“A post-industrial Rococo master, Kris Kuksi obsessively arranges characters and architecture with an exquisite sense of drama. Instead of stones and shells he uses screaming plastic soldiers, miniature engine blocks, towering spires and assorted debris to form his landscapes. The political, spiritual, and material conflict within these shrines is enacted under the calm gaze of remote deities and August statuary. Kuksi manages to evoke, at once, a sanctum and a mausoleum for our suffocated spirit.” – Guillermo del Toro
It seems natural to feel a sense of peace and serenity when viewing one of Kris Kuksi’s sculptures from afar. They appear to be intricate gothic vistas—expansive and thoughtfully constructed landscapes from a time long passed. It is only when you observe Kuksi’s sculptural worlds more closely that you see the life and vitality they portray merging with darkness and chaos. There is a dark satire hidden in these works. The characters within seem as though they are struggling under the burden of their armory only to suddenly jump out with gusto, frantically stabbing and firing their miniature weapons. Human and bestial hybrids stalk the shadows, ambling with uncertainty. The larger figures who overlook this bizarre charade give a sly smile, knowing that they are in on a joke, and that you, the viewer, may take a while to get the punch line.
These pieces from Kris Kuksi are an allegory of the modern world. Depicting scenes of war, interspersed with religious and mythological iconography, Kuksi allows us to tap into our own Jungian archetype, be it the warrior, the hero, the villain, or the fool. We wonder how we can be at “war” with ourselves, with our environment, and why we often act the “fool” while pursuing material gains. Kuksi believes that the architecture of our social life has so many sharp angles that seem to pierce us. Not to mention the over-stimulating abundance of advertising and product placement that, everywhere, pollutes what our eyes behold. He believes that it is the modern world that bedevils us, and those places of retreat and solitude have become ever farther away. So, he finds his own creative solitude; constructing his sculptures with the post-industrial flotsam many of us would dismiss as trash. Mass-produced figurines, pop-culture refuse and small-scale models of historical figures inhabit Kuksi’s neoclassical realms. The enormity of the detail in Kuksi’s work, the incredible fusion of symmetry and chaos, and, the realization that this modern musing on our current state of affairs has all emerged from of the heart of the American mid-west certainly begs the question—Who is Kris Kuksi? What compels him to do what he does? And why do so many influential people, from so many different cultures and sub-cultures, find themselves in a fervor over his work?
Having grown up in rural America just north of Wichita, Kansas, everything in Kris Kuksi’s environment seemed unrelentingly ordinary. He felt that his life was pressured. He felt that, to blend in to this ordinary environment, he had to conform with what everyone else was doing. Kris’s mother worked hard to support him and his two brothers, who were ten and eleven years his senior. Kris spent numerous hours with his grandmother who always encouraged him to develop his imagination. He was constantly drawing pictures when he was young. Kris recalls making a mess on his grandmothers surplus stationary paper; an activity which fostered his love of drawing. He describes his grandmother as a very intelligent woman, who could have been a schoolteacher but instead chose to raise ten children. Kris refers to his mother as a wonderful woman; the kindest, sweetest person he has ever known. His father was absent, having left his mother soon after he was born for another woman. Kris believes that his coming into existence was an event neither parent intended.
While reflecting on the death of his father, Kris recalls that just a few hours after completing a painting workshop with Robert Venosa in Boulder, Colorado; he received a phone call from his sister-in-law who explained that his father had 72 hours to live. He was confronted with one of the most difficult questions he had ever faced – should he finally meet his biological father?
“My father was the polar opposite of my mother. All I heard of him were stories of alcoholism, mild insanity, and a constant urge to impress his friends with his gun collection and cannons. I never knew him nor spoke with him until his deathbed in November 2000 in the tiny town of Humansville, Missouri. He was an emaciated man, moaning in pain from progressive lung cancer, a gift from tobacco and a life long smoking habit. He lay on a hospital bed before me and I could only hold his hand and hear his moaning as though it were my own voice. I had no strength to say anything to him and he died a few hours later.” – KK
The passing of Kris’s father coinciding with his experiences at the painting workshop acted as a turning point. He had been inspired and had decided that he did not want to end up like his father; he wanted to make something of himself. Kris made a personal vow, declaring that he would put his every effort into becoming a successful artist.
