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KPBS Evening Edition

Visual Arts: John Purlia

A work in progress from artist John Purlia.
John Purlia
A work in progress from artist John Purlia.

The Kewpie Apocalypse and More

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

HOST INTRO: 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.

For many people, work is a stressful environment but that's not the case for John Purlia. When I went to do a feature on the La Jolla artist I didn't so much set up an interview but rather a play date at his home studio. Watch the video feature from Evening Edition or listen to the newly added radio feature.

Artist John Purlia
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Two years ago John Purlia left his job as a software engineer at Qualcomm to play with his toys.

JOHN PURLIA: It's just fun, I mean when I'm out in the studio, I'm essentially playing.

But playing with a purpose.

JOHN PURLIA: I do is I just sort of start playing in my studio and building a scene and eventually it just starts to come together and I would call it storytelling using a single picture.

Purlia got his first camera 8 years ago. Some might call what he creates kitsch art or perhaps pop surrealism.

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JOHN PURLIA: The starting point for this was definitely the book in the center.

He calls it a strange and weird form of narrative photography employing toys against a backdrop of vintage records and books.

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 in this photo your eye may initially be drawn to the cute Kewpie dolls but then you'll be playfully led to more serious ideas by Purlia's subtle details and the clever title: "Financial Freewheeling and the Futile Pursuit of the American Dream."

John Purlia's "Financial Freewheeling and the Futile Pursuit of the American Dream."
John Purlia
John Purlia's "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.
John Purlia's "Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse."
John Purlia
John Purlia's "Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse."

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.

Purlia has three Kewpie dolls that he depends on: a mischievous red one; an innocent pink one; and a green one...

JOHN PURLIA: The green one is almost always in some way looking back directly at the person viewing the photographs. So the green kewpie doll is also kind of begging some sort of observant reaction from the viewer. And that's kind of the way I look at this, I create this little world and there are almost dueling factions and sensibilities and I'm still leaving a lot up to interpretation when you look at the photos but there's definitely an intent in setting up the scene and letting people decide for themselves what the outcome is or should be.

Purlia has collected his work in what he calls a digital coffee table book, "Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption," available through iTunes. But currently he's working on a special boxed edition of a miniature version of his book that will come with a Kewpie doll.

JOHN PURLIA: It will be a fun little edition 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

JOHN PURLIA: I think a rabbit coming out from underneath The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex is somehow right.

John Purlia's special edition book will be out later this month at his website.

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