In ‘Gateways,’ Shawn Kuruneru merges the intimate, ancient traditions of ink and fragrance

The artist shares an ink-on-paper series inspired by Celine Haute Parfumerie for Document's Fall/Winter 2019 issue.

One dominant substance has flowed through the life of Canadian artist Shawn Kuruneru: ink. As a student, he was a compulsive doodler. Then, when he wanted to develop his doodles on a larger scale, he started drawing with ink on paper and canvas. This led him to research other artists who had used the medium, and soon he arrived at Chinese landscape paintings and calligraphy, which particularly resonated with him, since his mother’s family is from Hong Kong.

Kuruneru was intrigued by the landscape artists who trekked high up in the mountains, making ink with the coal dust from their campfires, and setting down what they saw in black and white. At the same time, he was fascinated by the sheer ubiquity of ink—its use in books, newspapers, Kuruneru’s beloved comic books, and political pamphlets given out on protest marches. Then there’s the ink with which we sign our names. “Your signature is just your individual mark, transferred through ink, so it’s something super personal,” said Kuruneru.

There’s another liquid that is equally personal—fragrance, which changes with our bodies, has the power to alter moods and perceptions, and can inspire a tumult of memories.

In this portfolio, Kuruneru has made monochrome ink drawings for perfumes created by Hedi Slimane for Celine. One of a number of artists chosen by Slimane to create work for the house’s stores worldwide, Kuruneru has had four of his paintings hang in Celine’s rue de Grenelle store in Paris; there is also a Celine capsule collection that features Kuruneru’s drawings on sneakers, sweatshirts, and a denim jacket.

Kuruneru’s work is rooted in craft and tradition, but he also finds inspiration in modern popular culture, like comic books, which led him to create his graphic novel Fool’s Wish, which he describes as a samurai ghost story. Above all, like Slimane, Kuruneru is intrigued by the human touch. Up close, you can see where the artist is painting slowly and carefully in order not to allow his shapes to touch one another, and where he’s filling in the shapes with larger gestures. “There’s dry brush marks, very wet marks, there’s fine lines, there’s thick lines,” said Kuruneru. “You know that it was done by hand even though it’s going to be printed and a lot of people will see it on their iPhones. You’ll see that this line isn’t perfect; it’s not just a computer-generated image. I’m not interested in smoothing things out—I want it to be just as it is.”