Once Deemed Too Weird for the 1980s Art World, Tishan Hsu Is Back
Hsu—one of the few Chinese-Americans who found success in the 1980s New York art scene—was known for his hybridic, sculptural paintings and installations, and was shown by titanic dealers of the era such as Pat Hearn, Colin de Land, and Leo Castelli. I’m here to discover, among other things, why he disappeared from public view for nearly two decades—only to reemerge this year with a series of major shows: inclusion in “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., opening in February; in March, he’ll have work at Empty Gallery’s booth at the Armory Show, followed by a solo show at Empty Gallery later in the fall; and will have work at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in June.
Born in Boston in 1951, Hsu spent his early childhood in Zürich, Switzerland, while his father was completing his engineering dissertation. That was followed by a drastic change of scenery, as Hsu then moved to Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia. At the age of 10 in Wisconsin, Hsu’s mother arranged private lessons in the art department of the school where his father taught. A precocious artist, Hsu started winning awards and showing in museums while living in Virginia. “My first one-person show was at the Roanoke Fine Arts Center in my early teens, after which I began selling work privately,” Hsu says.
While studying architecture at MIT in the mid-1970s—as well as a stint studying filmmaking at the Carpenter Center at Harvard—he realized that his deepest interest lay somewhere in the technological ether.
“Philosophically, I was interested in this technological context that I had no idea about,” Hsu says. “Conceptually, I was always interested in the object, and the change in our understanding of the object,” he adds.
This “technological context” was the one that would rise from the ashes of Fordism and manufacturing.
After moving to New York in the late 1970s, the artist worked as a word processor at a law firm while also working full-time on his art practice. He had a solo show with White Columns in 1984, and another with Pat Hearn in 1985. “I was always doing both painting and sculpture together,” Hsu says. Indeed, the works combined not only mediums, but also probed the fusion of the body and technology. Hsu utilized the shape and spirit of screens before they were a ubiquitous reality, and rounded the edges of his sculptural, trompe-l’oeil works before ergonomic design was mass market—pieces like BlueBlood (1985), which seem to combine these features with a microbiological focus on cell-like structures swimming in waves, or Ooze (1987), an installation that resembles a lake with grids floating atop.
Hsu’s aesthetic is a mingling of the human body, mind and machine; the artist is a creator of biocybernetic landscapes. As we walk around the studio, he shows me some other works from this time period: There are more half-hidden eyes, or lips that seem like they’re trying to speak.
From early on, Hsu held a clinical interest in the body. He would call up hospitals for medical images and embed them in the work. Looking at these pieces, it feels like you’re staring into a chthonic, unearthly soup that’s swallowed and mutated people and objects alike. The experience is also akin to looking in a mirror that magically reveals the true but hidden nature of your own relationship with technology. “I felt that we needed a different way of thinking about our bodies in the world,” Hsu remarks, “and that images of the body, on their own, would not necessarily reflect the way that our bodies were functioning in the world.”
After a successful string of shows in New York, Hsu went to Cologne, Germany. He showed across the continent, and though he was not meteorically successful, he was able to support himself with his art. However, something wasn’t quite right. “When I was living in Europe and selling a lot, I could feel the pressure of the market, both subliminally and consciously,” Hsu tells me. He also felt that many people’s reception of the work was off the mark—perhaps because it was, simply, ahead of its time. (Hsu also acknowledges the fact that the art world was extremely white—even more so than today—which presented an additional hurdle.)
Despite the similar aesthetic of visual artists such as Ashley Bickerton or filmmakers like David Cronenberg and David Lynch (“Blue Velvet was a stunning movie for me,” he says), Hsu admits that it didn’t seem people were ready for the work. “It was a very frustrating exercise to go through,” he says, “so misunderstood.”
So Hsu decided to self-impose a disappearance from the art world. He got a teaching job, had a kid, and spent the ’90s outside the public eye. However, this doesn’t mean he stopped making art. One such work from this decade, Fingerpainting (1994), which hangs on the wall of his studio, is a giant silkscreen work that undulates from fleshy to bluish, hands outstretched as if they’re trying to escape the art, or pull you in.
Crucially, the emergence of digital technology was starting to enable Hsu to make the work he’d always dreamed of. “As technology was evolving throughout all of this, I was able to try it out,” he says with a smile. With the emergence of a very user-friendly version of Photoshop at the turn of the millennium, and wide-format printing, a new horizon appeared. “What was interesting is that [the technology] was just following what I was trying to do. It was making the work more clear, more radically what the art was trying to be.”
Then, in 2006, Hsu encountered a life-changing experience that reaffirmed and echoed his practice of negotiating the body’s merging with foreign objects: He received a kidney transplant. “When I entered the surgical theater, I thought, this is the most intense installation I have ever experienced,” Hsu says.
In much of his oeuvre, there are little to no obvious clues pointing to his Chinese heritage. However, a new piece is brewing for a show at Empty Gallery in Hong Kong later this year. The “Shanghai Project,” as he refers to it, started in 2012 following the death of his mother. “My sister and I discovered hundreds of letters written to her and her brother,” Hsu says. “Those letters were hidden from us for our entire lives because of the trauma.”
The topic of the family living through the violence of the Cultural Revolution was something that was rarely, if ever, discussed. The discovery of these letters led Hsu to reconnect with family across the U.S. and China, and he decided to visit Shanghai, where a relative of his—a doctor whose identity Hsu would rather not specify due to the political sensitivity of the subject—had his home. Around 1967, the living room of the house was converted into an office for the Red Guards.
In 2013, Hsu visited Shanghai, and would maintain a small studio there until 2016. It’s not what Hsu found in a relative’s home that shocked him, but rather what he didn’t find.
“So we start digging these [photo albums] up, and I noticed there were all these missing photos. I asked, ‘What is this? Why are they missing?’” There was adhesive residue in the areas where the missing photos had been, ghostly traces. Hsu’s relative told him that the Red Guards were responsible: “They took out pictures that had any connection to bourgeois life.”
Hsu scanned the albums, which contained images of family gatherings, some on boats and others portrait-style, and added his signature gestures: digital warping, pools of fluorescent green, cell-like sculptural structures, or drips of silicone extending out, like stalactites in some forgotten cave.
“Because of digital imaging,” Hsu says, “I could take these photos, scan them, then blow them up and alter and edit them. The state of digital editing allowed me to work with these in a way I never would have done 15, 20 years ago.” The works from the “Shanghai Project” are even more haunting than the body parts that populate his other works, evidence of the forced forgetting that the Red Guards tried to impose.
So, after a long period of research and work outside the public’s view, Hsu is back.
His uncommon aesthetic, too weird or layered for most audiences in the 1980s, now seems prophetic, anticipating like-minded works by younger artists such as