The Brooklyn Rail


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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue
Art In Conversation

Oscar yi Hou with Andrew Woolbright

Portrait of Oscar yi Hou. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Oscar yi Hou. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Brooklyn Museum
Oscar yi Hou: East Of Sun, West Of Moon
October 14, 2022–September 17, 2023
New York City

To understand Oscar yi Hou’s practice, you have to see it through its rhythm of language—the edges that are formed by words, and the way that they are able to perpetuate the invisible but real architectures of alterity. Oscar’s portraiture is a language engine–producing a textual and metaphysical hum throughout. It is almost inaudible, but it's there. It’s what produces the urgency in his portraiture. The years of bad language from others have never left him—the years of words that reify and aim to sort and categorize ultimately inscribe subjects as remote and peripheral support. The bad language and its memory were needed for the good language to come out—the languages that Oscar forms of intention and attention, of relationality and recovery. The flattening sign and signifier that have operated against marginalized communities, has now taught the artist the methods needed to make sigils—to cache and encode meaning, to form and unform legibility through cascades of metaphysics and indecipherability. The artist captures what hovers between two people sitting in a room—one drawing the other while talking. Where the “representationalism,” a word coined by the artist, has aimed to flatten and overdetermine the artist’s experience, yi Hou has inverted it to recognize, dimensionalize, and develop.

It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of psychoanalysis to see why Oscar takes on the portrait. His is a lifetime of being portraitized through words—as patriarchal normativity proves incapable of understanding his Asian identity through the colonial project, or his sexuality within a heteronormative culture. He is never unaware of this portrait that has been assigned to him by the majoritarian cult—the overlay of assumptions and expectations that peripheralize his experience. He knows too well the ways that questions are formed to deliver alienating subtexts—intended to keep the margins from feeling comfortable within. The way questions formed with “are you…” have the ability to freeze you in place, like “where are you from? Where are you really from?” So his portraiture takes all of those moments and situates bodies somewhere between anatomy and calligraphy, where each body is able to produce its own text. He externalizes the object of his own trauma of identity outwards, transforming it into a relational generosity, something that is workable from both ends. When a friend comes to the studio for their portrait, Oscar’s questions are different from the ones he’s asked and expected to answer. In the studio, he’s able to use language in the ways he’s needed it for himself. The model hears “you know what you’re doing. Do what makes you feel comfortable. I trust you” or “is it ok if I include this in the painting? What do you think?” He trusts and asks the questions that he hasn’t been asked. He takes on the cipher, becomes the placeholder, visualizes how relational it all is. Each question that has been formed against him has made a careful young artist, interested in the responsibility of depicting others.

Gombrich’s obsession with the schema became Oscar’s. You see it in a certain kind of precision, in both language and in the way he paints his subjects. It is a precision only accessible by those who have experienced marginalization—the tightrope of expectation and the pressure on how to represent one’s self that it produces. This precision necessitates slowness, that is both an argument for itself and a critique of speed and abbreviation. Nothing is errant. It isn’t nervous, but it is aware of its own responsibility, and all that it is pressing up against. It’s weight. The weight of responsibility someone feels to do right by others, and themselves. It’s the process of correcting a stutter, the stutter produced from being in a hostile culture. It’s taking the stutter and making it a glitch by shaping the schema with others. The painter and the sitter build it together, forming a space of disidentification. Without romanticizing it, it takes a certain amount of heartbreak to make a portrait. You have to experience alienation to form the intensity of care that great observational painting requires. In Oscar’s portraiture, the experience is encrypted, withheld, intimate, kept private between the artist and the subject. It is elusive when it needs to be, inviting when it needs to be. It is a language of survival that Oscar has developed to mine and understand his own labor, and reflect the visage of the spectator back at them through mirrors. It holds an account, while finding moments of ceremony for communities and people that need it—deserve it. To coincide with his show East of Sun, West of Moon at the Brooklyn Museum, I sat down with Oscar on the Rail’s “New Social Environment” to explore some of these subjects. Below is an edited version of that conversation

Installation view: <em>Oscar yi Hou: East of sun, west of moon</em>, Brooklyn Museum, 2023. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Installation view: Oscar yi Hou: East of sun, west of moon, Brooklyn Museum, 2023. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Andrew Woolbright (Rail): I was interested in Simon Wu’s contribution to your book and how it relates to your work. He said the closest phrase to “I love you” in Burmese is “I chip you” or “I chip off a piece of you” or “I keep a piece of you.” And I think that that really gets to something you are doing within your practice. There’s this really dynamic vocabulary of portraiture mixed with languaging, and together it becomes an almost sculptural language of keeping and belonging. It’s something that I see in your work, this love that is expressed by chipping something from someone, and it comes across most clearly for me in your drawings. I’m wondering how you think about that relationship between your drawing and your painting?

