Art Feature: Ravi Zupa

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

by Natalie Covert

Ravi Zupa can’t say his life has changed since the recent “world ending” recession. The Denver artist continues to live simply and make art daily.  He works independently and sets his own schedule, being sustained through art sales, video projects, and his recent Westword MasterMind Award for Video/Film/Multimedia. He moves easily from making multimedia compositions rich in illustration, to short films and music videos.

To know Ravi and see his self-portraits is to witness contradictions he uses throughout his artwork.  His self-portraits can suggest an intense character—bald with a straggly beard and dark piercing eyes; face-to-face, he reveals himself as quiet and humble—if not sweet.

Drawing from various religions and cultures, Zupa creates a myriad of mythological scenes featuring contrasts of character.   A Mayan God holds a pistol to his neck.  Armed soldiers bare the wings of an archangel.  A multi-armed Robot God sprouts from a lotus flower. 

By combining a wide assortment of icons, Zupa compels viewers to unveil the mystery behind his sometimes obscure connections.  Taking the opportunity to ask him some questions, we interviewed him about his work and inspirations. 

Tell us about your first art-related memory as a kid.
My home was saturated in art from the beginning. My parents and siblings all did art in one form or another. I started doing art at the same time that everyone on earth did, the moment when I was old enough to hold a crayon and someone helped me connect it to paper. The only difference between me and other people is that I never stopped. Most of my childhood imagining was connected to cats and medieval European culture.

What sort of art training do you have?

I haven’t been to school—if that’s what you’re asking. I have been drawing nearly every day for something like 28 years though. When I was young I used to recreate drawings that my older sister and brothers had done line for line to the extent that the two were nearly indistinguishable. My sister often recalls this happening when I was around six maybe. My mom has always taken my art very seriously and been critical (not hard, but respectful enough to be critical) Even at the age of four she would give feedback as if she were looking at the art of a peer. More than anything else I’ve always drawn inspiration out of books. Books are by far the best way to commune with art.

You work in several different art mediums, including, but certainly not limited to drawing, painting, and videography.  What do you find yourself doing more of these days?

These things are so closely related and each is constantly informing the others. I try to focus on one project until I complete it, but most often I then move on to a different medium. I feel a constant pull from all of them and have to shift around often to negotiate it.

I understand that you spent a couple years working in the commercial animation and film industry in San Francisco.  How do you feel about the merging of fine art with commercial art?

I don’t worry about it much because I see it as an impossibility. Art is forever transcendent. There is not now nor will there ever be anything “fine” about commercial art (if “fine” refers to goodness and humanity). The moment that you take a piece of street art off a dumpster and place it in a Sprite advertisement that piece becomes inhuman. In its home on the dumpster it was profoundly human and relevant and universally valuable. The same can be said of any piece of art. We are living in a time when children as young as four years are being connected to bio feedback devices and EKGs and their most basic physiology is being measured as it fluctuates and responds to television advertisements. This equips the Sprite marketing team with images and stimulus that can literally penetrate all the way to the cells in our genitals. To one degree or another, this is what all commercial art is.  If one finds one’s own art placed in any form of advertising, one should be deeply aware of this fact and ask the question: “Am I expressing myself?” Really there is nothing here that should scare us however, because art (in perhaps its least powerful state) has always adapted and been the strongest and most immediate defense to this kind of assault. It will forever be a defense against every assault on humanity that awaits us because this characteristic is part of what makes it worthy of the title.

There is an inherent intensity and mysticism found in your artwork, from Samurai battle scenes to God-like figures with multiple arms that may be grasping a machine gun in one hand, while a paintbrush in another.  What sort of reaction are you hoping to instill in the viewer?

I get so much from dreams and dream logic. I love things that carry an immediate organic logic, inherent to themselves, that maybe can’t be checked against what we know as reality. Dreams are like this. Our dreams are so logical when they are unfolding and they continue to carry sense when we remember them, but when we speak them or even simply try to intellectually translate them to our rational environment, they mostly refuse. I’m always trying to dream out loud in hopes that others will participate. I think I’m getting closer to this all the time.  

Your work is rich with a lot of Eastern iconography.  Tell me a little bit about your interest in Eastern cultures and symbolism.
I have a complicated relationship with this question because of the rampant appropriation that takes place, unquestioned, among white artists of all media and genres. I often wonder how many people read my name in concert with a piece of art and assume I am non-white. The answer to this question really centers around my love affair with dreams and mythology (mythology being the means by which collectives dream).  It is worth noting that I find just as much connection to and satisfaction in European mythology and much of my images reflect this. The same is true of Native-Latin American and African mythology but often their influence is less visible in my art. When I was growing up my mother was (and is still) a member of an eastern spiritual tradition which is the long descendant of Sikhism (a form of reformed monotheistic Hinduism). This is where I got the name Ravi. My Father was raised Catholic and converted to Islam for the last fifteen years of his life (I had no direct relationship with him however). Being of white European descent, and developing amongst an abundance of Asian imagery and ceremony, my art is the best voice and pitch to relate that experience. I now identify as a deeply spiritual atheist.

Fill me in on what you think I should know about your process.

My process is different every time. I start with an image in my head or a piece of an old drawing and put something down. Then I follow the path to the end. I do draw a lot in pads and then fix those pages to boards but I don’t always do that. The really photo-realistic stuff happens in a drawing pad and then I print things on top of that. Sometimes I screen print a portion of an image and then draw in the missing part in whatever way feels appropriate. I like making every piece original but borrowing from myself, having borrowed from other artists. It’s like life.

If you had to choose one tool or instrument to create a piece of art, what would it be?

I value diversity and variety so much that it’s hard for me to deliberately lock out options. If I am being forced to, I’ll probably choose a number two pencil and paper. I hope I’m not forced to.  

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?
Drawing, painting, talking.

Tell us something about yourself that not many people know?

I still suck my thumb.

"I love things that carry an immediate organic logic, inherent to themselves, that maybe can’t be checked against what we know as reality."