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Koen’s Quest

In Art, Feature, Interview on June 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm



Koen’s Quest

An interview with Viktor Koen

by Max Eternity

“Quest Stenogaster”


Viktor Koen is a mixed media artist who has the uncanny knack for blending the monstrous, playful and abusurd, to create photorealistic, composite illustrations, providing narratives of rich, surrealistic stories about things which don’t exist.  Born in Tessaloniki, Greece in 1967, he is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel, and holds an MFA with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

With his robust personality and delightful sense of humor, Koen’s gleefully horrorfying images are regularly seen in Newsweek, Esquire and Forbes magazines.  And his clients include, Delta Airlines, IBM, Random House, Harper Collins, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe and many others.  He is the author of several illustrated books, and has participated in over 100 group exhibitions, plus more than 20 solo exhibitions.

Of one of his more standout series, entitled “Dark Peculiar Toys”, Koen says:

“”Dark Peculiar Toys” is an assembly experiment were philosophies of what a toy is and is supposed to do, differ and collide. These collisions deface, break or de-construct the toys into piles of raw materials, waiting to be re-constructed in alternative ways…”

In addition to having built a very successful career as a freelance artist, Koen is on the faculty of the Illustration Department at Parsons School of Design, New York, and he’s also a Masters Thesis Advisor at the School of Visual Arts, New York.


Max Eternity (ME): Hi Viktor, welcome to AD MAG.

Viktor Koen (VK):  Hello, thank you.

ME:  You’re currently based in New York, but you were actually born in Greece.  Could you talk about bit about your childhood—how you became interested in art.

“Dark Peculiar Toys #5”

VK:  It was fairly immediate as soon as my mother went to my school to pick me up.  She spoke to my teacher and came to the conclusion that my art was more advance.  I was doing alligators attacking hunters in a canoe, while other children were doing stick men

I remember in first grade, my mother talking with a teacher, saying ‘he’s going to be an artist.’

I love doing these war drawings.  It was almost engraved in my head, my parents were good at encouraging it.  So I was also fortunate to go through school that had art classes, at that time rare for public Greek education, but I was going to what one would think of as a charter school.   I was terrible at math physics and chemistry.  But growing up I made a valiant attempt to be an architect, and failed miserably.  So I just decided to be an artist.  I got tutoring for the Fine Arts Academy Greece, but was not accepted.

ME:  In understand you’ve also lived in Israel?

VK:  Someone was visiting who was studying at the school at the time.  He said my drawings were very good.  As soon as I was not accepted in Greece I picked up and went to were was accepted, at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.  You go where they want you.

ME:  Like many artist today, you work in a variety of mediums.  But I wonder, being that you’re on the Faculty of the Illustration Department @ Parsons School of Design, if you would first describe yourself as an illustrator?

“Dark Peculiar Toys #15”

VK:  Umm, yes I definitely consider myself an illustrator.  But, because I exhibit a good amount—design some—it’s kind of a mixed bag.

ME:  You’ve completed so much work—exhibited so many places—won so many awards>  You’ve got a thick career, with a ton of work.  But it all ties together thematically, because of your ability to thread together playfulness, comedy, horror and Steam Punk.

VK:  Yes, concept is very important to my work.  It’s also one of the reason people choose to work with me.  I think it’s a combination for the concept of the way I work.  I have old school knowledge–having a solid understanding of art, regardless of the technology.

“Dark Peculiar Toys #36”

ME:  So tell me about “Dark Peculiar Toys.”

VK:  It’s a series that came right after “Damsels in Amour.”

I’m a toy collector.  I go to flea markets and fight with children over a bin of toys.  There’s no better excuse to buy toys, but to work on a series of toys.  I have a great time playing with them visually.

My father was an industrial designer and he gave me some of his old books and diagrams, and retooled it to match the fictitious toys.  The whole project was very playful.  I always wanted to have these dark toys.  That’s the last large series I’ve exhibited.

“Dark Peculiar Toys #18”

ME: #18 is striking with its teddy bear body and skull head, with a tummy that’s an old school rotary telephone dial.