Oscar yi Hou: To chip away a piece from someone is an interesting way of thinking about love—it’s material. I certainly do work with these “chips” or “fragments” that my people shed in my vicinity, when I’m with them. And I suppose these fragments become talismanic. However, chipping-off to me feels subtractive, whereas I tend to think about love as being more additive, or multiplicative.

Writing is drawing, drawing is writing, writing is inscription—which is etching, which is manual, which is hand-work. It’s all fundamental to my practice. Generally, every painting begins with the drawing, with preparatory sketches and stuff like that; but also, the way I paint kind of feels like drawing. I use long skinny brushes, which means my mark-making is similar to how I might draw, with a focus on line and mark. To this end I don’t really differentiate between painting and drawing. For example, Entitled (Him who licks the sky) (2020), is putatively a drawing on paper, but I used a pen-brush to make it. Is ink not a form of paint? So where do we draw the line? Literally and figuratively speaking.

Rail: Going into that. You know, we love talking about relationality here at the Rail, and I know a dear friend of the Rail Tomas Vu was someone you worked with at Columbia. I'm wondering what your experience was like working with him and how that has influenced your practice.

Yi Hou: It was awesome. I took a class called “Drawing Into Print” with him. I want to say it was sophomore year, but college is all kind of a blur, and especially with COVID, I lost half of that whole experience. With Tomas, in that class, I learned some of the fundamentals of printmaking, a practice I hadn’t really done before. Monoprinting fascinated me the most. My text-based practice originated with monoprints. I would write spontaneous prose in ink, and run the plate through the roller a couple times. Each successive print would degrade in clarity, eventually tending towards the spectral and illegible. During that time I also watched Brokeback Mountain for the first time, so I also produced a series of prose-infused cowboy themed monoprints, cowboys doing very gay things to each other. In that class I had to work pretty quickly and iteratively, and as such, I was able to work through a lot of ideas in a highly generative way. So I thank Tomas for that class—it was very formative! I also used that class to get out of the drawing requirement at Columbia, thank god. In that class I was technically “drawing”—but I was using a paint brush. To produce prints. Drawing is painting, painting is drawing. Printmaking is somewhere within or eccentric to that matrix.

Oscar yi Hou, <em>Coolieisms, aka: Sly Son Goku turns 23</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Coolieisms, aka: Sly Son Goku turns 23, 2021. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Rail: Yeah, it comes across in your paintings—this wonderful relationship between real, dimensionalized structure that comes from you keeping the pigments separate. But then this motif of logograms, symbols, and language that you bring into it. They sometimes feel like stickers on the paintings. Or maybe it’s a more metaphysical gesture. How long have you been doing that in your practice? Or what's the connection for you, that interest of fusing language and portraiture the way that you do?

Yi Hou: Sometimes the symbolic world is diegetic to the subject’s world—shadows may be cast between them for example. Other times it’s non-diegetic, and they exist more metaphysically. I’ve always been interested in signifiers and significations. Anyone who is rendered minor has access to these subcultural languages and signifying practices, these codes of the margins. For me, I guess it was growing up as part of the Chinese diaspora. What objects or signs signified “the East” or “the Other” for example, growing up and working in my family’s Chinese restaurant. It was in this diasporic context, as someone who can’t read or write Chinese, that I became fascinated with language as a whole. Chinese became this intimately familiar yet completely foreign universe, more icon than logos.

Besides an aesthetic interest in language, I’ve always written too. Before I wrote poems I wrote a lot of song lyrics! I also love writing essays, which I thank college for. Reading, texts, and literature are also foundational to my practice, which I think is apparent in the essays I wrote for the book. It’s natural that all these things are coextensive with art-making.

