Devon Tsuno’s view on Los Angeles
by Bernarda Carranza
photography by Keenan Gilson
A dark toxic fog filled the streets of Los Angeles and a cloud of chaos took over, condensing all the rage, hatred and mayhem into the city’s atmosphere. Store owners helplessly watched their businesses burn, disintegrating their life’s work into ashes. Lootings, murders and arsons were a daily happening, and violence was the engine that fueled it. The rioters had long forgotten why they were protesting. It was 1992, Los Angeles was on fire, and the smell of anarchy filled the air.
The L.A. riots were a turning point for a then 12-year-old Devon Tsuno. Now, 22 years later, Devon is an artist, art curator and University of La Verne professor. He starts the first day of class with a presentation of his own work and an aerial photograph of Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. His art work is heavily influenced by this moment in California history. “My work has a lot to do with the people, about the beauty of how that works, how it’s chaotic, but there’s still some kind of beautiful harmony,” Devon says. Behind a pair of black-framed glasses, hair carefully slicked to the right, knee-length khaki shorts and a checkered plaid shirt is an artist who holds a hard-edged, abstract view of L.A.
Growing up, Devon was submerged in the art world. He lived five minutes away from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and spent summers going to drawing classes there. His father studied sculpture and furniture design at Otis College of Art and Design. His mother studied painting and drawing at California State University. The art scene was an everyday setting for Devon, a part of his life, but not something forced upon him. “I don’t think my parents ever wanted me to be an artist. I think they were just happy to see that I was interested in it,” he says. However, Devon found a small handmade box he made when he was 3. It contained a glimpse of the future, a piece of paper where he wrote what he would grow up to be. “I don’t remember thinking that I was going to be an artist as a child but I guess I did. I wrote it down. But you know kids,” Devon says. “They write that they want to be astronauts or this and that. But I don’t think they take it to heart.” He did.
He attributes the real moment, however, to when he graduated high school. Devon was enrolled in rigorous music training from a young age. He played the trumpet and French horn, but after high school he made a distinct choice. “I felt like I had kind of plateaued (in music), because I wasn’t actually feeling like I was very creative making music. I was more trained,” he says. He chose visual art instead. “It was more mysterious to me, and I also had less preconceived notions of what being an artist was,” he adds. Devon attended California State University in Long Beach, where he received his bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and drawing. He made a strong connection there with an artist and professor, Linda Day. She emphasized the idea of community and the importance of learning through the peer system. This notion has stuck with Devon throughout his life and influences the art he chooses to create. “Ultimately even as my work changes, the undertone of everything is the community that I am around, where I grew up, the people I work with, the people I want to support and my students,” he says.
As an undergraduate student he was interested in learning about all types of art, different techniques, materials and ways of communicating art. His view was broad, and he was interested in the big picture. But once he continued his education at Claremont Graduate University he became more interested in developing a singular voice and style that was particular to him. He earned his master of fine arts degree in 2005 in painting and drawing. With both degrees and a great amount of knowledge in art, Devon moved on to develop professional work and paintings that portrayed his personal voice.
It is not hard to spot a Tsuno original. His pieces contain a variety of colors, layers and textures, and the landscapes and water bodies of Los Angeles find themselves plastered on his prints. “They are incredibly deep because often he overlaps forms, shapes and textures,” says University of La Verne art history professor Jon Leaver. “There are these surfaces that kind of rise and fall and shimmer and overlap each other and end up this incredibly compressed set of textures. They are incredibly complex and creative as a way of life.”
Devon chooses spray paint and acrylic to create his art work. “I started using it (spray paint) because I like the idea of creating a smoggy kind of L.A. atmosphere out of a really toxic street material like graffiti. It’s a little romantic that way,” he says. He sees his work as one that contains every color. Through the use of them he radiates the type of energy that he wants it to have. He has never seen a color he did not like, he says. There is a complexity behind his paintings that is at the very core of the multiple layers that make up his pieces. “Paintings are very human,” Devon says, explaining that he intends to make art that is difficult to look at. Just like a human being, his work is challenging and goes beyond what we see.
There is a preconceived notion that art has no limits—that “true” artists are those who break rules rather than follow them. “Education in the arts is difficult because of the structure of academia and the idea of being creative and thinking differently,” Devon says. “They don’t always match up.” However, Devon disagrees with people who discourage artists from going to art school. He believes the best artists are the ones who are interested in learning. He says an education in this field allows for a structure, and for a deeper understanding of styles and techniques.
Devon says he is still in the early stages of actual art making. He went from learning and copying techniques that his teachers taught him to developing a singular voice in the eight years since he graduated. “I am finally making more of my mature work as an adult and as a professional, but there’s still (teachers’) whispers, more like reminders, like they are tapping me on the shoulder,” he says. As time progresses he has found himself listening to his own voice more. “In the past three or four years I felt maybe more like I’ve gotten the voices of my teachers out of my head. I’ve been working a little bit more independently. People definitely can see my work and recognize it as something that I have made.”
