Oscar yi Hou


Nov 15th, 2022
Artsy Editorial / Simon Wu
“The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Oscar yi Hou”

It’s the summer of 1982, and I’m waiting in line outside of an East Village bar. The sign above the door states, “DRESS CODE: cycle leather & Western gear, levis and jocks.” Do I look butch enough? Later in the year, Vincent Chin will be murdered in Detroit, but that’s not yet news. For now, I’m trying to get into Mineshaft and I can’t find my friend who dragged me out to begin with. Apparently, Michel Foucault is inside.

A poster on the wall shows a muscular mustached man crouching while holding a pickax and wearing a white tank top, bulging jeans, and a construction hat. In Coolieisms, aka: Gold Mountain Cruiser (The Mineshaft’s after-hours trade) (2022), artist Oscar yi Hou projects himself into a historical past, reimagining himself as the muscled clientele of Mineshaft, and I follow him there, waiting for my friend outside the door [...]

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Oct 22nd, 2022
The New York Times / Ted Loos
“A Debut of ‘Visual Splendor’” 

Despite his youth, the New York–based British artist Oscar yi Hou has a recently opened exhibition of 11 paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, making him one of the youngest artists to have a solo show at a major New York museum. “Oscar yi Hou: East of sun, west of moon” will be on view through Sept. 17, 2023.

A self-described “internet kid,” Mr. yi Hou has painted dense compositions, with images and symbols tightly packed in a way that reflect the torrent of information he grew up processing intuitively.

Although most of them qualify as portraits, a familiar genre to viewers, his paintings cannot be easily read, and they are not meant to be [...]

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March 14th, 2022
Artsy Editorial / Claire Voon
“Oscar yi Hou’s Layered Portraits of Queer Kinship Evade Easy Interpretation” 

[...] 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. [...] 

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Feb 17th, 2022
The Paris Review / Owen Park
“Ye’s Two Words”

[...] Seeing yi Hou’s work amidst a crowd of other twentysomethings fresh into the gallery from a day that had been hot and damp, hopelessly sweating through an outfit I had probably chosen with great effort for the occasion, I was faced with exactly that: the discomfort, the relief, the multiplicity and solitude of the person.

With me at the exhibition were several people who had modeled for the paintings. I saw them as they existed both in the real world [...]

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August 26th, 2021
A sky-licker relation
August 26–September 26, 2021

James Fuentes is pleased to present Oscar yi Hou, A sky-licker relation.

Oscar yi Hou’s work is anchored in personhood. While this exhibition presents a series of new portraits, what yi Hou’s paintings really record is the relationship shared between the sitter and the artist. Foregoing fixed representation, the works in A sky-licker relation offer a testament to living alongside others. Made over the past year and a half, these works mark the importance and influence of nearness; the being-with of a queer lifeworld. In each work, yi Hou pulls together a syncretic field of iconography that describes complex layers of identity and relation. Through this process, nearness is not only at the core of the work’s making, but now actively occurs within the visual plane of the work as well. The exhibition title is itself is the result of a series of relations: sky-licker is lifted from Aimé Césaire's poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, which yi Hou first came across in Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Like the evocation of a sky licker, yi Hou’s given name in Chinese refers to a bird cry (一鸣) and he often uses birds as a self-signifier in his paintings and poetry, boundless and in flight.

A distinct sense of symmetry can be found in yi Hou’s densely-detailed images, contributing to a compositional logic that is able to hold together a great deal of texture around each of the relationships being represented. Negotiating questions of opacity and (il)legibility, yi Hou employs polysemic symbols such as the five-pointed star, an icon laden with signification between East and West, to emphasize the buried yet multifarious meanings that surround his subjects. In this vein, at times the artist fuses the Chinese calligraphic tradition with graffiti seen on the streets of New York. Yi Hou also makes poetic use of the borders of his works, treating this marginal space as an expression of the interrelation between himself and the sitter—while at the same time reflecting upon the limits of grasping this relation. In doing so, the artist’s paintings of others become a form of address, conjuring new signs and meanings to be shared in space. Here, yi Hou intricately demonstrates, in his words, “painting as a practice of dignity.”

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. A sky-licker relation follows yi Hou’s exhibition of works on paper at JamesFuentes.Online earlier this year.

For further inquiries, please contact James at james@jamesfuentes.com or Katrin at kl@jamesfuentes.com.


Aug 30th, 2021
Editorial Magazine
/ Kate Wong
“Interview with Oscar Yi Hou”

KW: Your exhibition is called, A sky-licker relation. Where does the title come from?

OYH: The phrase ‘sky-licker’ comes from Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939). I first came across it when I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. My name in Chinese refers to an idiom or chengyu involving a bird cry, which is why I use birds as self-signifiers throughout my practice. A lot of my poetry involves flight or birds – there’s a promise of freedom and boundlessness.

Tell me about the new paintings for the show. Where did they begin and where do they land?

I tried to stay thematically cohesive with this body of work, even as it spans over a year of my life. And so I guess it began fourteen months ago, which is when I first started working towards the exhibition. At the time I was still a student, and I was trapped during lockdown in Liverpool, painting in a tiny room in my childhood home. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to return to New York to complete my degree. My life is very different now. This show has spanned much grief in my life, but also such joy and communion. I guess that’s where it lands – anew.

What role does symbolism play in your work?

At times in my work symbols signify people, like with astrological signs, zodiac signs, or tattoos. I signify myself as a bird throughout my work. I like polysemic symbols. I like using the star symbol because it can signify America when you render it in one context, but it also signifies socialism if you render it another. To give another example, I often dot my works with beads arranged circularly, which come from the Buddhist prayer hand bracelets I would often wear as a kid when I went to China. My parents would also often bring them home as souvenirs. They smelled of sandalwood and I’d wear them to school. I saw them as cute accessories, but they also became a symbol of my diasporic-ness. In my recent show at T293 in Rome I made a painting, Sphincter, aka Two-Pines, that referenced the potentially sphincteral nature of an elasticized beaded bracelet. It’s not to say that I like to decorate my paintings with assholes, but rather, to draw attention to the hidden, multiplicity of meanings a symbol can have. You can give symbols additional meanings by placing them in new contexts and relations. Symbols all dog-whistle differently. 

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Aug 25th, 2021
Document Journal / Morgan Becker
“Oscar yi Hou and Louis Fratino are at the vanguard of queer figurative painting”

But don’t you feel like that’s a bit of an eye roll, when you sense in someone’s work that it’s about having themselves be known? When people ask, ‘Oh, is that you?’ I’m like, ‘You really missed the point.’

Oscar: There’s always a danger of erring into solipsism when you’re painting your own world. But also, that’s all we ever do when we paint. If we paint someone else, we’re just painting ourselves in our relationship to that person.

I would say that what we’re doing is ‘minor art.’ Minor in the sense that, you know, we’re both queer. It’s not minority art, but art from people who are rendered minority. For example, women: Although they’re a majority, they’re considered a minority because of their lack of representation and power. A lot of minor art is about just giving testament to having survived and living a minor personhood.

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April 29th, 2021

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.


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.

March 30th, 2021

Also on View: Oscar yi Hou – Crane Seeking Comforts

10 April - 11 May, 2021
T293 Rome

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)

Nov 4th, 2020 / Lilly Cao
The Blue And White Magazine

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.


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.”

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Jan 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.

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.

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