Charles Yuen’s home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, is comfortably domestic and suburban in feeling, which somehow surprises me, after having seen his zany and sardonic paintings earlier in the year at Studio10 in Bushwick. Yuen pulls a couple of summer lagers from his refrigerator and leads me down a metal staircase to the garden level. The tile-floored room with a sliding glass door opening to a backyard patio is his studio, with several paintings in progress and detailed photographic images of flies stacked on a desk.
It is a beautiful afternoon, so it’s hard to resist having our conversation outdoors. The patio is decorated simply, but hints of a childhood in Hawaii are palpable – a pet turtle nestled in the benches, a tin-panel painting of a mermaid hung on the wall, and stems of bamboo arching above. He points out what he fears is an abandoned bird’s nest, joking that it might become another symbol of dysfunctional relationships in his work.
Yuen has a pleasantly self-deprecating sense of humor, which comes through in the work. The mid-size to large-scale paintings defy a single stylistic category. Instead, they mix aspects of OpArt, Surrealism, Persian miniatures, and Asian decorative linear grounds. Characters ranging from interspecies creatures to societal types are rendered in a manner that evokes both satirical cartoons and self-taught drawing. Although Yuen examines indisputably existentialist subject matter (figures dragging abstracted burdens through space, women laden with oversize collars and hairdos), his paint handling is never overwrought. Viscous, painterly passages occupy large areas of the compositions, with succinct, freely drawn images floating in space. Exaggerated scale shifts take the paintings away from coherent narrative into the suggestion of a subconscious, dream-like state.
Yuen received his BFA from the University of Hawaii in 1975, and his MFA from Rutgers University in 1981, after which he moved to New York City. He has had two solo exhibitions at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, as well as solo shows at Valentine Gallery, New York; Robert Henry Fine Art, New York; Art in General, New York; the Asian American Arts Centre, New York; ADA Gallery, Richmond, VA; and the Downtown Gallery, Honolulu, Hawaii. His work has also been included in group exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Newark Museum, Exit Art, and Franklin Furnace. Yuen was a founding member of Godzilla, an Asian-American arts organization. He was the subject of a solo exhibition, Crypto-Somatic Incantation, at Studio10, Brooklyn, in February 2016.
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Jennifer Samet: Did you draw as a child? Do you have specific memories of art from your childhood?
Charles Yuen: I grew up in Hawaii and one of my safe places was making art. In my family there were not a lot of boundaries, so it was a place where I had a sense of privacy, and would not be told what to do. I also went to a progressive elementary school, and the principal’s husband was an artist. So, instead of writing a report we might do an art project. I began to realize that there is a deeper content possible in art. When I transitioned into rebellious adolescence, I would get into tremendous fights with my parents. Afterwards I could have this cathartic time of drawing, where I was realizing the argument energy and somehow coming to terms with it.
My parents often took my sisters and me to art museums when traveling. I remember being in Los Angeles at a show of very thickly painted Second Generation Abstract Expressionist paintings in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. I remember being excited by their exuberance and surprised by their physicality.
After graduating from high school my parents took us to Europe. I was in the Louvre with a large crowd of people looking at the Mona Lisa. I was standing off to the side and saw this other painting, which really grabbed me — Jacques Louis David’s “The Death of Bara” (1794). The emotion in it was terrific. In my memory, there is a huge amount of yellow space, and then a smaller figure at the bottom lying prone and probably dead. Now I look back at it and think it is a bit melodramatic and saccharin, but as a teenager, I was struck by the ability of the work to have an emotional impact. I have since realized that it is a documentation of a political event, about a military repression of peasants. Also, the composition relates to an ongoing aspect of my work—playing larger emptier spaces off smaller concentrated spots— that dynamic balance.
JS: You mentioned a rebellious adolescence. Did becoming an artist constitute a kind of rebellion for you?
CY: Yes. I remember thinking very consciously about a stereotype at the time: the Madison Avenue advertising executive – a “Mad Men” kind of character. I didn’t want to do that. That was alienated labor; I was reading Marx at the time. I wanted to be engaged with un-alienated labor.
Around that time I also encountered a story about Matisse. He was old and incapacitated, but still so engaged that he put charcoal on the end of a stick, and made drawings on the ceiling. I thought, “That is totally the opposite of alienated labor. He was so into what he was doing; it is about joy.”