For Devon, it is difficult to explain his style. He believes it is not possible to hold a singular answer to it since artwork often references things that have been done before. But if there was a category for it, he says, it would be “hard-edge abstract painting.” The term “hard-edge” was coined by art critic Jules Langsner in 1959 to describe the work of four Californian artists: John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson and Karl Benjamin. The term refers to an abstract form of painting on canvas, paper or print, that contains geometric shapes, loose brush marks and a wide range of colors that are non-relational, often overlap or have abrupt transitions. This form of art directly correlates with Devon’s view of L.A.: toxic, abstract, diverse and eclectic. “He is showing us his Los Angeles, and it’s done in this really layered and condensed way,” says Aandrea Stang, director of OxyArts at Occidental College and curator of Devon’s latest exhibition, “Watershed.” “I have a similar experience of L.A., you have the palm trees, you have water. You have all these different elements but (they) all kind of get squished and put at odd angles in one’s life when you are driving around. You know, we all see the world through our cars here. I think we perceive a lot of things while we are moving, the movement distorts our vision of things, and I see that in the paintings. I see L.A. sort of getting pulled apart and getting pulled back together in a really interesting and provocative way,” she says.
Devon says he is inspired by his own personal interests rather than ideas that spark his inspiration to paint. He finds himself drawn to things happening in the L.A. environment. His process to create a piece often begins outdoors as he is going about his life. “The process for me is daily. It’s like looking at things. It’s just like living and considering how those things may manifest what I do in terms of the studio,” he says. Now he is interested in bodies of water in L.A., both natural and man-made. This is what initiated the concept of “Watershed,” which was presented at Occidental College February through March. The exhibition held a range of pieces that center around the water bodies of L.A, specifically focused on the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers.
When approaching a new project, Devon begins by taking pictures of the interests and goes back to his studio. The process to him is more important than the finished result. “We learn things as we are making art and as we learn and make mistakes that involves our process and what it is we want at the end,” he says. “I really embrace that idea. When I start a painting I don’t have any plan of what it is going to look like. I just try to be really involved in that moment of making it and let the process kind of determine the outcome.” As he submerges in developing his pieces he does not have a set schedule. A painting can take him several weeks or months. “South of Flusher,” one of his recent works displayed in “Watershed,” took him more than a year to create. Stang approached Devon with the proposal for the exhibition. She has been following his work since 2008 and saw this as an opportunity to not only exhibit his work but also try to understand it. “I had a lot of questions about his work, and I just thought that if I’m continuing to think about this on an ongoing basis there’s something there, and let’s untangle that,” she says.
A part of the process also comes from the use of different materials and techniques. Devon says many artists do not often have the resources to use certain materials, so they repurpose items that do not work or people no longer use. “Artists are thinkers and they are people who are always trying to use materials in new ways,” Devon says. An example of this is his use of risograph prints, a technique he developed this past summer in Rotterdam in The Netherlands. He lived there for two months and met printmaker Evad Rijn who introduced him to the risograph machine. A cheap vintage copy machine and printer from the 1980s that is no longer used. When Devon came back to L.A. he found two machines for free. He used the risograph to create an installation of 10,000 prints for “Watershed.” “You get exposed to different people. They are thinking differently. They have different resources, different materials, being separated from the materials that I was normally accustomed to using in L.A.,” he says. “It’s like eating different foods.”
The exhibition holds Devon’s work in an interesting setting. One room displays his paintings on handmade paper, while another room displays an installation of crates which hold the 10,000 prints. That same room resembles a home-like environment with a fireplace and walls covered with wallpaper that is another one of Devon’s pieces. Finally, the far right wall has shelves holding different copies of handmade books titled “Watershed” and a foreword written by professor Leaver.
Balancing his multiple interests and professions is difficult enough as is, but it is more challenging with a family. “Making artwork is a pretty solitary act,” Devon says. But for him, his wife and 2-year-old son, Rui, come first. When he is painting he prefers being by himself in the studio, but outside he makes his family a part of his art career. Just like a young Devon, his son has grown up around the art scene. Weekly art exhibitions, museums, art classes and gallery openings are music to his ears. His wife, to whom he has been married for 10 years, is also involved in the art community and maintains close friendships with fellow artists. “I don’t know how she does it. To me it’s more like how she does it, not how I do it. I think I’m a pretty difficult person to share a life with,” he says.
While he was in graduate school at Claremont, Devon was a teacher’s assistant to University of La Verne professor of art Ruth Trotter. After earning his master’s degree he started teaching at ULV part time. He has taught at East Los Angeles College, Cal State Long Beach and California Institute of the Arts. Currently, he also teaches at Cypress College and Cerritos College.
At ULV, Devon teaches 3D Design, a class that focuses on repurposing inexpensive materials to create 3D pieces. Students work on different projects throughout the semester where they are given guidelines as to which materials they must use, but they come up with the design. “A big thing about art and taking art classes is the problem solving,” says Lana Duong, Devon’s teaching assistant. “They have to think about aesthetic, they have to think about the way they built the object, the functionality of the object, the materials they’re using.” As a professor, Devon allows room for students to explore their creativity by giving them freedom to create their own designs. He thinks back to being a teaching assistant. Trotter would tell him that sometimes one has to allow students to fail because often when their hands are forced too much, they become more lost. This mindset is one he employs as a professor now. “He gives ideas, but he leaves it up to us to do it,” says student Adam Moreno.
His engagement in academia, his profession, and the art scene, all at once, is what differentiates Devon from other professors. “The act of being an artist is not just being creative in your studio, it’s being active in the community,” says Trotter. “Those things keep one from being stale and keep an artist from being irrelevant. It means your students understand what a practicing artist does. It means that your students are exposed to an artist whose work is relevant and not just academic.”