Oscar yi Hou’s Layered Portraits of Queer Kinship Evade Easy Interpretation
Oscar yi Hou, Forlorn fire-escape flowers, aka_ New York strings of life, 2020. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Portrait of Oscar yi Hou, 2021. Courtesy of Oscar yi Hou.
Twenty-eight stories above Ground Zero, Oscar yi Hou was nearing the finish line for a painting for his upcoming solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Yi Hou, one of 25 artists currently in residence at Silver Art Projects at 4 World Trade Center, has had an astonishingly swift ascent as a painter of people—of portraits that are never purely figurative, but position characters as richly complex ciphers. His first solo exhibition in New York, “A sky-licker relation” at James Fuentes, opened last September, a few months after he received a BA in visual arts from Columbia University. In February, the Brooklyn Museum awarded him its third annual UOVO Prize, which comes with a commission for a public mural and a solo exhibition at the institution. Opening this fall, it will be his first solo museum show.
The in-progress painting will be a centerpiece of this presentation. In it, two vividly limned people—yi Hou’s close friend, the artist Amanda Ba, and her partner—sit in front of a shoji screen that anchors an otherwise cosmic environment. Around them drifts a collage of symbols, including sheriff’s stars, cranes, and taijitus, which inhabit the space as much as their human counterparts. Butterflies and other creatures fill a painted border that doubles as a frame—a construct that “signifies that this is an image and not reality,” yi Hou said. “This is like a quote from life.”
Oscar yi Hou, Far Eastsiders, aka: Cowgirl Mama A.B & Son Wukong, 2021. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Oscar yi Hou, The Arm Wrestle of Chip & Spike; aka: Star-Makers, 2020. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Yi Hou’s practice is deeply citational, resulting in densely layered compositions that brim with imagery. As he paints relationships, unspooling with great care the complex, mutually consuming bonds between friends, and also himself, he celebrates elements of personal lives while baking in and building on artistic, literary, and other cultural references.
Some echoes are direct, yet made his own through his clear vision and technical brio. A crane and two sea goats walk into a bar, aka: Summertime Cosmogony on Old Broadway (2021)—a portrait of a lesbian couple ensconced at a kitchen table amid a magnetic cluster of symbols—is an homage to Alice Neel’s Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978). Meanwhile, the painting destined for the Brooklyn Museum reimagines a promotional postcard of Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka for the 1957 film Sayonara. “You have this rugged American soldier and a demure Asian woman, and I wanted to basically ‘queer it’ and have an Asian woman in the front and a trans woman in the back inhabit these roles,” yi Hou said. “I asked Amanda to look as butch as much as possible.”
Oscar yi Hou, A crane and two sea-goats walk into a bar, aka: Summertime Cosmogony on Old Broadway, 2021. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Oscar yi Hou, Cowgirl of Connecticut, aka: Today, All Fruits Ripen, 2021. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Other visual motifs encode his sitters’ personalities: beasts from the Chinese zodiac, astrology signs, and tattoos. The crane, a recurring presence, is a stand-in for yi Hou, whose Chinese name refers to an idiom that mentions a bird’s cry. “In general, I reference a lot of objects, Asian artifacts,” yi Hou said. “Often what I do is go to museum websites in search of Asian art objects. I have a trove of images, and I directly draw from them, remix them, or cite them.” Paintings in his Brooklyn Museum show will incorporate objects from the museum’s Asian art collection, like a folding fan, which yi Hou is drawn to for its gendered and racialized objecthood. “It’s a super oriental object that is a symbol of femininity, like a passive, demure Asian fan,” he said. “But also the fan is a weapon and in a bunch of martial arts things, like superhero movies.”
Oscar yi Hou, All American Girl, aka: Cowboy of Ohio, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Oscar yi Hou, Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka: Bruce’s Bitch, 2021. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
In converging these allusions with his subjects, yi Hou reaches beyond time and place to offer living representations with soulful heft. His figures are not only rendered but conjured as characters of possibility, unsung heroes who resolutely build their own mythologies. Many are dressed like cowboys, as in All American Girl, aka Cowboy of Ohio (2020), an arresting portrait of Ba in a campy kind of pinup glamour. One self-portrait, titled Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka: Bruce’s Bitch (2021), shows yi Hou dressed as Bruce Lee’s masked character of Kato from the 1960s television series The Green Hornet. Simultaneously evoking a Tom of Finland muscleman, yi Hou’s figure collides varying tropes of masculinity in a single frame.
Yi Hou began painting portraits in high school, largely of himself and friends at house parties. He was born in Liverpool to Cantonese immigrants who were also restaurant owners. When he wasn’t recruited to help, he played video games with his brother and drew frequently, dreaming of pursuing art in the United States. His idea of the country was shaped, in part, by texts he encountered by writers like Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig. “All this kind of rugged, white-man, road-trip type of novels,” yi Hou said. “I was always interested in the kind of openness, it seemed, of America, and the kind of vastness of it.”
Oscar yi Hou, Coolieisms, aka: Sly Son Goku, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Oscar yi Hou, Fire Snake of El Barrio, aka: Sunflower, 2021. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
At Columbia, yi Hou critically examined the country’s nation-building myths and histories of westward expansion. Research into stories of cowboys and coolies fueled new threads in his paintings, which continue to be complicated by notions of desire and queer kinship. In school, yi Hou also became more critical of his intentions to paint underrepresented people, of what he described as “a simplistic representational politics.” He was questioning his role as a sort of spokesperson when he read about Trinh T. Minh-ha’s deliberate framework of “speaking nearby” rather than “speaking about.” The filmmaker’s approach to ethnography has since been a grounding ethos for his practice. “When I was first reading all these texts and encountering all these thinkers, I was like, ‘Shit, I’m not going to represent anyone ever again. Like, is this violent?’” yi Hou said. “Trinh T. Minh-ha was a lifejacket, a rubber ring.”
That careful responsibility for what he creates extends to his concerns about how his paintings circulate in an art market suddenly hungry for work by artists of color. “They’re very accessible in a lot of ways because they’re figurative,” yi Hou said. “That’s kind of why I want to avoid this easy consumption of marginalized people. I think it’s important for any kind of minor artist to consider the consequences of making the art. Who’s buying? Are they buying with the right intentions?”
Oscar yi Hou, Untitled (Two subway cars kissing), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
Oscar yi Hou, Entitled (Chinaman 1), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes.
It is partly for these reasons why yi Hou holds onto what Édouard Glissant called a “right to opacity.” It is telling that his sitters are rarely explicitly identified. Yi Hou paints their names but typically renders them in marked wisps, like smoke drifting from incense. Any text in his paintings reflects his own language, a kind of script that dances between calligraphy and graffiti. The familiar strokes draw you in before they quickly prove illegible. Yi Hou has produced an entire series of these text-heavy works, hieroglyphic permutations of his writings that he calls “poem-pictures.” “I did them almost as an experiment to see how people would receive that if you can’t read them,” he said. “I think there are moments where artists are able to make that refusal.”
This desire to evade easy interpretation of his paintings—and a glib consumption of his subjects—is especially notable in a market saturated with figurative painters. In making space for refusal, yi Hou affords protection to the people he portrays, continuously enacting a practice of resolute generosity.