JS: You studied at the University of Hawaii before going to Rutgers. Who were some of your important teachers?
CY: After graduating from college, I had the nice circumstance of some early successes in Hawaii. I was only three years out of school when I was asked to have a show by what I considered the best institution in Hawaii. I felt I was too young to be hitting that benchmark. Growth doesn’t really come from compliments; it comes from critique. I felt dissatisfied as an artist, and knew there was more to art than what was available to me in Hawaii. I decided to move to New York. I landed at Rutgers University and continued that search for meaning.
In the late 1970s, I was working in what I considered a post-Minimalist mode. I was totally into the theory. But, at a certain point, it seemed so empty. One of my professors at Rutgers was Leon Golub. I remember thinking, when I entered Rutgers, that politics in art was problematic. One of the things I love about art is its ambiguity. But if you’re making a political statement, ambiguity is your enemy. Leon offered an insight into how politics and art can co-exist. In Leon’s case it seemed to be via catharsis — the process of emotionally internalizing an event, and then using that emotion to propel a painting.
To me, that could transform something like a political propaganda poster into a richer, deeper sense of expression. I want to subjectivize everything. That is one of the reasons I don’t paint outdoors, from nature. I want my work to represent a more internalized vision. It is from there I can start deepening metaphors and connections and associations. Meaning starts to bounce around and develop more flexibility.
JS: How would you describe your artistic circles in New York after graduate school?
CY: I felt connected to the 1980s East Village art scene in New York. One of the things that emerged from that scene was a great explosion of expression. There was a terrific realignment of art values. Going into the 1980s, you were seen as a tough artist if you worked with industrial materials on an industrial scale, in a large loft in SoHo. And then, in the early 1980s, it was redefined as, “No. You are a tough artist if you are painting things you care deeply about, in your tiny apartment’s living room.” I thought that was great.
However, I was also seeing a lot of angst in the paintings of that period – like paintings of people being violated. I thought, “It is really easy for me to do angst – too easy. What is after angst?” How do you reconstruct yourself after a catastrophic event? So at the time I was calling my paintings post-apocalyptic paintings.
I think I know less now than I ever did about who my community is. When I was younger, it was artists who were about a generation ahead of me. Now, I find myself engaged by work that is more diverse, stylistically and art historically.
I’ve also developed more interest in what is considered Outsider Art. Speaking in broad strokes, these are artists I empathize with. For me one of the big challenges has been the question, “Why am I painting?” — digging down and finding reasons for painting that are outside of the commercial realm. In answering that, I find myself aligning more and more with outsider artists.
JS: There are recurring characters in your painting, such as birds, bees, flies, and men in suits. What do they represent?
CY: Yes, a character or element will emerge and stick around for a while, and then fade away as other characters move in and out. I’ve been painting birds for a while; they are in a lot of the paintings. I think of them as non-judgmental observers, channeling their Triassic mind from prehistoric times. They are just there – not judging, just observing.
Another recurring character is the businessman, who shows up a lot. I poke fun at him. In a few paintings, his pants are around his ankles. In another, “The Polluter” (2003), he is peeing in the river. Not a whole lot of ambiguity there! However, I like to think that the compassion with which the businessman is painted helps to introduce some ambiguity. He is not just evil. He’s sort of embarrassed and looking over his shoulder. The businessman is “the man.” He represents normal society.
The fly is a newer character. That was about wanting to paint something disgusting. The fly is the underbelly. They are attracted to poop – gross! Everyone hates flies. I love the visceral-ness of it. On a formal level, I also loved how I can work my linear patterning into it, along with the shapes. You have two events in a fly: the wings, and the amazing eyes — those detailed little dots. If you are trying to pair concentrated, detailed areas off of broader, blank expanses, flies aren’t so bad either.
The beehive is another character. Bees are endangered now, so there is a tragic aspect. The hives are kind of a metaphor for society, and they are also related to molecular diagrams – hexagonal forms. They also provide the opportunity to paint different kinds of lines. I like to paint sinuous, free-form lines, as well as lines that are constrained and controlled, although painting a hive is kind of boring.
The sinuous line, on the other hand, which appears in a lot of my paintings, has a kind of inherent sexuality. I think it came from looking at classic Asian decorative motifs, in which there are often sinuous linear components. That line has stuck with me as a formal device.
