Chie Fueki belongs to a very small group of artists whose work is informed by three radically different cultures: Japan, Brazil, and the United States. This is because she was born in Yokohama, Japan, was raised in São Paulo, Brazil, and immigrated to the US, where she earned her BFA at the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida, and her MFA at Yale University. Without knowing much else about her, it seems to me that she has lived in four distinct locales and is able to speak three languages. The reason I mention Fueki’s background is because, since her solo first exhibition in 2002, she has been quietly creating a singular body of mind-bending work that has never fit into the New York art world, which is governed by a whole host of unspoken conventions, such as the legacy of minimalism and the distrust of craft and ornament.
One of 15 inaugural recipients of a Joan Mitchell Fellowship (2021), this is the statement Fueki made on her website:
My painting practice is centered around the depiction of figures, symbols, and abstract spaces using multi-layered ornamental surfaces and fields of color. I blend visual languages and culturally coded images drawn from my experience growing up in a traditionally-oriented Japanese community in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
For her debut solo exhibition, Chie Fueki: You and I, at DC Moore Gallery (January 7-February 12, 2022), the artist is showing five large portraits done in acrylic and mixed media on mulberry paper mounted on wood. Collage, paint, and appliqué are just some of the materials and processes Fueki employs. The result is multilayered work that — despite everything she puts into it — still feels airy and open.
In the press release she describes her work further:
I consider myself a mixed-language painter with interest in eastern and western perspectival systems, architectural graphics, pop animation, pre-Renaissance European painting and exuberant color.
It is clear that Fueki’s art pushes against the constraints of Western painting, beginning with her process of working on paper, which she mounts on wood, as well as her use of different culturally coded images and perspectival systems. In this regard, she shares something with two other Asian American artists who work on paper in innovative ways, Jiha Moon and Tammy Nguyen. Fueki’s use of paper, paint, and collage culminates in both a compressed surface and a complex spatiality, in which the ornamental and non-realistic color play significant roles. With the works’ radiating lines, patterns, and evocations of force fields, often done in what she calls “exuberant color,” the effects are dazzling.
One of the first things I noticed about these portraits is that the only face that is visible is one reflected in a mirror in “finally Bridget” (2021), which depicts a friend of the artist after she has transitioned. The fact that we see only the subject’s reflection conveys something about Fueki’s approach: it is always indirect or from an unexpected angle, as in “Kyle (High Fidelity)” (2021), whose subject we see from behind, seated and wearing headphones. Fueki works in what I would call a state of imaginative recollection, with a heightened sense of reality. She is equally attentive to the environment in which her subject or subjects are located, as she does not seem to believe that a portrait is limited to one’s appearance, which is the hallmark of Western portrait painting.
The subject of “Catherine” (2021) is the painter Catherine Murphy, who was Fueki’s teacher at Yale, and has since become a friend. As someone who has written about Murphy many times over the years, including her most recent show, and who wrote the first monograph on her work, this painting doubly delighted me. Fueki is able to create a number of symbols and images inspired by Murphy’s work without making viewers feel like they need to know the source.
We see a cropped view of Murphy in profile; her head is a blue semicircle extending in from the right edge, while her arm is made of four different sized, gray geometric shapes, one of which seems to have been bitten into, leaving a large, jagged opening on the bottom edge of her forearm. While these shapes can be seen as a nod to Murphy’s interest in geometry, they also function as solid forms that are part of the composition’s mixture of patterns, lines, and marks. Fueki’s use of lines and dots imbues the paintings with varying states of heightened opticality.
The artist is holding a brush and painting the left edge of the canvas, as if it were a flat surface. Above the hand we see the name CATHY backwards, a nod to Murphy’s painting “Cathy” (2001), in which she “wrote” her name backwards on a steamed-up window in winter. At the same time, the backwards name calls the logic of the picture plane into question, as the name seems to be floating, suggesting that the layered space of this work is not purely material. This feeling of an ambiguous spatiality is underscored by the radiating lines contained within saw-toothed forms set in different parts of the composition. Are they signs of force fields and visible representations of an otherwise unseen world?
Fueki makes slow paintings. They are layered with images ranging from the figural to the abstract (geometric patterns and shapes) to marks (dots and lines). In “Brides (Hilary and Ara)” (2021), the ground changes from porous red in the upper half to an enigmatic surface below. By making the pictorial space ambiguous, the distinct, detailed forms she affixes to the support seem to float, which is not something we usually see in work that incorporates collage. Along with her innovative use of collage and appliqué, another distinguishing feature of the work is her interruption of diaphanous fields of color with distinct shapes in different colors whose surfaces are defined by ornamental and allusive curlicues, suggestive of lace embroidery. And if this were not enough to take in, what are we to make of the black cat scampering across the lower third of the painting or the butterflies seen throughout?
In Fueki’s world, the solid and ephemeral can seem indistinguishable from each other. Near the top of “Brides (Hilary and Ara)” are two outlined circles just below a cropped solid red semi-circle with a darker red heart at what we perceive as its center. White lines radiate from the sun-like orb, which is set against a pinkish-violet ground. Do the white lines represent the sun’s rays or the presence of divine light? What about the heart? At the same time that we see the white lines as evocations of light, they also function formally, as they echo the grids of diagonal planes extending in from the painting’s right and left side, carving out a recessed space for the two brides. “Brides (Hilary and Ara)” is ethereal, down to earth, mystical, playful, and symbolic.
While Fueki’s composition seems to have been inspired by “The Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) by Jan van Eyck, she has also methodically replaced all of the former’s symbols with her own, starting with the cat taking the place of the early breed of Griffon Bruxellois seen at the couple’s feet in the van Eyck. This thoroughness is characteristic of Fueki’s approach. No matter how busy or densely layered her painting, nothing feels extraneous or unconsidered. In a time of fabrication and outsourcing, her hands-on approach might seem old fashioned, but you would be wrong to think so. The pleasure of making rings true in all of her work. At once radical, generous, and self-effacing, Fueki’s collapsing together of work and pleasure challenges the mainstream’s preoccupation with sybaritic leisure and the selfies that record it.
Chie Fueki: You & I continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 12.