As a child, Kris wanted to live in castles and fairy tales. Growing up in a rural area, he was sequestered from the usual activities of the city-dwelling children; he longed for what he did not have – cable television, for instance, or the opportunity to occasionally see a movie. Undoubtedly, one’s chance placement in the world directly affects what one is likely to become but Kris always felt that he was different. He was the outsider, a kid from the country always longing for his piece of the apparent abundance and culture of urban life. Having been isolated, largely as a result of his mother’s severe social phobias, he adopted his mother’s anxieties, which took years for him to overcome. Despite these difficulties and early feelings of isolation, Kris does not complain. What he has learned to value is hard work, service, and a sincere appreciation of life. This appreciation of life also encompassed a fascination with death. Living in the country so often brought Kris into contact with dead animals.
“Out of a feeling, as though I had lived centuries before in ancient Egypt, I built temples in honor of the dead, using bricks from a dilapidated barn. Oh yes, I was a strange kid, but one who truly wanted to be normal.” – KK
As Kris grew into a teenager and began his high school years, he found himself occupied with art class and his first introduction to painting. Although he was already known for being significantly advanced in his drawing abilities, he was now able to develop his painting skills. In the eyes of his classmates, he became a star. Though gradually gaining recognition for his talents from his peers, Kris’ family life was spent in a near state of seclusion. Throughout his adolescence Kris was surrounded by Catholic idealism and parents who monitored his every move. His mother and stepfather suffered from social phobias, which meant that Kris was rarely taken vacation nor given the opportunity to eat at restaurants. Mass was attended at six a.m. on Sunday and confession was performed once a month.
“In my adult life I wound up the opposite of my folks, wanting to travel the world and see things and rebel against religious ideals that I had felt alienated me from the unique things in life.” – KK
Kris describes his art teacher, Joe Pfannenstiel, as the angel who encouraged him to pursue his art career and attend college; which was something Kris’s family had a hard time imagining. With the confidence of his high school art teacher and the encouragement of his peers, Kris did just that. He was accepted into Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, where he successfully completed both a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree in painting. He then travelled halfway across the globe to immerse himself in the techniques of the Old Masters of Italy and Austria.
“My early paintings and mixed-media assemblages represent the apex of the discovery of myself as an artist. At first, it was hard to accept that I was really a builder and not a painter. If you turn me loose in a museum, I will find where the European sculptures are on the map. Italian Renaissance sculpture is what holds my greatest appreciation and respect – Bernini being my ultimate hero.” – KK
Kuksi has said that his best ideas come to him at five in the morning after working through the night. Just before he drifts off to sleep, the ideas emerge as a snapshot image. He has often wondered what arouses such impulses – perhaps, he somehow transforms into an antenna, receiving transmissions from the neither-world. His dreams are always monochromatic yet these visions appear in vibrant colour. Even though they only last for a split second, he can recall every detail.
“I always start with the blinking light of an idea, then i sketch it out and gather the materials to create. I use just about anything that could work for the sake of the overall effect. Model parts, toys, wood, plastic, metal, you name it. I arrange it all, cut them up, behead them, burn them, glue them all together, and paint them. I don’t use real skeletons…yet!” – KK
Kuksi’s satirical sculptures are designed to challenge the viewer. They are full of grim prediction and hopeful possibility. Each one of us carries complex behavioral constructs, which Kuksi attempts to express by distorting the figures in his works. Many of his figural forms carry cumbersome objects and containers wrapped around their waists: “emotional baggage.” He is also intrigued by the thought processes of humans as we often seem so focused on ourselves. Most of the characters in his works act as though they are exclusively occupied by their own thoughts. They appear completely self-absorbed, perhaps daydreaming, and oblivious to the chaos that surround them.
“I was interested in the mystification of religion and Catholicism as a child. Later in life, I realized that the church was against many other ways of life, cultures, other religions, and beliefs and that instead of spreading peace and love, it often promotes hate and discrimination. Yet it isn’t just Catholicism. Many other religions share the same view. I realised that I had become friends with the people that these institutions were against, or at least had directed motives and were loaded with ultimatums. And so my Churchtank was an inventive way for me to express the aggression of these churches in a rather serious but satirical way.” – KK
Kris believes that, despite all of man’s achievements, none of these are of greater importance than nature itself. Our minds, full of vices and discriminations, must take a little step back and reflect; if only to save ourselves. Many of us exist in a make-believe world and choose to pursue a decadent lifestyle. We tamper with nature. Such play is fine until someone gets hurt. Humans have tinkered with, crippled, and then attempted to heal our fragile planet without thinking about the repercussions. We bite the hand that feeds us; we hurt ourselves in pursuit of greater satisfaction. Kuksi believes that it comes down to effort and motivation. Will humans continue to choose what comes most easily, or will they strive for what is better in the long run, even though it seems harder for the moment?
