A dozen poem-pictures
May 1–June 1, 2021
James Fuentes is pleased to present Oscar yi Hou, A dozen poem-pictures on view through JamesFuentes.Online.
Oscar yi Hou deals with the complexity of identity through layers of iconography, symbolic reference, and personal relation within his works. Bringing together multiple levels of narrative, a world of detail can be found between recurring visual structures and symbols that carry with them diverse meanings. Born in Liverpool, England to Cantonese immigrants, yi Hou's given Chinese name (一鸣) refers to a bird: an auspicious symbol that he reiterates throughout his practice as a stand-in for himself. Other symbols like a sheriff’s star, Chinese knots, and prayer beads are often seen floating alongside fragments of text—inscriptions that fuse English with Chinese calligraphy.
While these symbols and text fragments typically drift among the subjects in yi Hou’s portrait works, adorning and complementing the people he paints, they are at their most salient when seen at the marginal edges of the canvas. In A dozen poem-pictures, yi Hou opts to elaborate and fixate on this marginal space, depicting these symbolic inscriptions as subjects in themselves. Moving through the interstices of language as a diasporic subject, these new works on paper penetrate and further fragment yi Hou’s floating symbology and indecipherable text, continuing his sustained exploration into the impossibilities of translation. Enacting a diasporic ‘burial of language,’ yi Hou de/recodes these symbols and pieces of text. As the density of his ink marks permeate through the paper’s porous surface, yi Hou sinks his poetry into the page, sometimes thickly applying ink onto the back of the paper so that it seeps through to the front. The result is a visual sense of transference between inner life and outer appearance, depositing affective and poetic residue in its wake.
Yi Hou’s many hidden poem-pictures speak queerly of intimate scenes of love, sex, labor, movement, water, smoke, sunlight, and wind (once again returning to the vision of a bird in flight). The gesture of rendering these poems opaque is inspired by Chinese calligraphy and the graffiti he encounters in New York City—both being styles of language that remain undecipherable to outsiders. Some of the poems reference the work of other poets, such as Frank O’Hara and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or are written in response to the work of other artists, namely Martin Wong’s Saturday Night (1992). Markedly intertextual, A dozen poem-pictures proposes such citation as an act of care, drawing out the relationship between literature and visual art. Structurally, yi Hou’s practice can be seen as the artist’s own iteration of the Chinese tradition of the "Three Perfections”—the classical combination of poetry, calligraphy, and painting within a single visual work. Integrated yet abstract, yi Hou’s works describe a complex personhood and an ever-shifting sense of being alongside alienation: able to combine the two without collapse.
Oscar yi Hou (b. 1998 in Liverpool, England; lives and works in New York) received his BA at Columbia University, New York. His work has been included in exhibitions at T293 Gallery, Rome, Italy; Asia Society, New York; Tong Art Advisory, New York; Half Gallery, New York; Rachel Uffner, New York; Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles; and the Royal Academy, UK. James Fuentes will present yi Hou’s solo exhibition of paintings at
the gallery in August 2021.
©2021 JAMES FUENTES
55 DELANCEY ST, NEW YORK, NY
DRAFT OF AN ARTIST’S STATEMENT, Mon, March 15th 2021
yi Hou’s practice is first and foremost oriented by personhood. What ultimately drives his work is testament (with the world ending, and all)— testament to having lived-with-others, and to living a life rendered in the minor key— painting as a practise of dignity.
Born and raised in Liverpool, England, to Cantonese immigrants, before settling in New York City as an adult, yi Hou’s work is influenced heavily by his own diasporic upbringing. His practice as such explores concepts of hybridity and opacity. Neither here-nor-there, in destabilising the Orient/Occident binary his work refuses a transparent legibility. Disidentifying with the either-or of contemporary life, yi Hou instead opts for a neither-here-nor-there— that is to say, he practises a perpetual inbetweenedness. Socially marked in multiple ways, it is within this tension of his “complex personhood,” as Avery Gordon would put it, that yi Hou deploys his highly syncretic iconography. Sheriff stars, cowboy hats, and English script undulate side- by-side with Buddhist prayer beads, cranes, koi fish, and Chinese knotting. In other moments, he adorns his works with scrawled poetic fragments, fusions of English cursive, Chinese script, and urban graffiti, thus negotiating (il)legibility and questioning the commodifiable transparency of ethnic-ness.
