HUDSON, New York — Charles Yuen loves to paint. He loves paint’s viscosity and transparency, its capacious ability to remain itself even as it becomes an image, sign, or abstract form, its promiscuousness. He usually paints in layers, often beginning with a scumbled monochromatic ground over which he might lay an abstract moiré or wave pattern. As he proceeds, the images and signs are apt to change radically in scale. His palette consists of earth tones (muted greens, blues, browns, and yellows) complemented by pinks, reds, yellows, black, and white, which suggests, to this viewer at least, that he is not particularly interested in CYMK colors.
Relying on an ever-expanding vocabulary culled from a wide range of sources, including Asian art, Persian miniatures, ornithology, cartoons, scientific diagrams, Op Art, and outsider art, Yuen assembles what I have come to think of as visual ideograms, complex possibilities whose ambiguous meanings reverberate.
Yuen’s dense, inflected ideograms are marked by a self-deprecating humor in which none of his figures ever appear to be heroic, or overtly masculine or feminine, as promoted by mainstream society. Rather, we see lumpy humanoids, as in a recent painting, “Walking with Corona” (oil on canvas, 48 by 40 inches, 2020), which is included in his exhibition, Charles Yuen: Itinerant Visualist, at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (August 1 – August 30, 2020).
Against a muted gray-blue ground interrupted by variously placed horizontal bands of orange-red, over which Yuen has laid a wave pattern of vertically oriented pink lines, a scumbled, limbless black figure, made of increasingly smaller elliptical shapes and two pink linear legs that point to the left from beneath its skirt-like bottom, looks at once comical and pathetic. Clusters of white ellipses float from the middle of its pyramidal body and rise to just below the very top of the painting.
The scumbled black figure, located on the right side, in the foreground, is the largest form in the painting. It is surrounded by smaller, similarly shaped figures in pink, either solidly colored or linearly outlined. By the direction of their shoes, they are all headed to the right, in the opposite direction of the dark, solitary figure, isolating it further.
Meanwhile, a wide elliptical inset in the lower left corner of the painting, reveals a prone figure’s upper torso and head outlined in a butter yellow as pink clouds peek through a scumbled olive green ground. Two blackish limbs extend down from either side of the ellipse’s top edge, cradling the head as it floats above a salmon-colored ellipse nestled at the bottom of the inset, like a cushion.
Is the lumpy, solitary figure a symbol of death moving among us? What about the head and bare torso in the inset? While we are likely to read the white ellipses as Covid-infected droplets, we are unsure whether they are symbolic of our anxiety, or signify the actual presence of germs as we walk down the street.
While “Walking with Corona” is the most topical painting in Yuen’s exhibition, it resists a simple or anecdotal reading as much as the other, equally ambiguous works on display, while speaking to our understandable apprehensions and paranoia.
What’s remarkable is how quickly Yuen can pivot from contemplating the pandemic to depicting the fantasy world of the enigmatic “Forest Flies” (oil on canvas, 48 by 40 inches, 2020). In this painting, white winged insects with human heads are flying amid linear cubes, tetrahedrons, and other geometric forms within a compressed space populated by large, abstract trees including one cut off by left edge and overlaid with large green circles.
In “Amulet to Ward Off Disease” (oil on canvas, 76 by 60 inches, 2019), Yuen goes in yet another direction, juxtaposing the silhouette of a black hand with a larger, vertically oriented, mostly orange ellipse incised with interlinked diamond shapes against a scumbled blue ground, which is marked by rock-like forms surrounded by concentric circles.
In the small paintings, all of which are either 12 by 9 inches or 9 by 12 inches, Yuen depicts a head or figure against an abstract, often patterned ground. “Madame Cactus” (oil on panel, 12 by 9 inches, 2016), presents a frontal, bluntly stylized woman’s profile and upper torso, topped by an outrageously tall white hairdo that resembles a cross between a cactus and an extreme, Sixties-era beehive
In the paintings I have cited, Yuen applies paint thickly and thinly, in tight patterns and in loose, floating brushstrokes; he draws with color as well as scratches into the surface. He does not seem attached to any particular method. His flexibility and openness to “following the painting,” as he said in an interview with Hyperallergic Weekend’s Jennifer Samet, connects him to the Abstract Expressionists as well as to such contemporary painters as Judith Linhares, Squeak Carnwath, and Steve DiBenedetto, all of whom have developed distinct visual vocabularies and find their subjects in the process of making the work.
I would also like to point out that, in and around New York, there are a number of noteworthy, stylistically diverse Asian American artists devoted to painting and drawing. In addition to Yuen, I am thinking of Barbara Takenaga, Chie Fueki, Tammy Nguyen, Ying Li, Gaku Tsutaja, Takuji Hamanaka, Jeanne Jalandoni, and Kyung Me, nearly all of whom I have written about. The fact that none of them have been included in a New York museum survey of painting or drawing suggests just how widespread and deeply ingrained institutional racism has been and continues to be in this city.
Perhaps one reason for this is because none of the Asian American artists I have mentioned work in the wake of Andy Warhol. They don’t rely on ready-made images derived from the mass media and popular culture, which should not be that surprising.
In a world where Chloe Wang had to change her name to Chloe Bennet before she got the role of Daisy Johnson in the long-running television series, Marvel’s Agents of Shield (2013-), assimilation does not seem like much of an option.
Charles Yuen: Itinerant Visualist continues at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through August 30.
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