty pinks are soothing. Like a Barry Hannah short story, Kokoska's gothic relies on the spookiness of the familiar reimagined as the perverse. Waiting for the subway, one favorite story came to mind, Julio Cortazar's Axototl, the story of a man whose manic obsession and identification with a curious creature turned him into one.