His subjects of color often attests to queer modes of kinship, desire, or relation— the being- with of a queer lifeworld. Indeed, rather than representing a singular, detached subject, yi Hou depicts the relation he shares with his subject, often painting friends, lovers, or other significant people in his life. He describes this practise as Personism, a concept originated from the poet Frank O’Hara, who wrote that Personism “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person [...] the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” For yi Hou, his portraits of others are forms of address— a forgoing of a singular subjectivity in favour of intersubjectivity, addressivity, gesturing instead towards a relational form of being. Rather than speaking-of someone else, he opts to speak-with. His works stand testament to this being- with, often depicting himself alongside his subject, or through deploying symbols (such as the crane) to metonymically represent himself. Such symbols can be found dancing with other symbols and elements within the margins of the canvas, evincing his sustained focus on marginal space and the poetic possibilities that lie within them.
Suggesting fabulation and opacity as recourse to the stultifying confinement of realism and to the contemporary strictures of legibility, especially as it pertains to one’s disclosure of otherness, it is through yi Hou’s aesthetic syncretism that he conjures new signs, fusions, and meaning within his paintings. His practise is a testament to living amongst others, a life lived in the marginal and the minor.
T293 GALLERY PRESS RELEASE, Tues, March 30th 2021
Also on View: Oscar yi Hou – Crane Seeking Comforts
10 April - 11 May, 2021
T293 is pleased to present ‘Crane Seeking Comforts’, Oscar yi Hou’s first solo exhibition in Italy. Eight mid-sized oil paintings on off-white paper will be on display.
The symbolist painting practice of Oscar yi Hou hybridises Western and Eastern iconography. Born and raised in Liverpool, England, to Cantonese immigrants, yi Hou’s work is influenced heavily by his diasporic upbringing. Through his artworks the artist plays with the estrangement of his ‘foreign’ origin— the mythical Orient — establishing a declaration of ‘otherness.’ The vertical format of this series of works, reminiscent of hanging scrolls, alongside his technical use of black dry-brush, indexes his deep interest in East Asian iconography. At the same time, he is equally captivated by American symbols such as the sheriff-star, cowboy hats, and the urban graffiti of New York City. By harmoniously combining these two visual and cultural worlds, yi Hou conjures a seductive autobiographical visual dialogue between the East and the West.
‘Crane Seeking Comforts’ counts on a complex mythology of iconography and symbolism. Yi Hou’s given Chinese name (一鸣) refers to an idiom that involves a bird— as such, the birds that appear throughout his practise are personifications of the artist himself. In IMUUR2, aka: Cowboy Crane, he represents himself in the margins as red-crowned cranes, traditionally auspicious birds in the Far East. In other works such as ‘Twobird, aka: Copulation’ or ‘Taijitu, aka: Cruising’ , pigeons are metonymically used to address and embody a queer narrative. In other works, such as ‘Sphincter, aka: Two-Pines’ or ‘Moonmad, aka: Cranekiss’ poems written by the artist himself are transformed into highly symbolic, quasi-mythological compositions. For these poem-pictures, yi Hou remixes the classical Chinese calligraphic poem form with his use of English script, interspersed with his trademark symbols of sheriff stars and Buddhist beads.
His treatment of signs and language draws inspiration from the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s text the ‘Poetics of Relation.’ The well-known ‘theory of Opacity’ by the Martinican writer, which comprises of accepting the unintelligibility and impenetrability of cross-cultural communication and consequently refuting complete knowability as a desireable goal, is one of the fils-rouges of yi Hou’s thinking. We can see this in the way he approaches the hegemony of English, treating it as if it were Chinese calligraphy. Yi Hou hides and buries his poems, rendering his native English as ‘inscrutable’ as Chinese may be to the West—and even to himself, by way of his own estranged relationship to the language. In submerging his text almost hieroglyphically, he kindly solicits from the viewers greater attention and patience, as he assures that the poems will slowly reveal themselves to a viewer should they sit with the intricate intimacies of the text a little longer.
In his practice, Oscar yi Hou evokes the ancient Chinese tradition of the “Three Perfections,” classically used to mark the merging of a poet, a painter, and a calligrapher in a single artwork. By mixing language both as subject and object matter while also depicting expressive representations of his lived world as a queer man, ‘Crane Seeking Comforts’ presents a nuanced insight into the postmodern diasporic condition of the 21st century.
(Courtesy of T293 Gallery)
LILLY CAO Mon, November 4th 2020
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.
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.
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.”
