interview / ruti talmor
*Ruti Talmor is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. In addition to her research and teaching, Talmor works as a curator and programmer. 

Inspired by the basic building blocks of the geometric world, Augustine Kofie has formed a retro-futuristic aesthetic which transplants these shapes and angles into a simultaneously soulful/organic, mechanical/mathematical form of abstraction. Merging a traditional graffiti education with a lifelong exploration of predigital line-art illustration, architectural renderings, and mechanical concept drawing, Kofie manipulates form and line, balance and depth, to create paradoxical perspectives and spaces in his murals, paintings and collages.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of creatives, Kofie exceled in drawing by his early teens. A prominent member of the 1990s Los Angeles graffiti scene, he gained his technical foundation from the art form, as well as his love of construction and form. Drafting and sketching “wildstyle” pieces, deconstructing and rebuilding letterforms, Kofie began to understand the architectural basis of writing. By the early 2000s, he had expanded his artistic practice into the gallery and museum world through painting and collage, while continuing his mural practice.

When you make work, what is the message or intention you have in your mind? What are you literally thinking as you work? What do you want the viewer to think and feel?
I guess I don’t think about the end result or the viewer. I make work that covers particular points that I need to achieve. Ultimately, what I’m doing is building a painting. I’m thinking like that—like an engineer or a planner, a model maker of structures that never existed and will never be built. So I’m focused solely on creating a shape or a form, manually painted lines and assisted lines, merging, organizing, clustering. The control of chaos is I guess what I’m trying to go towards – a balance. At the end of the piece, when it’s coming together, it ends up being about balancing everything out, all this weight and all this information. My goal is to make this chaotic clustering seem balanced and complete. I want for people to feel uneasy but to get drawn in and see what that the balance holds. There’s control, there’s balance, there’s little fractals of memory thrown in – different time periods come in through found text and imagery that’s almost obscured – I want the viewer to figure it out. I’m process driven, did this work out or not am I happy with it? I don’t make work unless there’s some challenge to it. So that’s why the work gets a little intense: the collisions and things feeling banged up against each other. But I feel like I succeed if I can get away with that and still have some harmony and balance to it all.

Do you feel like that’s an outlet of your emotional self?
Yeah. It absolutely is. I’d be worried if it wasn’t. And maybe other people feel the same way when they see the work, people who are obsessive-compulsive or have an appreciation or affinity toward organizing. There’s a satisfaction when you see things all well organized together—like someone’s record collection.

Some people’s work is fundamentally political, for others its exploration of sensorial or emotional experience. What do you feel you explore in your work?
I’m the mechanic of things. I’m behind the scenes, the machine that runs the system. You know it’s there but you don’t know how it works. Maybe I’m lying to myself, and I’m creating machines that I think I have control over, but I have no control at all. Maybe that’s a false reality: building these paintings is the only control I have.

Can you explain the collision of time periods?
I like my work to seem like it can’t easily be fit into a particular place and time. It looks like it’s from the past because of its vintage color palette, the aging techniques, some of the materials – but then it has this progressive, futuristic (for lack of a better words) structure. Forward thinking but somehow trapped in time. It’s quite a challenge to pull off timeless. That’s why I like doing collage. The collage kind of overpowers my body of work. I’ve been doing it more than canvas, more than murals – it’s more time consuming, and it’s more involved, which satisfies me greatly.

Because it covers so many points for me in terms of process. It covers the researcher, the collector, the consolidator (in terms of organizing and archiving all those materials), the builder (by getting all the tools together to start the collage project and then figuring out the solutions to design problems that come up), the craftsman and the engineer.

That’s a perfect segue to my next question. Your collage work is always built on vintage ephemera – magazines, packaging, invoice pads, office supplies. You get most of these materials in estate sales in the greater Los Angeles area. Can you tell us more about this part of your process?
I have been compulsively mapping out the tiny corners of this city since childhood, first as a skateboarder, then as a graffiti writer, and most recently through my estate sale practice. I’m a digger, a consumer of the vintage. I replace anything new with old things from these sales. I originally was going to get records and spray paint materials, and then I started finding materials for my audio projects. And that led to my incorporating this stuff in my work. It’s the best way I have found to narrate the past – by using materials from the past and upcycling them. I don’t feel like I’m being wasteful. I feel like I’m justifying this collecting by reconstituting it creatively.

And along this trip, I’m going through these homes of people that are all Angelinos, with all these different stories. I can’t get too involved in their stories, but I have a deep respect for the material, all the different neighborhoods, the different backgrounds and generations. The electrical engineers, the machinists, the architectural draftsmen – all these professions that are no longer practiced in the hands-on, analog way that they once were. The baby-boomers who kept everything, the old do-it-yourself men, working in the garage on the weekend with true American know-how; this wasn’t part of my particular past, those white picket fence memoirs. I have nostalgia for that, a respect for that work, and I feel like integrating the material into my new work is a homage, a juxtaposition. How I can take something from the past and make it current by highlighting it in an abstract way?

In addition to being a visual artist, you are immersed in music, especially independent hip-hop and plunderphonics. You make soundtracks for each of your solo shows. Do you feel like sampling is an important part of your process and a helpful way to think about your visual work?
Absolutely. The narrative of my work is a lot of taking in information and material and then filtering it and sending it back out. I first realized that was possible through hip-hop production and taking sound bites and breaks from the past, extending, expanding, filtering them, then putting them out into a new composition that in itself became timeless to me. When I began exploring music and manipulating and sampling it, it made sense to me, I couldn’t wait to do that. To this day I still do it in my own way, and it was always personal, it was always to create my own audio landscapes during my painting and my art process. I think I apply that especially to my collage work, which factors in a lot of those same methods.

Do you feel like part of what you are trying to control is the movement of time and the disappearance of the past? I ask because part of your mission seems to be a kind of saving of things that would otherwise be lost to time.
To a degree. I’m optimistic for the future, but I reminisce often about my youth, and a past that I maybe have no real cultural connection to.

What past is that?
The past just before my time. Anything pre-1973. Everything I’m dealing with is all refuse, consumerist ephemera that wasn’t meant to be kept: magazines, packaging, notepads, it’s all just paper, dead tree material. I’m a funny kid; I see beauty in things that are just trash to someone else. There’s this Buddhist phrase, “The ephemeral is eternal.” I’m not religious in any way, but I like that wordage. I guess in the abstract sense, I take material from that time period and somehow by making an abstract time machine, I link these two universes and create my own histories.