Charles Yuen: Welcoming Fantasies

by Robert C. Morgan

Charles Yuen’s imagery may deceive us upon first glance. The more that we observe it, the more we are pulled into the artist’s allegories. We may find ourselves absorbed in details, transfixed by calligraphic gestures, mesmerized by the subtle use of his color. The point of these paintings is that they exist within the realm of stillness. Yuen’s paintings work on us like a silent ululation, a harmony of opposites, a pulsation of a hidden, yet informed rhythmic structure. As I sense the calligraphic tendrils in a painting like "Ribbons on Her Shoes" (2003), I find a strong kinship between Chinese embroidery and the later paintings of Picabia. The swirling patterns within Yuen’s large red ribbons emanate outward from the pair of dainty blue shoes worn on stockinged legs and set against a brushed black background. The painting seethes with erotic intrigue in the way the lights and darks hold together — not just as a formal mechanism, but as a narrative, a glimpse of another reality, a sense of being in a world of pure fantasy.

In spite of the stillness in his paintings, we read Yuen’s images as if they were in motion, as if his figures were gliding through a miraculous time and space. Surely we know that they are not. Yet his impossible figurations test the limits between stasis and kinesis. They are still, silent, obdurate. But their space cannot avoid illusionist projection as his figures point to a sensory place in the mind’s eye, a place that will not hold steady. They exist in the realm of doubt. Take, for example, "Chain of Patriarchy" (2002). Here we read an allegory of framed vignettes and small objects linked to a double portrait of a suited male figure. A dotted white chain takes us from one small image to another. At various points along this magical constellation, we see an article of clothing, a rose, a locket, a porcelain dish guarded by two figurines, a male figure lifting weights — all of them positioned diagrammatically against a dark background. The "chain" takes us literally from one point to another. We are in the midst of a sequence of notations that move in several directions simultaneously much like the twisting narratives found in the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Yuen’s paintings are about illusion, the split fusion that exists between the self and its persona. His characters move in all directions, contorting in relation to the ways of the world. In "World Trouser Center" (2003), a man’s head protrudes on the ground between his blue pen-striped trousers accompanied by dots of white light on a green turf. He makes the meaning of the painting contingent on the angle at which it is encountered and seen. A gentle humor pervades over the storm of loss. Once seen, the constant glow of the artist’s gentle insight reigns and the mimetic transformation stays with us. We discover memory through paintings like these. Here is the place where we welcome and learn to accept our fantasies. While we may sense a temporal obsession, we may also give way to the delights of seeing an optimistic future, molded by the artist’s vision — a vision that for some dark souls may appear impossible. For Yuen, to envision is to clarify.

In "Well of Tears" (2003), the point of departure is different. The central figure is standing. He wears a conventional white shirt and trousers, frequently seen in China, while holding two small umbrellas, one over each shoulder. There is swirl of heads that encircles him and an ensemble of bubbles to his right side. The swirling vortex of human heads symbolizes the victims caught in the tragedy of 9/11, those who were killed, incinerated, dismembered, or crushed when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed upon them. Yuen’s painting reveals more than a self-righteous sentiment or opportunistic pathos. It suggests a global confrontation in which human beings are being victimized amid a storm of conflicting values within the new world order. The example of World Trouser Center seen in relation to Well of Tears encompasses the tragic-comic view of global politics now present at the outset of the twenty-first century. As Sartre used to say, we are caught in the human condition where there is “no exit” — and we have to make the most of it.

In many of his paintings, Yuen shows human figures or heads in a swirling vortex or simply sustained in mid-air on the picture plane. In some case, his poignant figures travel through space, often inciting rancor, a conflict between mind and body. In "Solar System" (2000), two figures — presumably male and female — stand together holding hands in the yellow air of a familiar galaxy. They are situated somewhere between planet Earth and Saturn with other planets positioned at various intervals. Energetic rays — diagonal pistons — cut through outer space, suggesting a perpetual transmission of signals. Airwaves are made visual and caught within time. Within this temporal world of science fiction, Yuen’s figures remain calm, not alienated. They are given a presence within a futurist world.

A similar content is transmitted in "Five Monks," also painted in 2000. Each of the monks is donned in a brownish ochre robe against a cerulean sky. They sit in a full lotus position on separate clouds. The monks are not in outer space but have been miraculously transported from ground to an azure sky where they are painted in blissful meditation or Samadhi (as it is called in various Buddhist sects.)

Yuen is not overly cautious in shifting his subject matter from the spiritual to the material world. Some of his most humorous paintings are directly affiliated with the sublime aspect of everyday life, the hidden pathos and sublimations given to human existence. We see this in "Weight Lifter" (2001) where a male figure raises a barbell as his trousers fall down around his ankles, or in "Bosom" (2003), a tour-de-force in which the elegant bosom of an aristocratic woman suggests a flattened abstract space suggestive of color field painting.

What we get in Yuen is a paradoxical form of delivery in which abstraction and representation collide in the realm of a nearly pictographic figuration. In these paintings, we may come to appreciate — even to accept — human conflict as an important source of reflectivity and temporal resolution. This occurs when an artist is able to construct forms that are possessed by lightness, directness, and comic relief. This is the approach that I have experienced in the recent paintings of Charles Yuen.

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, artist, and critic. He holds an MFA degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history. He writes for Art News, Sculpture, Art Press (Paris), and Tema Celeste. His books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (1996), The End of the Art World (1998), Gary Hill (2000), and Bruce Nauman (2002). In 1999, he was awarded the Arcale prize in art criticism in Salamanca, Spain.

Ribbons on Her Shoes

Chain of Patriarchy

World Trouser Center

Well of Tears

Solar System

5 Monks

Weight Lifter