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Profile: John Purlia

October 26, 2011 10:21 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Acomando profiles La Jolla artist John Purlia.

Related Story: Visual Arts: John Purlia


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

La Jolla artist John Purlia creates slyly satirical photos using Kewpie dolls, alphabet blocks, and other toys. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with him about his work and his upcoming boxed edition book.

When you enter John Purlia's home in La Jolla, it's like visiting a vintage toy shop. Every inch of shelf space is cluttered with Kewpie dolls, tin toys, Universal monsters, and more.

JOHN PURLIA: It's kind of fun that I actually live with the things that are inside of my photos.

SONG CLIP Welcome to the fantastic plastic world... (music)

JOHN PURLIA: What I use primarily are toys, record albums, books, found objects, some of the things I've used, I've found on the street.

Two years ago Purlia left his job as a software engineer at Qualcomm to play with his toys and create art.

JOHN PURLIA: It's just fun, when I'm out in the studio, I'm essentially playing and building a scene and eventually it just starts to come together and I would call it storytelling using a single picture.

At first glance Purlia's photos have breezy, nostalgic appeal with vintage record albums and pulp novels providing a backdrop against which toys can playfully be positioned. So a group of plastic nuns are set up like bowling pins about to be knocked down in one photo while in another Kewpie doll with a satanic head marks one sign of the impending Kewpie apocalypse. Some might call it kitsch art or perhaps pop surrealism. Purlia calls it strange and weird but fun.

JOHN PURLIA: So I set up these objects in a way that kind of combines innocence with a little bit of edginess so that you have a juxtaposition of kind of cute and cuddly but then if you look at it more closely then you are kind of like, oh, this story is about something completely different. It's kind of what you try to do in a pop song where you try and make the beat really poppy and fun but the lyrics are a little bit more serious.

So your eye might initially be drawn to a cute Kewpie doll smiling brightly from the center of a photo but then you'll be playfully led to more serious ideas by Purlia's subtle details and such clever titles as "Financial Freewheeling and the Futile Pursuit of the American Dream."

JOHN PURLIA: Probably my all-time favorite is, "Unbeknownst to Her Creator, Eve Longed to Become a Cheerleader." The titles sometimes take longer than actually setting up and photographing the images.

The titles -- along with the juxtaposition of certain images and objects -- create an ironic tone that Purlia hopes will get people thinking about things like the economy, politics, and religion... but always in a playful way that rarely offends.

JOHN PURLIA: The toy is making some sort of statement on nuclear power or on religion but the toy is still a toy. And its expression doesn't change and it smiles at you and it's not threating and I think by doing that maybe it makes people a little bit more receptive to the messages that I'm telling you through the art.

And that's why Purlia is so in love with Kewpie dolls.

JOHN PURLIA: Kewpies are just kind of fun because they look really innocent but they are kind of creepy too. Like they might do something really bad and they don't care because they're happy.

Each photo can take tens of hours over multiple weeks to create in his home studio. And with a background in engineering, Purlia can spend a lot more hours tweaking the digital image.

JOHN PURLIA: I'm very, very meticulous in setting up my photos, I will take a photo and analyze it on the computer for a long, long time and make extensive notes on, nudge this figure an 1/8 of an inch this way.

Purlia has collected his work in what he calls a digital coffee table book available through iTunes. Currently he's working on a special boxed edition of a miniature version of his book that will come with a Kewpie doll USB.

JOHN PURLIA: It will be a fun little edition as a keepsake for people who want something physical in this world that is quickly moving into a digital realm. Physical objects are still fun and desired by people.

And they're still fun to play with

For KPBS News, I'm Beth Accomando.

(Tag:) John Purlia's special edition book will be out later this month. For more information and a video about his work go to K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.