Illustrator Von talks about the art of contemplation, the muse for his new show at London’s KK Outlet
You can count on your hand the number of illustrators with rock star appeal, but Von is one of them. And it’s not just the single-name handle (or the Gosling-good looks). Von’s pencil works, poignantly fractured with digital interference, have appeared at London’s Design Museum, Colette and the green room of Late Night with Seth Meyers. He’s drawn Philip Seymour Hoffman for the New Yorker, Kim Jong Un for Time and, memorably, a chimpanzee in brogues for the cover Wallpaper*, when designer Philippe Starck guest-edited the magazine in 2009.
Von’s latest project is self-initiated, a response to the contemporary society we all live in. It’s his way of mourning the lost art of contemplation - a condition, he believes, that is being usurped by technology. The invasion of smartphones, tablets and social networking into our daily routines has made moments of pure thought all the more exceptional, extraordinary, beautiful.
The artist’s surreal portraits capture some of those fleeting moments. The digitally manipulated black-and-white pencil drawings are based on a series of photographs by Dan Sully, his collaborator in this exhibition, titled ’Elsewhere’. The artworks - along with four limited-edition posters designed by Hort, Non-Format, David Pearson and Darren Firth - will be on display throughout May at KK Outlet in Hoxton Square, London.
We caught up with London-based Von ahead of the opening of his show...
Wallpaper*: What was the inspiration for this new collection of work?
Von: The show’s concept stems from catching sight of someone in a café or office window, while walking in central London, who is totally enveloped in their own world. It is such a rare, momentary and, on some level, personal thing to witness, it really stuck in my mind. Moments to ourselves are becoming rare, particularly when we live in a city, as we are constantly bombarded by advertising and we seem to instinctively reach for our smartphones whenever there’s a few seconds to kill because sharing our day-to-day events online is almost a pressure. This made witnessing people’s lost moments such a fantastic and fragile thing. The 22 original works created for the exhibition explore visually that involuntary process of slipping away from our surroundings, appearing to others to be completely elsewhere.
What is your relationship with the photographer Dan Sully?
I’ve known Dan for a couple of years now through a mutual friend. He’s primarily a director and I’ve long been a fan of his moving image work but last year I stumbled across one of his personal photography projects of people on night buses and it really caught my attention. It struck a chord with the ideas I had been bashing around - not least a slightly voyeuristic fascination with people when they’re totally zoned out. So when I decided that I wanted to work with a photographer to create reference imagery from scratch, I knew Dan was the man to go to.
You mention you set out to depict subjects lost in a moment - yet the photographs were staged. How did you manage to pull out the spontaneity from that?
It was always going to be tricky in terms of executing that element of the concept entirely at the shoot. In reality it is in the drawing process that the concept is fully realised rather than at the shoot but we did a few things to ease things along a little. For example we’d get the model into position and then ask them to relax slowly from there, while Slowdive’s album ’Pygmalion’ was on repeat, which I think zoned everyone out by the end of the day.
Pencil is your medium of choice. Is that a reaction to modern technology? A hangover from youth?
There’s a lot I like about pencil - in particular devising new ways to test the limits of such a simple medium. Leading up to the show, there was a lot of experimentation with the mark-making processes and techniques, the majority of which made it through into the final artwork to one degree or another.
On the subject of subjects... how do you ’cast’ them? Are they all personal acquaintances?
Yes, the subjects for the shoot were a mixture of friends and acquaintances - a model, musician, actress, writer [Wallpaper* editor-at-large Henrietta Thompson] and choreographer.
What has been your reaction to seeing the pieces go up on the walls of KK Outlet?
An enormous sense of relief. Now I’m really excited to find out what people think about it and where this will takes me.