Rail: I love that. I mean, I think a lot of people have made the association with your work that it is a type of portraiture that is reminiscent of Alice Neel, but I also think of artists like John Graham, who was very influential to the Abstract Expressionists, specifically Jackson Pollock. He represented this early moment of not knowing where to go with mimesis and the figure—wanting to keep together a portrait, but also feeling a need to challenge and break any sense of illusionism. I think it was an early moment within representational painting where it felt like it ran out of gas and had to set out to remind us that there's all this metaphysical excess at the border, these thoughts and ideas and inscriptions that are happening. But for you, it feels like there’s an urgency to the way you are disrupting mimetic cohesion. Beyond this ability that you have to communicate empathy or your sincere attempt at understanding your subjects, you're also involved in this very complex thing that you've termed representationalism—this cultural expectation and limitation that you are critiquing and very aware of and its double bind you have to consider as a portrait painter. Can you talk about this concept of representationalism?

Yi Hou: In the essays I wrote for my book, I use the term “representationalism” to describe, essentially, the political recuperation and defanging of identity politics by liberal multiculturalism to serve capitalist ends. It’s corporate DEI. It’s an ideology which seeks to represent, and often deputize, minoritarian subjects within larger structures of power. It sort of speaks to the perfectibility of liberalism as it is embedded within racial capitalism. My context is obviously the art world, but we live in such an all-consuming world of appearances that it’s something we see in all spheres. In the art world, it’s the conversion of the image, or the representation, of the Other into commodity. Such commodities are of course often tied to transfers of extreme wealth or financial speculation. But beyond their exchange-value, these commodities are also flattened into moral fetishes, within the rubric of liberal multiculturalism—elites are able to buy and trade these images to purchase moral alibi, for example. The use-value of such commodities is simply the sign, or token, of “diversity.” The aesthetic value is of less importance, despite aesthetics being the whole conceit of art. In brief, the market compels minor artists to produce works which are legible as minor, yet palatable and tasty enough to be eaten by this machine.

Of course, under the rubric of diversity, there is a lot of restorative work being done, and important historical redress. Many people have fought for this moment. But it’s a complicated issue, especially in the hype of identity-based figuration, which I myself have materially benefited from. I know that some eschew the figure entirely. But I think the figure still has so much more to say. It’s not the sole ingredient of personhood, of course, but it’s the most sensuous. As Darby English has said, “the figure is a sign of life.”

Rail: The figure, yes. And I’ve always felt as a painter, that part of the reason painting continues to be relevant is that it is capable of layering critique in this complicated way. It’s able to cultivate desire, but then when you bring someone in—I think what your work does so well is it really conditions a second guessing of it, you're going like, wait am I implicated in this process—is that reification thing happening? Or is it the awareness of that reification being possible? Is that enough? And searching for the answers through painting of how to avoid being flattened really works. Painting still argues for itself because of its ability to lure, but then it’s the subjectivity of the painter that disrupts it. I think this work channels those questions in a really interesting way. I’m wondering, going off of that, how you approach your subjects, your models, and what the process is—how much is observation versus photography? And how much are they involved in their depiction?

Yi Hou: I work mainly from drawings and photographs I take in the studio. In terms of how much they’re involved in the works’ makings, it really depends—sometimes the subjects want to be told how to pose, other times they know what to do. For example, in Une rosace entre me, toi, and l’autre, aka: l’eventail of l’orient (Mont-réal-est) (2022), the subject, Chris, is someone who very profoundly understands her own beauty and glamor, and she knows how to posture her own body. With her, she just sat down, and that was all we needed—that was that.

There’s often a continued involvement in their depiction. My own philosophy towards representing the Other is that I’m representing the relationship that I share with them. I embed and encode this relationship in a variety of ways. I guess, going back to what you said about “chipping away,” there’s pieces of information that I learned just from conversation. For example, Chris’s favorite flower is a rose. So that’s why she’s holding a bouquet of roses. The letters that descend on the floor spell the French word, R-O-S-A-C-E, which is rose-themed. Chris is based in Montréal, so there are bilingual references in the work and in the title. Her favorite number is three, which is why on the bottom left there’s a three inscribed on the floor. So there’s a logic to the symbols, and a signification to most of them. These fragments, or maybe excesses, of a person end up becoming recorded and encrypted within the piece in a way that is only legible to the subject and I.

