Drawing from media, art history, and popular culture, Kota Ezawa investigates the power of certain images, distilling memories of significant historical moments into their basic forms. Using animation, slide projections, light boxes, paper cut-outs, and collage, Ezawa transforms complex visual information into its most essential elements, creating striking, flattened versions of photographs and artworks that explore the construction of shared experience through images.
Ezawa’s digital animation The Simpson Verdict debuted in 2002 and first brought attention to his work while he was a graduate student at Stanford. In the piece, Ezawa animates original footage of the legal proceedings of the O.J. Simpson trial, reconstructing the frames of the video. “I drew all the hands, eyes and figures using drawing software and re-created all the motions, trying to simulate the motions of the people in the video,” Ezawa told Kenneth Baker in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “What results is very stylized, but it’s an honest effort at translation.” By simplifying the images, Ezawa forces the viewer to look more closely at nuances of expression and the issues of race and celebrity that the case evoked.
In The History of Photography Remix, originally produced as a set of 40 slides, Ezawa recreates important art and documentary photographs, making a recognizable yet reimagined version of history “like the dream of a drowsy art-history student dozing in a darkened lecture hall,” as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection notes for the series observe. Selecting sources ranging from a photograph by Cindy Sherman to Timothy O’Sullivan’s view of the Gettysburg battlefield, Ezawa transforms the full scope of the medium into a simplified version itself, erasing the differences between eras and styles while reflecting the artist’s personal vision of photography’s history.
In his series The Crime of Art, Ezawa created a set of videos and related light-boxes that chronicle high-profile museum heists and acts of art vandalism in real life and in Hollywood films. The series was featured in a solo exhibition organized by SITE Santa Fe with the Mead Art Museum, which traveled to museums around the U.S., and the work was published in a monograph from Radius Books. Writing about the series in Hyperallergic, Lita Barrie notes that “by using images of stolen art, Ezawa implicates himself in the lineage of theft and the dilemma of ownership, especially in the digital world where the availability of images has made information sampling and manipulation so commonplace that the line between real and fake has been blurred.”
In his 2018 series National Anthem, which was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Ezawa drew from broadcast footage of NFL athletes “taking a knee” during The Star-Spangled Banner to protest police violence and the oppression of people of color. For the series, Ezawa hand-painted images to create an animated video and a suite of related lightboxes. In a review of the Whitney exhibition, Aruna D’Souza writes that “by rendering these images in paint, allowing the camera to linger on them, and projecting them on a massive wall, Ezawa removes them from the unthinking speed of social media outrage and lets us dwell on the implications of the action and the reverence of the gesture.”
Kota Ezawa has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, California; SITE Santa Fe; Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; Buffalo AKG Art Museum, New York; Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada; and the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, among others. He participated in the Whitney Biennial 2019 and the Shanghai Biennale 2004. His work is in the collections of institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Art Institute of Chicago; Musée D’Art Contemporain de Montréal, Canada; and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Ezawa received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award in 2004, a SECA Art Award in 2006, and a Eureka Fellowship in 2010.