VK:  The toys did not have my usual tedious schedule of sketching behind them.  They were all mix and match.  Juxtaposing different parts—proportions work–allowing for happy accidents to happen.  Things looked better than I meant it to be.  A lot of these are trial and error.  The juxtaposition of the sweet and something very wrong is something I always look for.

“Damsels in Armour #24”

“Damsels in Armour #13”

“Damsels in Armour #9”

ME:  Interesting, and in the “Damsels in Amour” series you created, the subtitle of the series is “A Proposal for 24 War Memorials.”  Are these of figural abstraction of real women throughout history?

VK:  The thinking was very simple behind that series.  I am a war buff, but I hate war.  I am enamored by the beauty of the beast of guns and armor.  All the women are 1950’s and 60’s models–very Hollywood model-esque, to a certain degree.  They have this timeless beauty that I deface.  One is a photograph of my mother that demanded to be included.  If I wanted clean laundry and food I had to put the picture in (laughs).

I photographed amour from The Met, because they have a wonderful collection.  I also took photos from the Military Museum in Athens, Greece, and the Imperial War Museum in London.

All the capes and drapes were photographs at bed bath and beyond (laughs).  There’s too many good curtains waiting to be come war banners

“Quest Parasite”

“Quest Instigator”

“Quest Detestus”

ME: You wrote a book responding to the Y2K hysteria, which seems all the more ridiculous now as we are seeing the 2012 hysteria get geared up.  But that book was called “Plug in the Quest for Mug.”  Tell me about that.

VK:  Well, I thought with all the mayhem: Of course I’ll just do the reverse.  I’ll create a positive bug, a hero.

I put it together as a joke.  I just played with it—creating this image as self-promotion.  I happened to be in Athens and got asked to show theses as a series.  At the same time I was creating transformations of these evil people coming back to life as bugs.  These characters were perfect villains to plug and his sidekick mug.

These images were shown at the Babel Comic book festival of Athens.  I frantically put these characters together.  They also become the villains in the book.  As soon as I had the characters I showed them to Melanie Wallace, a writer, she said ‘I love them.’  In two weeks she came with an early treatment for the book.  She said ‘I look at them and I know exactly where they live.  I read a couple of paragraphs and I said I think this would work great.’

ME:  Now you make prints and books, and you also make books of prints like “Funny Farm: The Alphabet of Mental Disorders.”

VK: There is a font—line art and clip art work—for the book and then acrylic paintings as well. Well here is the combination of the designer and the artist, not being able to get away from each other.

ME:  You’re using some innovative printing techniques as well.  Some are old, being revived, and some are new hybrids.  I see you’ve done some carbon prints, like “The Poet” and “The Metaphysisian?”

“The Poet”

“The Metaphysisian”

VK:  Eventually the result, like the series “Task and Gain”, were produced as photogravures.  It’s a beautiful continuous tone of black and white.  That was it.  I will always look for what’s the right vehicle for the series.  Budget comes in as well.   I love combining digital work with older printing techniques.

ME:  Anything coming up that we should look out for?

VK:  Several things:  I’m finishing a new alphabet, that is food based.  This will be exhibited in the International Typography Museum in Cyprus.  I am in the middle of a new large series called “Monsters.”  It’s Greek mythology based, most likely to be made as prints, though I’m not sure of the substrate yet.  And I have some smaller shows coming up as well.  I actually just had my first straight photography show at the Greek General Consulate in NYC.  These were photos from 2006 shot in Poland when I visited the concentration camps my grandmother Sylvia was in—she’s a holocaust survivor.

ME:  What a tragedy, but a beautiful way to honor the victims and survivors.  And what an extraordinary life you’ve lived.  Viktor, thanks–I’ve enjoyed our talk.

VK:  And as well

  1. […] grew up in Greece, started his education in Jerusalem and finished his education in New York. In an interview, Viktor says “growing up I made a valiant attempt to be an architect, and failed miserably. […]

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