“It is easier, I guess, for us to postpone our efforts until tomorrow than to grapple today with even the most urgent threats to our survival. Every morning humanity must wake up with a bad feeling, just remembering all it is avoiding.” – KK
Kuksi chooses to live in Kansas – such an incongruous spot for an enlightened artist! Where Evolution is a four-letter word and where the Reverend Fred Phelps thinks homosexuality is a deliberately chosen, diabolically wicked life style – much like choosing to be a Democrat. But, perhaps folks like Kris Kuksi are needed in such locations. Geographically, any show he has done in North America has turned out to be at least 25 driving hours away. It is easy to image Kansas as flat and uneventful. There are vast fields of prairie grass, scattered buffalo, and the never-ending stretch of the I-70. No distraction of beautiful mountain vistas or relaxing beaches. The lack of such diversions allows Kuksi to spend long hours in his studio, where he builds his anti-modern-culture creations, 3D social commentaries and metaphorical war zones.
“Although fighting and violent conflict has existed for millennia, it is natural; humans fight and animals do too. However, humans have a choice and, more significantly, we have a desire to live in peace and harmony. Yet as time shows, even the doctrines we employ for the sake of peace are inevitably ridden with conflict, contradiction and disagreement. With today’s current wars there is a trend through media that encourages and forces a continual reliance on fear and blind irresponsibility. On a more personal level, and where I believe it all begins, is the internal struggle. We fight wars within our own minds, and with this, we create tension and bring it into reality.” – KK
Kris Kuksi’s sculptures have impressed and intrigued a great many people. His works reside in the collections of notable public figures such as Guillermo del Toro (film director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy), Fred Durst (musician and film director), Chris Weitz (film director of The Golden Compass and American Pie), and Mark Parker (Nike CEO). In fact, Mark Parker was so enamored by Kuksi’s sculptures that he handed over a “blank check” commission with the only instruction being – “Do something huge!”
It is not only Kuksi’s sculptures that have gained recognition and praise. Meeting George Guillaume was the catalyst for Kuksi to create a painting that would end up in a public collection with some of the finest portraiture displayed in the United States. George was a transient character who Kris had the pleasure of meeting at the local library one evening. His long gray beard, bald head and heavily worn clothing gave the impression that he had walked straight out of biblical times. Kris had always found his look intriguing and felt that he would make a compelling subject for a portrait. Having already seen him around town on several occasions, he decided to approach George. That evening, amongst the bookshelves, he introduced himself and asked George if he would like to be immortalized as the subject of his next piece. “How much does it cost?” He responded. With laughter, Kris answered, “It’s free, George.”
The twinkle in George’s eyes was infectious and that was the beginning of a very special and unique friendship. With George’s permission, Kris completed a very small six by six inch acrylic portrait that was later accepted into a prestigious and highly selective exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“I’m very self-critical and rarely pat myself on the back. I accomplish things very well, but I never spend too much time enjoying them. I have to do more; it is, eventually, all leading to that grand pinnacle somewhere in my future. However, maybe it is only to inspire people to change things in this world” – KK
Kris Kuksi is a phenomenon. He is highly skilled in drawing, painting and sculpture. He forms equally strong bonds with enigmatic film directors, influential businessmen, celebrated actors, popular musicians and the locals in his community. His artwork has garnered awards and has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. His art has been featured in international art magazines, on album and book covers and used for theatrical posters.
Throughout his work and his life, Kuksi demonstrates that two conflicting concepts can be connected and still show symmetry and harmony. The light shines through the dark. We can learn about the intricacies of human nature through mechanical debris. An individual can make connections with the poverty-stricken as well as the abundantly wealthy. Religious icons can coexist with mythological creatures. Modern toys can be reconfigured to look like ancient artifacts. A war tank can masquerade as a church. And, a kid from small-town Kansas can grow up and reach the world.