Oscar yi Hou, <em>Une rosace entre me, toi, and l'autre, aka: l'éventail of l'orient (Mont-réal-est)</em>, 2022. Oil, ink on canvas, 64 x 46 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Une rosace entre me, toi, and l'autre, aka: l'éventail of l'orient (Mont-réal-est), 2022. Oil, ink on canvas, 64 x 46 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Rail: What I like about these paintings is that they’re also communicating through images. I get a sense that you're sharing the same oxygen as these people, you're breathing the same air, you're aware of the way they're sitting and you're sitting, and there's an endurance to that, the way that you're depicting them that then, yes, gets brought into the studio through photography, but at least the initial step seems to very much be sharing a physical space. And like you said, that means that they are involved in their depiction. Going back to the numerology and the logos, would you go so far as to refer to it as a type of “sigil-ing”? Are they sigils? Like, what is the language that you're creating, employing, like some of your favorite things, or their things? This shuffling together of your interests and theirs—I mean, it's kind of like a heraldry of a person and the relationship you have with them then. Or is it? I guess what I’m asking—Do you invite the language of magic? Would you go so far as to consider it as a form of magic like that sigil-ing, and is there a significant difference to you between that embedding or that encoding? A sigil is a process of binding—of charging a type of abstraction with meaning before losing the meaning of the thing in the process. It’s a purposeful forgetting of its meaning as an attempt to store something transcendent in it. I mean, the language of encryption feels parallel to a type of sympathetic magic, I feel like these words get very close to each other. But I wonder if that's too romantic?

Yi Hou: I think the language the paintings create is a sense of mutualism, but also complexity, encryption. The signs—the objects, symbols, the language fragments—are a form of mutually encrypted code, protected through a cipher. And the cipher is the You-I relationship that I share with the subject. I’m interested in opacity, and honoring opacity, in the way that Édouard Glissant wrote a lot about. “Diversity” in the real sense of multiplicity, unknowability, of being-with. Creating opacity through symbology also, I hope, invites the viewer to spend more time with the work, to slow down its consumption. The work hopefully invites work on the part of the viewer, maybe not necessarily in the sense of to look is to labor, but work in the physics-sense, which is the exchange of energy via force done upon something. In any case, the act of decoding, or reading the work, hopefully creates more of a dialogical relationship between the viewer, the artwork, and the artist, rather than more of a one-way didactic one.

Magic is a really interesting kind of metaphor to use. Magic. I mean, what is magic? Is it the otherworldly? The transformation of fantasy into reality? Or just the illusion of it? I don’t really believe in magic. Sure, I think a lot of things in my life might be magical, and I think that life is magic in a way, but I think I've always approached life with a more earthbound logic.

To this end, I suppose they’re sigils in the sense that they communicate something from beyond, but very infrequently is it something suprahuman. They often tend to be quite indexical and matter of fact. I think encryption and opacity engenders an air of mystery which bestows the illusion of magic. But I’m very human-centric. I think the metaphysicality of humanness is magical, but also very human, very mundane. It is what it is.

Rail: I like the more digital language you apply to it—the caching and encryption and inscribing, encoding, but that also feels close to, you know, early definitions of magic through the magi, the Persian magoth and the binding of the metaphysical world and the deciphering of unknowability through dreams, of trying to transfer something that can't be transferred, through images, which I think this idea of portraiture really engages in on some level.

Yi Hou: I think a lot about Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work, especially in her text Woman, Native, Other. She explains how the language of Taoism and Zen are complex and opaque, but are able to transmit much more profundity than more conventionally clear prose. Koans, for example, are stories and riddles rife with paradox, and yet it’s through this complexity that the reader is taken along for the ride so to speak and comes to their own conclusions and answers. She contrasts this with the authoritarianism of the “clear” prose of rhetoric which often seeks to persuade through command, through more normative conventions of ordered language, cause-effect. The authoritarianism lies in the fact that it seeks to produce and persuade people of a single answer, by delineating a straight, clear, overly illuminated path. However, it’s only through meandering through the darkness and bramble of a Koan does one come closer to enlightenment. There’s much more of a multiplicity of interpretation, which is the kind of hermeneutic I prefer when it comes to art. But of course, there’s always a balance, this tension between mystery and clarity, opacity and transparency. You just always gotta be honest with it.

