Art Papers Magazine

September/October 2001


New York


A Soho-styled slickness is not what CHARLES YUEN's paintings (Asian American Arts Centre, May 11- June 23) are ever about. The influence of the New York art world feels distant; even someone like Francesco Clemente whose sensual figuration and Eastern leaning seem akin. What Yuen eschews is gorgeousness. It's not to say that his pictures aren't beautiful, but Yuen seems to be saying that too much attention to beautiful craft might lead viewers away from deeper meditations on tensions in every canvas, large or small. Informed by archetype, Yuen invites us to participate in ritual space.


One might ask what is being wrestled with in "Arm Wrestlers"? A man in orange shelters a woman inside his body while a complementary man in green sports a shadowed area on his back, his left arm extending downward endlessly stretched like taffy into a snake-like mound on which the two men stand. One notices another man in the picture's upper left-hand corner who has turned himself into a wheelbarrow, a load of rocks piled high onto his belly. Where the men in "Arm Wrestlers" join hands, their arms locked into the symbol for infinity, the men in "Boxers" are placed in a more adversarial role. Fighting in a ring which either looks like a cosmic constellation or the stick model of a molecule, the boxers punch not with fists but with miniature heads at the end of each of their arms. Compare this with Yuen's Solar System where a man and a woman, each sporting gray jumpers, join hands, afloat in lemony mustard background with lines crisscrossing though a universe at peace. Other coupling also suggest a harmonious balance. "Veil Turban" presents two heads, a woman on the left whose veil becomes the turban belonging to the man on the left, the cloth's s-shaped twist between them evoking a yin/yang symbol. Yuen also explores both halves of the female psyche in "Dwarf Nun and Mermaid". The nun on the left (dwarfed by spinsterhood?) stands on a cloud while the mermaid rests with her tail flipped up on a magenta shore, both of their hands in a prayerful posture that brings together the spiritual and the sensual, the biblical and the mythical mirrored by images of a virgin and a siren.


Yuen's remaining pictures each focus their attention on a single figure, caught in the act of meditation. The nippled torso in "While Contemplating My Navel" remains androgynous, as does the figure in "Golden Slippers" who sits in a corner with hands that have turned into flames. The figure is surrounded by blue incense burners (two of which appear to float in the air), smoke rising from each like thick skunk tails. The life-sized "Golden Slippers" in the foreground seem to invite us to try them on for size as we walk away. Contrast this figure with the one in "Limbic System," also seated but in a dark room, his wrists tied in cords that rise upwards beyond the edges of the canvas. He sports an enormous head with seven smaller heads painted on where a face should be. Along the walls hang eleven miniature pictures–the dream-projections of his conflicting desires. Such meditations on images like these finally lead us to Yuen's modest "Dark Rudder" where there is no human figure at all, only a tiny boat in the picture's upper left-hand corner floating on dark water. Underneath is a rudder made of brick 10 times the boat's size. How it manages to steer (let alone float) becomes for all of us a visual koan.


Timothy Liu

Hoboken, New Jersey