Ken Okiishi


When you face a wall of Ken Okiishi’s new paintings for the Whitney Biennial, you don’t quite know where to look. The works—oil paint on flat-screen TV monitors—present a puzzle: Spectral brushwork gleams on a glass surface while noisy video gibbers and glitches on-or under-the screen. The television monitors are hung vertically, further disorienting a viewer’s relationship to the video image.

Okiishi’s breakout 2010 film work (Goodbye to) Manhattan was a fantastical reimagining of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) that layered footage from the iconic film with magical green-screen scenes starring Okiishi’s closest friends—most notably his partner, the artist Nick Mauss—stuttering through Google-translated German-to-English dialogue like the glamorous bohemian grandchildren of Max Headroom adrift in Berlin. His latest productions increase that sense of tension and translation. He even exacerbates the contrast between video and paint, applying conventional brushstrokes of traditional oil paints directly over flickering, pinkish video footage digitized from deteriorating VHS tapes. Okiishi, however, manages to pull off harmonies as well as disruptions: green- and blue- screen colors painted over glowing blue screens, fleshy pinks on top of a public-access tape of shirtless young men in a choreographed Chinese New Year dance. Not surprisingly, much of Okiishi’s work circulates online: Google his name, and images of his 2013 Frieze Projects commission in London appear, in which robots messily shoot paintballs at canvases, effectively creating a live spectacle for the crowds, who proceeded to catch the act with their camera phones. “My specific interest is the perception that when you’re seeing something on the screen, you’re seeing the real thing,” Okiishi says. “People considering print media in the past had the same kind of questions about aura,” he says. “I had already been making straight video works, and then I asked, ‘What if I move even further outside of the screen and work on top of the screen?’ “

Born in Iowa in 1978, Okiishi studied art at Cooper Union with Hans Haacke and Doug Ashford, professors for whom, he recalls, the social, theoretical, and formal were inseparable. His Whitney debut takes place simultaneous to his solo show at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, where his impressionistic paintings float over infomercials, celebrity news, and late-night cable TV—an ultimately nostalgic meditation on the strange place of the analog gesture in a digital age.

For more from the 2014 Whitney Biennial, click here.