Rail: I really enjoy thinking about these paintings through the valence of the koan. The winding riddle or the derive that allows for new paths to be formed in its illegibility.

I like this idea of taking this very materially grounded form and really trying to understand the imminence of someone and translate that but then you're also engaging in like that same pleasure that you get from looking at the Ripley Scroll. That moment where you get a sense that the signs are becoming symbols that we can't access. The Koan invites the person along for a ride but it also forms deep memory, a memory of shared experience. There's a map, but then there's something beyond me that shifts it into that eidetic space where you will remember the subjects you’ve painted as a viewer. I feel like, like you said, that magical language isn’t conventionally pedagogical, but it is something that forms a permanence in our memory, like, those abstract languages really make us remember these portraits in a way. That’s the skin of them, the point of transference. I really liked the quote you included from Roland Barthes—“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” I wanted to talk about how you become the cipher and explore that. Can you talk about that ciphering and that stuttering that you're interested in through language?

Yi Hou: I really love that quote, which is from A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. I think it really speaks to the immanence of yearning, this feeling of grasping, when we do language. Trying to convert the immaterial—especially something as crazy as human desire—into these legible signs always feels a little Sisyphean. I’m interested in this kind of friction, between two semiotic systems. Between two cultures, to give one example, or between language and the body, to give another. Language being the fingertip through which we touch the Other, the unknowable. Drawing is a similar type of proboscis. Literally I suppose, as you mark-make at the interface, at the surface of paper or canvas. It’s so physical, it’s in your hands as you etch and inscribe yourself into the world. Something that doesn’t exist yet. The next stroke, the next word, it doesn’t exist until you write it. That tension of poiesis, it’s so ripe with possibility.

Rail: But I like the way you describe it, that ability to evoke, it’s something that doesn't exist yet. But like language it's a thing that can perform or evoke something into being. I was reminded of a lecture by Jan Verwoert when looking at your show, where he talks about the importance of ceremony within art, that the artist functions as the storyteller of a community, shares an oral history that then community can gather around. And art is an important act of ceremony, which is an opportunity for the community to come together and remember the stories of ancestors and ghosts, but also, it is planning for the future, it's a temporal shifting that language can create. And I think that your work has some relationship to ceremony.

Yi Hou: Yeah. My paintings take a long time to make. The larger ones generally take between one to two months, sometimes more. So I don’t actually produce that many works in a year. I am generally pretty precious and intentional with what I paint, though I’ve been trying to soften that approach recently. But they do just take a while. With Ends of Empire, for example, it’s seven feet tall. And writing all the small lettering with a paintbrush takes time. I used pure oil pigment from a cadmium red paint stick, which takes weeks to dry. So your wrist can’t really rest against the canvas or it gets smudged. It’s a very labor intensive way to write, but I like it as a form of ceremony, ritual, the way such labor is embedded in the work—at least for now, I feel that it has to be my hand making these marks, not outsourced to an assistant. It feels special to have this kind of toil that gets buried within the work. But I guess ceremony takes time, and I have deadlines and demands and liabilities, but I do want to keep making it this way as much as I can.

Rail: And also, a quick moment, I mean, another tightrope within that work is just the use of cadmium red, which is such a difficult color that doesn't want to mix with anything else without making ugly browns. I really, just from a painter's standpoint, appreciate the way you did the shadows and know how difficult that is with that color. Things have to be kept very separate when using that color and you have to paint around it.

Yi Hou: Yeah, it’s very stubborn. It’s toxic, carcinogenic, it doesn’t dry, it sticks to your skin. But it's a beautiful color. There’s nothing like it. And there are cultural significations to red too, in Chinese visual culture for example.