For a long time the figures in my painting were fairly androgynous. I didn’t want them to be male or female. I thought of them as dealing with people issues, but not necessarily gendered issues. In the exploration of what it is to be Asian, this androgynous sexuality began to emerge.
JS: Can you tell me about how Asian-American identity plays a role in your work?
CY: Back in the early 1980s my paintings were a lot more involved in a kind of identity politics. Moving to New York and being confronted with a lot of stereotypes regarding Asian-ness brought my own identity to the forefront of awareness.
When I was a local kid in Hawaii, Asians were considered to be towards the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. When my friends and I would go into a store, the store detective would usually follow us around. Perhaps it is a bit like what black people experience in this area — assumptions of your social economic intellectual station.
One of my purposes in exploring an Asian perspective was an interest in the concept of an alienated vision – looking at the everyday world anew, through an alien eye. I also think this is one of the great things art does for us. You walk into a gallery; you see some terrific art; you walk out. You’re still in the same world, but somehow your vision is different. You get a hint at a new way of seeing something.
JS: There are also more abstract paintings, which don’t have figurative characters. Can you tell me about them?
CY: Yes, I called them outer space paintings. This was my attempt at formalism, in a jokey way. I wanted to try to strip the paintings down, and do “abstract paintings,” with that phrase in heavy quotes. Given how I work, it was difficult, but the theme of outer space offered a way. These deal with totally Euclidean forms — spheres, circles, and ellipses. I didn’t want to represent, say, Pluto or Saturn; I wanted to use the planets as a vehicle for feelings. I painted the planets as beaten up, scarred entities. They are scarred because life is not being kind to them.
Also, when I think of outer space, I think of the moon and the planets and stars. But my actual experience of outer space is basically a black sky with little white dots. The gap between my concept of space, and my experience of space, is vast. That became a wonderful metaphor, because that vast difference between experience and concept is where the dysfunctional lives. This has been the larger subject of my work — the delight in that paradox.
JS: The title of your recent exhibition was “Crypto Somatic Incantations.” What is that phrase about?
CY: I was trying to channel the writer Philip K. Dick with that title. It has occurred to me that what I’m really trying to paint is the invisible. The identifiable things in my paintings are really signposts to describing the invisible relationships and components that surround them. Some of my favorite subject matter is the exploration of dysfunctional relationships. I think of dysfunctional components as part of the invisible underbelly of things.
Recently I’ve been interested in microwaves and radio waves and magnetic rays, as metaphors for social emotional cultural things. There are invisible forces that course through us and influence how we behave. Also, there is the paranoia of living with things like NSA surveillance.
The wavy lines in those paintings are representative of these sorts of radio waves. They are secret; that is the “Crypto” element. Although they are not really moiré, I call them moiré patterns. I wanted them to emphasize an optical vibration — a strange combination of physical and illusory experience. The metaphor I use is chewing on tinfoil – that weird electric shock.
The incantation is like a prayer – like a wing and a prayer. Ultimately, I’m trying to get at a deeper sense of what it is to be a human being. For many of us, defining ourselves in terms of our work relationships and everyday situations is pretty easy. But it gets harder the deeper you go — trying to get at that secret compact we have with ourselves, between our egos and our superegos. On most levels we have this agreement of how the world works, but there are other areas, which are slippery.
JS: Your work is often humorous. That’s not easy to pull off in painting. What are your feelings about humor in art?
CY: What’s not to like about humor? Freud saw humor as being where our consciousness slips. Humor can exist in the areas between boundaries. That’s where all the slippage happens – slippage in definitions and so forth, which I seem to like. Humor exists in that space, on the edges of what is known. I think humor is a large part of what motivates me to make a certain painting. It is a sly, black humor.
There is a meandering quality to the work, which is a critique of rationality. I think the rational is not the end-all in terms of a description of reality. I view my paintings as being iconoclastic, in that I don’t think they are endorsing the popular culture; I hope they are a critique. I want my paintings to be non-goal-oriented, not logical in our pragmatic daily lives — poetic.
When I embark on a painting, my ideas are very slight and unformed, and I almost insist on that. I don’t want to execute paintings; I want them to be organic entities. If I have a sketch for a painting, it is a little thumbnail doodle. My pact with myself is that it is just a way to make initial marks. I see where it goes from there. The whole intent of the painting might change. I might start out with a painting of a plant, which then turns into a political painting. I don’t know where they are going to end up. I am following the paintings.