(from The Blue and White Magazine, November 2020, ‘Campus Characters’)
DRAFT OF AN ARTIST'S STATEMENT Wed, January 1st 2020
Oscar yi Hou (b. 1998, Liverpool, UK). Lives and works in New York City.
yi Hou’s work is first and foremost oriented by a deep desire for humanness and is rooted in the human condition. Working mainly in painting, what ultimately drives his practise is testament (with the world ending, and all)— testament to having had lived, to relationality, and to humanness; painting as a practise of dignity.
Influenced heavily by his own diasporic upbringing, yi Hou’s work explores concepts and identities of hybridity. Interrogating the binaries of this/that, here/there, Orient/Occident, he refuses a clear knowability, evading any essentialising effects. Disidentifying with the either-or, yi Hou opts instead for a neither-here-nor-there— that is to say, he practises a perpetual inbetweenedness. Socially marked in multiple ways, it is within this tension of a “complex personhood,” as Avery Gordon puts it, that yi Hou deploys a highly syncretic iconography. The eclecticism of his paintings disrupt and remix traditional semiotic relations between Orient/Occident, subject/object. Influenced heavily by a diasporic relationship to language and the concept of a “mother tongue”, yi Hou’s scrawls words and poetry throughout his paintings, fusing an English and Chinese script together, negotiating (il)legibility.
Concerned with problems and questions vis-a-vis the (sovereign) subject, yi Hou gestures beyond a simple politics of representationalism. His toying with (il)legibility relates to his insistence on a complicated subjecthood, one that is perhaps never knowable nor containable. His treatment of borders speaks to his concern with subject sovereignty. Rather than being constrained by the materiality of canvas, whose physical dimensions delimit the space a ‘subject’ may occupy, yi Hou’s paintings instead craft their own arbitrary boundaries to show the contingency and restrictiveness of any material border. Utilising the decorative and the symbolic, yi Hou’s work with borders also exhibits a sustained focus on marginal space and the poetic possibilities that lie within them.
yi Hou’s work bears similarities with the poet Frank O’Hara’s idea of Personism, perhaps best described as addressivity to another as an endeavour of love. In O’Hara’s words, “evoking the overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity”. In essence, yi Hou’s work focuses a representation of relationality— of intersubjectivity. He eschews the idea of a single ‘subject’, gesturing instead to a relational form of being.
Suggesting fabulation as recourse to the stultifying confinement of realism, it is through yi Hou’s aesthetic syncretism that he invents new symbols, artefacts, and elements within his paintings. Describing himself as a “FORWARD-FACING FUTURITY-FOCUSED FAGGOT,” it is through these interventions of imagination that yi Hou formulates new possibilities for queerness, Yellowness, and diasporic becoming.
SUSU RAWWAGAH 20:05, Mon, June 10th 2019
British-Chinese artist Oscar yi Hou is a jack of many trades: though first and foremost an accomplished visual artist, yi Hou has dabbled in photography, music, and design and is now based in New York City, where he studies visual arts at Columbia University. Exploring themes of personhood, sexuality, Chinese diaspora, and young adulthood, yi Hou’s portraits embrace, in his words, the “idea of life from the assertion of the personal and the subjectification of subjects in opposition to the objectivization.” Made up of determined brushstrokes and thick, vibrant layers, yi Hou’s portraits are also impressive feats of texture and technique. Intensely and carefully detailed, you could spend hours studying his paintings, following the brushstrokes, tracing the depth, and deciphering the doodles in the margins. But perhaps more striking is yi Hou’s unique ability to vividly capture his tender, often intimate relationships with his subjects, inviting the viewer into introspective reflections of self, experience, and identity. We sat down with yi Hou in his studio to learn more about his pieces, the influences behind his artistry, and what it means for him to succeed as an artist [...]
AMANDA BA 00:10, Thurs, Jan 25th, 2018
Oscar yi Hou is a young British Chinese artist currently studying visual arts at Columbia University. He is from Liverpool, Britain, and his parents are from Guangdong, China. His paintings are tender and thoughtful reflections of self, life, and experience. The proximity of his subjects can be felt through his determined brushstrokes and solicitous rendering as he explores the Chinese diaspora, the confines of gender and sexuality, and his own coming of age.
13:03, Fri, Jan 12th, 2018
Oscar yi Hou is a young artist based in New York City. He is from Liverpool, UK, and his parents are from Guangdong, China.
He studies at Columbia University, loves his friends, and likes long walks on the beach