Oscar yi Hou, <em>Coolieisms, aka: Leather Daddy's Highbinder Odalisque</em>, 2022. Oil, acrylic, gouache on canvas, 64 x 46 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Coolieisms, aka: Leather Daddy's Highbinder Odalisque, 2022. Oil, acrylic, gouache on canvas, 64 x 46 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Rail: I'm interested in what role fetish and leather play within the work. But I also am wondering if I'm correct in seeing it as your kind of critique of this, this language you use of deputizing that goes back to representationalism, like the idea that when minoritarian subjects within a dominant culture, when they're allowed to express themselves, you're expected to express yourself in a way that reifies that liberal humanism like you said, or justifies it. You’re deputized and expected to reinforce it, while flattening your own experience in the process. I interpreted the cowboy hat as possibly a layer of critique of identity fetish, but how are you thinking of it?

Yi Hou: Many cultures around the world have a heroic knight type figure, often functioning as nationalistic avatar—in America, it’s the cowboy. Even though the actual job of a cowboy is pretty humble, as a mythic figure he has been sublimated through American culture—and it’s interesting because the United States is a relatively new country—sublimated into the founding myths of America, in whom all these myths and fictions that America likes to tell itself congeal. I also think about the cowboy in relation to the American cult of masculinity, especially how it dovetails with American expansionism. If we look at Roosevelt for example, and how he fused the rhetoric of American-frontiersman manhood with US imperialism. Myths of racial purity and whiteness also congeal with the mythic cowboy, even though historically speaking cowboys were actually racially diverse.

So I think about all these things in relation to the history of Chinese people in America, and I guess Asians at large, in this country. Chinese people have been in America since 1820, and thousands of Chinese laborers helped construct the first transcontinental railroad. I’ve talked about this a lot before—how they were treated incredibly poorly, and how they have been largely left out of popular memory, despite being vital to the construction of a foundational piece of American infrastructure that enabled westward expansion. Then there was the rise of anti-Chinese rhetoric, violence, and legislation in the later decades of the nineteenth century, which is, in many ways, coextensive with the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric today.

So the figure of the cowboy is a very vexed one, and in my own work I approach him with José Esteban Muñoz’s writings on disidentification. As Muñoz writes about it, the minoritarian operates within the hegemonic sphere, recircuiting and remixing the semiotics. In queer contexts, this is often enacted through performance. So by having East Asian figures perform and dress-up as the cowboy, it exposes the artifice, the myth, of such a figure—it points out the contradictions of such myth, by having subjects who are historically precluded from inhabiting America’s nationalistic myths, “perform” these myths.

Oscar yi Hou, <em>Coolieisms aka Gold Mounatin Cruiser The Mineshafts after hours trade</em>, 2022. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Coolieisms aka Gold Mounatin Cruiser The Mineshafts after hours trade, 2022. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Rail: Yeah, that's interesting. Incorporating disidentification—neither an acceptance of hegemony or becoming its reactionary—Basquiat possessing the figure of Superman. Can you talk about Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka: Bruce's Bitch, (2021)?

Yi Hou: This piece is based off the character Kato, that Bruce Lee played in the TV show The Green Hornet from the sixties. Bruce plays the martial artist valet of the protagonist, The Green Hornet. The character of Kato is really interesting in the history of “yellow” iconicity because Bruce Lee specifically chose to perform the character of Kato in a way to destabilise conventional racialised semiotics—the relationship between Asian masculinity, subordinacy, submissiveness, for example. The painting thinks about this also in relation to leather, kink, and queer cultural depictions of hypermasculinity, of artists like Tom of Finland for example. Such depictions of hypermasculinity are interesting—it’s about masculine desire, sure, but also I find it to be a form of drag, excessive male drag. It’s this kind of excessive queer performance of masculinity that I feel destabilises the integrity of heteromasculinity, though it’s also not without its problems of course. There is also the connection between race and masculinity too, specifically the feminization of yellow men, how East Asian men are precluded from conventional masculinity. That’s something that was a part of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the turn of the twentieth century too. There’s this fascinating historical document, published in 1902 by the American Federation of Labor, titled “Meat Vs Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, which Shall Survive?” It’s one of the inspirations behind my body of work called “Coolieisms.”

