Art in America

October 1998


Charles Yuen

at Elizabeth Harris


Hawaiian-born painter Charles Yuen cites as influences 16th century Persian miniatures and the medieval court jester, who indulged in "socially sanctioned anarchy." Jesters abound in Yuen's work, coming to us via comic strips, dreams and children's drawing, in an array of shapes and sizes. In the big oil "As Above, So Below," a man with a masklike face perilously folded in on itself displays a puffed-up bare chest with an upside-down castle tattooed on it; his snaky, slim legs end in tiny black mandarin-toe shoes on a maroon Persian carpet. A big cartoon word balloon filled with Morse code floats alongside him. The scene is ornamented with four "cameos" of primally limned roses, all this on top of a dim checkerboard ground.


The checkerboard takes center stage in "Zone of Liability," where its largish, wobbly squares come in cheerfully dull shades of yellow, gray, beige and black. It's occupied by more "jesters," one a freestanding bare-chested guy with a strange, Slinkylike object linking his cupped hands. Beside him is a double-faced male head in a flattened Buster Keaton hat, who emits a cryptic word balloon. In "Air Heads" there are no actual heads, just a host of little ectoplasmic human visages–male, female, in-between–traced in gold filigree against a blue ground, all arising from a translucent blue-and-whit amphora like so many genies.


There's a parochial-school-prankster availability to Yuen's work; his dreamland iconography is personal but never private. In pieces such as "Infinity," where a yogic fellow balances above his head an infinity sign that also functions as his left arm as his right arm dribbles down into a Medusalike ball, the artist's imagery is highly communicative, especially in its dark but abiding sense of humor–for which, no doubt, we have the tradition of the court jester to thank.


Yuen's resolutely dumb, endlessly codified scribblings appeal to the unconscious, unreasoning side of our natures. He is a merry mocker of popular notions of the dark or "shadow" side of the psyche, that sacrosanct preserve known to cringing Jungians as the "collective unconscious." Perhaps it's more of a playground than we know or care to admit. As much as Yuen's funny pictorial symbolsms defy a rational reading, they invite our complicity in their on-canvas revolt against conventions. Yuen is a late 20th-century Till Eulenspiegel, ever aware of the gallows that await him for his mischievousness, wit and compassion for the inner underdog.


-Gerrit Henry