By Lilly Cao
Oscar yi Hou, CC ‘20, paints people—not just as bodies, nor as the reduced, essentialized products of liberal identity politics, but people in all their complexity.
The first time I encountered yi Hou’s work was at one of Columbia’s end-of-semester undergraduate art shows. As always, the walls were jammed with artworks, Prentis’s winding hallways were teeming, and beneath the clamor of small talk, someone was playing soft music from the second-floor common room. Amidst the din, a large, dense, prismatic portrait painting caught my eye. Depicting a single figure swarmed by objects against a neutral canvas background, the painting drew me to its detailed, cryptic contents. Some months later, I would discover that it belonged to yi Hou, a queer British-Chinese artist from Liverpool.
birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait by Oscar yi Hou
Yi Hou’s most recent work, birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait depicts him and two friends sitting together as if posing for a family photo, gazing out from the canvas, stoic. A sea of overlapping and interconnected symbols and patterns engulf them: a bull, cranes, a rooster, sheriff stars, calligraphy, beaded bracelets. The three subjects are interpellated as much through this network of symbols as through their own flesh and bone: their figures weave over, under, and alongside these images, as if forming a tapestry. Near the top two corners of the canvas, two corners of a frame are painted with conspicuous realism, denoting artificial boundaries. But the canvas and its web of signifiers overlap and extend well beyond these markers. In yi Hou’s work, representation is limitless.
When I call him, it’s midday on a Saturday, and yi Hou is cooking omurice in his New York apartment. He carries the camera around the kitchen, answering questions as he finishes, and when he’s done, he proudly shows me the dish. Omurice is Japanese, but growing up, Oscar felt most closely connected to his Chinese heritage through food—his parents run a Chinese restaurant in Liverpool. Although he was surrounded in his home by Chinese symbols and art, he says he always lacked a proper understanding of both. In the fall of his sophomore year at Columbia, his grandfather passed away, and for the first time since his early teens, he went back to China for several weeks. With the dually fresh perspective of an adult and an emerging artist, he rediscovered Chinese visual iconography, buying art and calligraphy books at local bookstores. After returning to New York, he began researching East Asian history and culture in earnest. Art soon became another way for yi Hou to explore his identity.
Confessions of two Chinatown Cowboys, or: Cowgirl A.B. & Cowboy Crane go smoke a cigarette by Oscar yi Hou
While yi Hou’s prior works share some formal similarities with his current paintings—assertive colors, fraught brushwork, fluid shapes, and indeterminate forms—there are some striking differences in both content and technique. Dry brush doesn’t feature in the earlier works, but dominates his later paintings. Gaps between brushstrokes now reveal the surface of the canvas. And perhaps most notably, his characteristic symbols have emerged. His growing understanding of Chinese visual culture seems to have precipitated this change. According to Oscar, he uses dry brush and transparent primer, which retains the papery color of the canvas, to emulate East Asian calligraphy. Many of the symbols he uses are recognizably Chinese, or at least reference Chinese art and culture, like the floating red knot at the top of Confessions of two Chinatown Cowboys, or: Cowgirl A.B. & Cowboy Crane go smoke a cigarette. Lately, Buddhist prayer bracelets have abounded as well.
But his symbols are not limited to Chinese images, nor is his style essentially calligraphic. Like many diasporic artists, yi Hou turns to the symbols of his culture to produce his own identity, but he’s careful not to reduce or simplify his story. He juxtaposes Chinese symbols with sheriff stars, a motif in several of his recent works; in birds of a feather, they complement the cowboy hats donned by yi Hou and another figure. These allusions, he explains, stem from his fascination with the cowboy archetype as a representation of Western masculinity and Americana. Other non-Asian symbols permeate his paintings: his Aerolites shirt in 2 lovers, 2 cranes, the Romanesque lettering of the floating paper notes in many of his recent works, and the queer and feminist texts of Cruising Utopia and Woman, Native, Other in Self-portrait (21); or to steal oneself with a certain blue music. None of these signifiers of queerness, Chinese-ness, Western-ness, or masculinity stand on their own; they undulate together. And like many symbolists before him, Oscar shies away from lone interpretations of their meanings.
His conceptual indeterminacy—even, at times, opaqueness—mirrors his views on the politics of artistic representation. In the contemporary art world, he observes, painters with minority identities—queer painters, women painters, Black painters, POC painters—have gained market value. They’re “trendy.” But, he says, “On the flip side of that, we’re being commodified, and the images of our likeness, our ethnic-ness, and our minority-ness are being traded and bought by predominantly white galleries and auction houses.” This economy of representation places a burden on artists of color to disclose their “colored-ness” in a way that’s palatable—which ultimately means sellable. Oscar’s response to this phenomenon, he explains, is to simultaneously communicate and conceal his identity, avoiding self-fetishization and self-exoticization. Viewers seeking immediate gratification for conceptualizing the ‘correct’ identity from symbolic queues ought to look elsewhere. Legibility, of course, depends on the viewer’s background, privileging those familiar with certain cultural significations and enabling the painter to partially circumvent tokenization. Yet yi Hou maintains that his works are accessible to anyone who spends enough time with them, regardless of their background. For all their mystery and specificity, his paintings are anything but internalized—“otherwise they would be way too personal, like a diary entry or something.”
All art is identity-based, yi Hou argues, but in the history of the West, white male identities were simply and brazenly privileged over others. Rather than try to speak for his culture, or his ethnicity, or any other categories that constitute his identity, yi Hou makes art as a “testament”—to having lived as a particular person, to having experienced a complex personhood. In a world besieged with crises, he’s forced to grapple more deeply with his work’s meaning: why make this kind of art? “The answer,” he says, “is just that I’m testifying to having lived. And I think that’s a good thing in itself.”
Mlle. Chris à central park 103rd, en automne by Oscar yi Hou
On September 11, the Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles opened a show called Myselves, which features Oscar’s work Mlle. Chris à central park 103rd, en automne alongside art by Romare Bearden, Wolfgang Tillmans, Amoako Boafo, and others. Oscar was contacted a year ago, and he hasn’t been able to see the show in-person, but he still keeps shaking his head and repeating: “it’s crazy.” Kohn is certainly a step above Prentis, and it’s obvious that this achievement is well-deserved. He’s set to show another work, birds of a feather, at Carl Freedman Gallery’s Breakfast Under the Tree next month. When I ask him what his plans are after graduation, he smiles slightly. “I may be showing downtown sometime next year—can’t say much on it now, but I’m just going to try and paint and be an artist in New York. That seemed like such a pipe dream back in Liverpool—but here we are.”