Rail: Could we talk more about this idea of labor and use value and exchange value, especially with the “Coolieisms” series? Can you talk about how you feel your labor is being used, and what part feels like labor to you? And this is a really important subject within your work, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Yi Hou: In the painting Coolieisms, AKA: Leather Daddy Highbinder Odalisque, (2022) the figure has the Chinese character for labor tattooed on his left forearm. I mentioned before the history of Chinese people in America, and alluded to the relationship between labor and racial capitalism. The labor of people of color is so deeply embedded within the foundations of America, but we intentionally forget. It becomes commodity fetishised in a way—we forget all the social relations which precondition our current existence, or America’s existence as a global superpower.

I think I’ve just always been interested in racialized labor. Working in the family restaurant back in Liverpool for example—an immigrant first-gen Chinese restaurant is a very archetypal kind of ethnicized labor. And it was such a family affair too—my mother was front of house, my father was the chef, my auntie and cousin worked as kitchen helpers, and my brother and I worked as servers. It’s interesting to think about. Food is often the interface people have with other cultures. We served food that differed so hugely from the staff meals we would eat, or the food we’d eat at home. Not that I care whether either is more “authentic” than the other. But I was always fascinated to witness.

Oscar yi Hou, <em>Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka Bruce's Bitch</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka Bruce's Bitch, 2021. Oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Rail: And this self portrait you did is important. I remember seeing it at your James Fuentes show, and it felt like its heart in many ways. You’re using yourself as the cipher, this body of disguise and performance of languagability, or this languaging, that you’re working through. Because the other thing we haven’t brought up is the quote you had from your book, “...perhaps language will always be something that the queer child either fails or masters,” this fixation and imposition of pressure on how you articulate, how you use language, how you perform, in these these cultures and not knowing at every step, what you're revealing, or what you're giving away, or what secret is being let out and what's staying encoded in you, I feel like Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka: Bruce’s Bitch is traversing a lot of those valences that you have to manage and navigate.

Yi Hou: Yeah. I think any minoritarian subject has a complicated relationship to mastery. How well a colonized subject, or an immigrant, any minorised subject, can “master” the major, or hegemonic language, for example. My parents gave me an English name so that I’d be able to fit more easily into Western society. This of course relates to queerness as well. When I was younger, the kind of homophobia I experienced—I remember people commenting on how I sounded gay. Then my voice broke, and it sounds different now, but I always think, what was lost? When I “mastered” language? I was able to navigate the world in a far safer way than a lot of my peers, especially growing up in Liverpool, but I always feel a sense of loss. In the book I describe it as shedding feathers.

Rail: I really appreciate how you handle those complications within your practice. And I just think that—and also would like to know more about this, this feeling of mastery, because I feel like you're rephrasing Alice Neel to some degree, also possibly Juanita McNeely, Cézanne, maybe Philip Pearlstein, it’s a language you’re rephrasing that communicates empathy. And I really appreciate that, but I wonder how it feels when you paint yourself, how that differs from when you're painting others? And also, do you think of rephrasing versus, say, quoting?

Yi Hou: I tend to paint my eyebrows and mustache as thicker than they actually are, for sure! Which I think is just vanity. A little projection. But yes, I’ve painted myself a lot—I’m not very precious with it. I’m tired by my own visage. It’s more of an image than a face, if that makes sense. But it’s a lot easier because there’s less of a procedure of care needed. You can abuse your own image. That’s why I use my own likeness as a vague reference for the “Coolieisms” series—they aren’t portraits of others, so I can manhandle the figures a little more.

I think I actually quote more than I rephrase. My practice is pretty citational—I reference a lot. Cultural artifacts, other artists, books, etc. You know, in the book there’s a whole cento of just quotes. I was giving a talk for Troy Montes-Michie’s class at Princeton a while back, and afterward he commented on how my practice actually functions a lot like collage, which makes sense to me. As an artist I try to be as embedded in the world as possible, and the world is obviously relational, discursive.

Rail: Can we go back to the beginning for a moment? Your drawings for me feel like such a different language. And maybe that's just to some degree what a lot of drawings do within a practice, but it feels like it really reveals... I mean, I love your drawings of writing and how indecipherable the language becomes. And the shapes they take. They become talismans. But also the way you did this figure in the drawing, I just feel like, it's way more about a haunting—the language of drawing allows you to be very, very soft, in just having this glowing body, and not have to deal with structure. And I'm wondering how you feel about the drawings. They feel more spectral.

