Art in America

April 1995


Charles Yuen

at Leo.Tony


These 11 paintings (dated 1992-94, most in the 50-by-70-inch size range) are clearly narrative, and so repetitive in their elements that they seem to be trial solutions to a problem or tentative endings to a story. Some are indefinite, murky landscapes. Some are interiors that evoke the casbah or the harem. (Yuen is an Asian-American originally from Hawaii–would Edward Said allow his Orientalism?) Some depict unspecific locales, perhaps dream spaces. These settings may be populated with large pottery jars, little dishes emitting a smoke that may be incense, or one or two complete or partial figures dressed in tight knee-length pants of garish colors and large, arabesque patterns.


Yuen practices a primitive figuration: the people have undifferentiated barrel torsos, tiny hand and feet, rubber-hose arms, and unmodeled faces with ovals or mere slits for eyes. These beings convey emotions–wistfulness, puzzlement, a kind of autistic self-absorption.


The majority seem to be male, but the only ones whose gender is certain are a couple of females. One of the most striking paintings is "Even at Birth," in which a naked pregnant woman lies on her back, her left hand over her heart, in a setting of undefined blackness. A word balloon emerges from her mouth, but it's filled with lines and dots–nothing we can understand. Here and there around her are flames, as if from hidden candles, a couple of which have an arabesque screen behind them. A half-dozen hourglass shapes float in space, one of them obscuring the face of a man whose head and shoulders emerge from the darkness. Another of the shapes, very small, is held by a tiny figure that crouches on the hip of the woman. Perhaps she has just given birth to him (although he does not have infant proportions) and the hourglass be holds symbolizes the way children bind their parents to the passage of time.


"Ali Baba" shows two enormous ceramic jars; a figure leans into one of them so that only his bare hips and legs are visible. You Were Saying shows a kneeling figure grasping the hips of a second, whose torso stretches out like a long balloon. "The Way the Compass Points" has a fat naked figure hovering upside down, like a ham hock suspended in a butcher shop, in a landscape of smoky bowls and cypress trees, while another person crawls out of the scene. In these mysterious works, the figures seem dislocated. Their overall solemnity is disturbing, and so is an undercurrent of sexuality. Yet Yuen also insinuates a childish humor and playfulness (climbing into a pot, wrestling) that keeps viewers in a state of mesmerized uncertainty.


–Janet Koplos