All: Yowshien Kuo: Sufferingly Politely, installation view, Great Rivers Biennial 2022: Yowshien Kuo, Yvonne Osei, Jon Young, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, September 9, 2022–February 12, 2023. Photo courtesy Dusty Kessler.
Yowshien Kuo (b. 1985) holds an MFA from Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO. He lives and works in St. Louis. The recipient of the 10th Great Rivers Biennial Art Award, Kuo will present the solo exhibition Suffering Politely at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis (CAM) from Sep 9, 2022 – Feb 12, 2023. In addition, his work has been exhibited at James Fuentes Online (New York, NY), Praise Shadows Art Gallery (Boston, MA), and Art Taipei 2021 and featured on the cover of New American Paintings. Jenny Wu spoke with Kuo over Zoom to discuss his studio practice, his early influences, and what it’s like to be in love with a culture that doesn’t love you back.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jenny Wu: Congratulations on your show at CAM. How does it feel to be exhibiting in a St. Louis biennial?
Yowshien Kuo: It means a tremendous amount to me emotionally. In a sense, I saw the show at CAM as my NBA playoffs. It was my time to show that Asian people feel things, that we have the same concerns as other groups, the same doubts. In selecting the five pieces for the show, I was trying to build a narrative around the idea of “suffering politely”—which is the show’s title.
JW: It’s a great title.
YK: It’s that quiet “yes” we say to everything. [laughter]
JW: So has living in the Midwest influenced your work at all?
YK: Being an Asian-bodied individual in the Midwest is unique in that there’s really no metropolis here. You’re so self-aware as you roam through your environment. Since I’m interested in bringing the human element and narrative to the portrayal of Asian figures, the urgency to do so becomes amplified because people in this part of the country don’t see it as much. They’re not privy to it. So in everything I did for the show at CAM, I was extremely aware of the local audience.
JW: Has the local audience been receptive?
YK: People want to understand, more than they did a decade ago. That has made me more comfortable sharing my work, particularly the erotic components of it, as well as sharing my own struggles with faith or what might be called magical thinking.
JW: With all the stereotypes and caricatures of Asians out there, how do you—how can any visual artist—depict an Asian person independently of these perceptions?
YK: I actually think it’s quite difficult to depict an Asian person and have them read as Asian. The resources you have are, what, “almond-shaped eyes,” dark hair? Will the figure have an eyelid above or below the eyes? Will the figure have facial hair? Say I add light skin to a figure, or I add eyelids. The figure then risks becoming white-passing or European-passing, especially if their hair is depicted in a cartoonish or wig-like manner. It can get confusing for a viewer to see where this person I’m depicting is coming from, so the process of depicting Asians is still, for me, quite challenging, even when I’m in the middle of creating a work. So is representing the diversity that exists within the broad category of “Asian figures.” It’s important for me not to start from a generic mock-up, or from a caricature.
At the same time, I want to represent Asians as desirable, voluptuous, and androgynous, as if they’re god-like figures in mythology. The choice to show body parts like penises in the paintings was also important in humanizing the figures.
JW: So the eroticism simultaneously humanizes and monumentalizes the figures.
YK: The eroticism stems from the notion that the figures in the paintings are lusting after something, that they’re blindly in love with ideals, cultures, or their own identity, and in that fury, they’re not actually able to navigate the cultures they exist in. You do stupid things when you’re in love. You don’t realize when you’re embarrassing yourself or actually working against yourself.
JW: That’s so true. For readers who might not know much about your work, can you talk a bit about how you compose a picture?
YK: I work with a small team, and we start with aluminum panels, which we make ourselves and which have a distinct surface. Aluminum works well with the fluorescent palette I use, along with the glitter and the nail art jewels added to the paintings’ surfaces. Typically, we sand the surfaces down, so they have a fine tooth to them. That’s something you notice when you’re standing very close to the works. At the same time, it helps me to actually map the colors optically—I really strive for the case where light does not reflect off the painting’s surface. I want it to seem like the light is coming from inside the painting.
As for the composition, we start by drawing: we cover the surface with tracing paper and make multiple sketches on it to find the right composition. At this stage, the concerns are formal: shape, line. It’s almost like a graphic design scenario. We ask, how do shapes occupy space, how would the viewer move their eye? From there, we start to fill in the figures. As I’m painting, I start to develop the narrative. It feels like I’m a screenwriter, with a sense of the plot and setting and what I want these characters to feel. But then I have to determine things like the setting— what time of day it is in the scene, or historical time period in which it’s set. I have to decide: is this the present or the past, or neither?
Outside of picture-making, I love cinema and fiction. Tarkovsky and slow cinema, especially. In a sense, my paintings are like short films or one-act plays. I give each figure a psychological dimension, which I enter in the later stages of the process. In the earlier stages, the emotions are stewing, and in doing so they become richer by the time I inhabit them. This way, I hope for a sense of authenticity to come out of the figures, their actions, and the scenes.
JW: In previous interviews, you acknowledge a debt to Black American art. Can you say a bit more about the influence of Black artists and other artists of color on your formative years?
YK: There is an urgency for American artists of color and Black artists to make images, and the ones who’ve influenced me have done so with such grace—in the sense that, in their works, there’s room for both open interpretative and deep criticism. When I was younger, I didn’t see other American artists doing this. Jackson Pollock, for instance, had the freedom to do what he did. It would be nice to paint like Pollock, but as marginalized individuals, that’s really not a priority to us. For that reason, I felt connected early on to a lot of African American artists and artists of the Black diaspora. They taught me how to use history constructively and how to portray stereotypes in a critical manner. The strategies and skills of Robert Colescott, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, and Horace Pippin informed me as someone trying to find a way, especially growing up in the US, where, as soon as I realized I wasn’t white, I realized I didn’t want to be white.
JW: When you had this realization and started investigating histories of racism in America, how did you—and how do you—go about guarding your mental health against the barrage of propaganda and caricatures that you found and eventually digested into your work?
YK: I was so blindsided by racism growing up in the States that nowadays I don’t really have to guard my mental health when I come across these histories. The research is more of an unraveling of my own internalized racism. It’s an exciting endeavor to unlearn things and come across the root of our perceptions, whether it’s propaganda or capitalism or something else entirely. It’s nice to know that, in the context of a longer history, the conversation is richer than hate.
Jenny Wu is a writer and independent curator.
Jenny Wu is a writer and independent curator.