Yi Hou: My poem-pictures on paper are a lot more… personal. I write a lot of poetry about love and heartbreak, which I maybe should try and do a little less of, and maybe be more expansive, I don’t know. But that’s just where I’m at. But I think that’s why the works often feel like palimpsests, or traces, residues. I prefer to have these exist as indecipherable kind of plaques.

Rail: That sense of heartbreak comes across in a way that I don't see necessarily in the paintings and maybe even this spectrality or this haunting or this sense of depth that seems very pathos-laden. The paintings feel like they have—and this isn't a bad thing, but I feel like they're obligated to do so many things. Like you're really trying to structure a sense of self, you're trying to hold an account, you're trying to critique, you're trying to encode, whereas these feel just like registers of how you really feel about these people.

Yi Hou: In a way, there's more freedom—when I'm painting other people, there's a lot more care involved.

Rail: And how are you navigating it specifically within your practice? How do you feel like that connects to the sense of labor that has been put on you and your painting or do you feel that? Do you feel the license to communicate an emotional life and interiority? Or do you feel like that expectation of labor has been placed on you? How much of that obligation do you feel in the studio?

Oscar yi Hou,<em> Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aka Bushwick Bleeding Hearts Club</em>, 2022. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.
Oscar yi Hou, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aka Bushwick Bleeding Hearts Club, 2022. Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Yi Hou: I think a lot of minoritarian artists experience this pressure—it speaks to the ideology of representationalism. This is something Rey Chow wrote about in her text the Protestant Ethnic—she describes it as “coercive mimeticism,” or the ways in which minor artists are coerced to “confess” their minority-ness in a palatable, legible way, one that often conforms to the liberal desire for cultural productions of racial trauma.

You know, in many ways my work is accessible—I make my work with an audience in mind, especially with my show at the Brooklyn Museum, and I try to be a socially embedded artist. To be honest, I’m a very New York-focused artist. This city is my home. I have to be strongly convinced to do solo shows in other cities, simply because it takes so long for me to produce these bodies of work, and the idea that most of my friends or my people in New York won’t see the fruits of my labor, at least in-person, is depressing.

The show is legible on first view as identity-based figuration, but hopefully the show also complicates, deepens, and invites further thought. The figure is a great point of entry into much larger ideas. This is why I’m so interested in opacity—leaving things unknowable, especially as it relates to marginality. To prevent, or at least slow down, its consumption, in a way that honors the unknowability of the Other. Glissant writes about how we need not let opacity be about separation or apartheid, or antagonism, but it should be about celebration, being-with, honor—he writes that the right to opacity should “be a lamp watching over our poetics.” Opacity is not a point of closure, but rather, a point of expansion, of multiplicity, of ripeness.

I’m not interested in antagonizing viewers. I want everyone to see and interpret my work. It’s interesting. I’m thinking about the painting All American Boyfriend (2022). That painting, at base, is about desire, relation, love. In a very profoundly personal way. But it is also about whiteness within America’s racial matrix, especially when thrown into the mix of queer interracial desire, libido. It was the first painting I had done of a white person in a long time. In the painting, the figure is ensconced by a mirror, a fictional mirror I constructed—which my hands are holding up. I was interested in the gaze, specularity, the audience, and interpellating the subject of the painting as the mythic audience, as the American avatar of the cowboy.

Rail: One thing that I appreciate is that your language of painting, and your language of drawing as well, really cultivates a painterly desire. I really enjoy looking at these. I enjoy being around them. But none of them are ever as simple as just a desire relationship. They are not letting anyone off the hook. And I think that's needed. And also it's not antagonizing, like you said. It's just holding the mirror up. And that's an important part of all this.

Yi Hou: Yeah—it’s aesthetics. At base, with paint, with art, I’m interested in aesthetics, beauty, desire, all these sensual, sumptuous, earthly things. And the way that all this can expand beyond itself, and invite the viewer into itself. As a point of entry into conceptual thought, ideas, politics.


Andrew Paul Woolbright

Andrew Paul Woolbright is an artist, gallerist, and Editor-at-Large at the Brooklyn Rail, living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Woolbright is an MFA graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design in painting and is the director of the Lower East Side Gallery Below Grand. He currently teaches at Pratt and School of Visual Arts in New York.


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