Albert Yowshein Kuo’s solo exhibition, Gonna Be Alright, at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary features three large paintings. In them, he depicts figurative tableaux that obliquely reflect social values such as race and gender. The paintings are familiar and unfamiliar, timeless and contemporary. To simply say that Kuo’s juxtapositions of figures and scenes is surreal would be too easy a summation. While painted in a traditional style reminiscent of Rembrandt and Titian, Kuo’s works deviate from this history through his choice of imagery, combining signifiers of American culture with elements appropriated from film and photography. The works are encrusted with impasto scumbling and layers of opulent glazes, and because Kuo mixes most of his paints using natural pigments, his palette is earthy and composed of ochers, siennas, and umbers. Due to their scale and methods of production, the paintings feel like low-relief friezes.
In Still Boxing (2016), two central characters spar in a boxing ring—a muscular Black man wearing boxing gloves and shorts, and a White teenager of average build, naked from the waist up and wearing slim jeans with white briefs peeking out. The adolescent’s back is turned to the viewer, and his left leg is awkwardly outstretched, giving the impression that he has been injured. While the Black man is poised in a defensive crouch, ready to bob and weave with athletic dexterity, the teenager looks vulnerable and ill-prepared for the match. The two opponents clearly relate to race, but the roles they have been cast in do not conform to familiar stereotypes. The weak position of the White player conflicts with the history of Black oppression under White authority.
Rather than clarify, other elements within the painting further complicate its meaning. On the right, a referee steps into view; he is dressed in a standard white shirt and black bow tie, and wears the foreboding addition of a combat helmet. On the left, another man wears a similar helmet, along with a bulletproof vest over his bare torso; he could be a riot control officer. In his hands, he wields what looks like a pool stick and is jabbing at a ludicrously small bull curled in a fetal position. A series of banners hang overhead and are inspired by American World War II propaganda posters. One bears the early Ivory Soap slogan “99 44/100% Pure.” Originally used as a pledge of quality by the Procter & Gamble Company, its meaning ominously shifts within Kuo’s dystopian environment, connoting racism or eugenics. While the relationship between these elements and the two fighters is murky, they undoubtedly intensify feelings of alienation and aggression—compounding the emotional and political charge of Kuo’s imagery.
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service (2016) consists of two conjoined canvases that depict multiple figures within a National History Museum. The figures are in their late teens or early twenties and are predominantly Black men. Most are shirtless—some are dressed in civilian clothing, wearing denim jeans and fashionable footwear, and others are outfitted in olive-green cargo pants and military dog tags on ball-chain necklaces. An Asian figure stands at the periphery of a cluster of men engaged in a violent scramble. In another section, a White man stands alone with limp arms held out and his head turned forlornly away. A Black woman dressed in a tank top and jeans stands apart from the crowd; she holds a pair of Timberland boots in an extended hand, grasping them by their laces. Another woman stands in the foreground with her face downcast. She is also Black but wears a simple white dress; a pair of small, white-feathered wings sprout from her back. The figures within the painting are aggressive or passive—some appear to be dancing; several could be a combination of these and are difficult to classify. Positioned rhythmically throughout the composition, the figures seem frozen in choreographed poses, acting out a tragic scene that blurs violence with ballet. A sense of theatricality is heightened by parting red curtains in the background, a nod to David Lynch, that reveal a Paleolithic Era cave painting of stampeding bison. Although the main focus of No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service is again race, it is difficult to clearly discern what Kuo hopes to express. Perhaps the artist is subverting aggressive actions by depicting them as a complex dance. If so, the painting is both melancholy and optimistic, portraying a scene rife with racial tensions yet strangely harmonized through compositional devices and staging.
Kuo’s tableaux explore the current cultural landscape through the guise of traditional oil painting; images and motifs borrowed from photography and film are deftly interwoven. His combinations are at times absurd, but also poignant when considered along with the resurgent awareness—or ignorance—about contemporary concerns such as White privilege and transgender equality. Kuo, who himself is of Asian ancestry, portrays relationships that push beyond simple dichotomies of Black and White, depicting instead different cultures, races, and genders in discordant consonance. The narratives that emerge in Gonna Be Alright are difficult to fully unpack, and this seems an important component of the works. While the tableaux are open-ended, their imagery is emotionally charged, compelling viewers to confront their own experiences and contemplate the complexities of race and class relations.
Albert Yowshien Kuo: Gonna Be Alright is on view at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary in St. Louis, Missouri, through May 18, 2016.