The Occidental College Studio Art Department is currently hosting Los Angeles-based artist Devon Tsuno. His show, “Watershed,” demonstrates not only the artist’s intimate relationship with the Los Angeles River, but also the poignant, symbolic meaning of water in the city of Los Angeles. His personal interest in water as a symbol makes him the perfect fit for a residency here at Occidental, where water is the chosen theme for this year’s Cultural Studies Program.
Tsuno describes his work as violent and beautiful but illogical, just like the city of Los Angeles. His paintings include vibrant, colorful, chaotic imagery of the Los Angeles River and the surrounding plant life, which is largely composed of invasive species to Southern California. These natural symbols reflect the city’s diversity and the fine balance between peace and chaos [observed by] Tsuno through the riots in the ’90s in L.A.
Tsuno’s show at Occidental is a multimedia experience. It consists of paintings, his preferred medium, but also provides viewers with a variety of Tsuno’s trades. His show also features thousands of risograph prints, an art form he has taken up in the past year, a first foray into sculpture and a collaborative effort in bookmaking with Occidental letterpress students.
The multifaceted nature of Tsuno’s show at Occidental reflects his willingness to push boundaries and challenge himself, something he has been doing for years.
“When I was a kid, I used to fish in the ponds and smaller bodies of water in urban areas,” Tsuno said. He taught himself to fly fish at the age of twelve in Midcity, where his studio remains today. “People always tripped out, they weren’t used to seeing a twelve year old kid fly fishing in a public park,” Tsuno said.
Tsuno alway fishes with his cap adorned with images of fish. He has been fishing the Los Angeles River for years and has developed a deep appreciation for an area of the city most Angelinos have never experienced.
“I started fishing the river about ten years ago,” Tsuno said.
He was first drawn to the river by its forbidden allure.
“It was great because you weren’t supposed to fish there. We’d walk in to the outwash, and onto the slope of the concrete there, that was illegal. It’s got such a healthy population of carp. My friend and I used to go down there to fish. In a city that’s so big, so crowded, there’s so few places you can go that you really feel like you’re alone,” Tsuno said.
Aandrea Stang, Occidental’s Director of Arts, has supported Tsuno’s work for years and is excited to let him take advantage of the gallery space at Occidental. “His work doesn’t scream Los Angeles, it’s something more of a whisper,” Stang said.
“He just picked up the water concept and ran with it. He had a prior interest in it, but chose to use familiar materials, like spray paint, in an unfamiliar way. In a small department like ours, innovators like Devon are the kind of people we want to bring in,” Stang said.
The subtle, representational forms described by Stang are most prevalent in Tsuno’s prints. The 10,000 prints of “Watershed” are stored in hand-crafted crates. Each print is composed of two identical images of water, one printed on top of the other. The flat layers are slightly offset, creating an illusion of movement and depth which is characteristic of much of Tsuno’s work.
Each print is signed by Tsuno and in the place where a title might go, there are three symbols: the number 3.60″, which was the number of inches of rainfall in L.A. last year, the number 388,332,521 which is the population of Los Angeles, and the infinity symbol. Patrons are free to pick up and take home the prints, makingTsuno’s project never-ending and reflecting his desire for a piece of the Los Angeles River to go home with everyone that sees his work.
Tsuno desires to collaborate and share artwork in Los Angeles communities that have inspired his teaching efforts at multiple schools in Los Angeles County, including his recent project with Adjunct Professor Jocelyn Pedersen’s book arts class here at Occidental.
Tsuno provided artwork for the books, printed by Occidental students on Japanese and Indian paper, a trademark of his work. The book’s imagery consists of risograph prints of river scenery, stylized depictions of carp and representational forms of water, similar to the patterns lining the wall paper of the gallery space.
“It was a lucky coincidence,” Pedersen said of Tsuno’s interest in water prior to his involvement with Occidental. “We brought Devon in because of his willingness to try new things and step out of his comfort zone,” Stang said.
By exploring new mediums in this show, Tsuno displays an appreciation for artistic transformation. All of his art, with its drastic forms and layered chaos, is transformative in nature, relating to to Tsuno’s ever-changing muse, the Los Angeles River.
“[The river is] especially apparent during heavy rain like we’re having today. The river transforms with heavy rain. Sand bars change, vegetation is ripped up, and all kinds of debris builds up. It really transforms the river, and that’s something, as a fisherman, I’ve got to pay attention to,” Tsuno said.
Tsuno admires the unappreciated Los Angeles watersheds, from which he has fished in Griffith Park to Pacoima and San Gabriel. The intimacy of his relationship with the watersheds of Los Angeles shines through in his recent work. It is that admiration for the grittier aspects of this city that he wants to share with his fellow Angelenos.