Brooklyn in the Extreme (excerpt)

by James Kalm

 

Skinny-panted hipsters snort and smirk when I tell them that 20 years ago taxis wouldn’t dare cross the bridges to take me home to Brooklyn (a good reason to start riding a bike). Now, those same hipsters complain if they have to walk an extra half block for their boutique lattes. Still, it’s hard to fathom the artsy neighborhood that’s sprung up in DUGO (District Under the Gowanus Overpass) with its clusters of studio buildings and homes affordable enough for artists to buy. As I peddled south on Sixth Avenue through Park Slope, just blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery (well worth a visit in its own right), it was even harder to believe that some stout-hearted art promoters had staked their claim here, but RHV Fine Art has done just that. A partnership project of artists Henry Chung and Robert Walden, they opened this well-appointed space in 2008, and it was a display of works by Charles “Chuck” Yuen that’d gotten me through their doors. I’ve been looking at Chuck’s work for years at Metaphor Contemporary and in group shows around town and on the Lower East Side, and I was looking forward to viewing this selection of mostly smaller paintings and oils on paper, all from around the early 2000s. Painting with a slippery brush, Yuen has developed a unique cast of characters and props to populate his surrealistic/naïve narratives. Combining abstract elements of color and composition, the artist’s deceptively simple, almost childlike figures float through scenes that echo both Freudian fantasies and real-life conundrums such as sexuality, the clash of cultures, or the “oil crisis.” Yuen has a masterful facility with his paint handling and never overworks the pigment. Like a great sumi ink calligrapher, he allows spontaneous incidents of brushstroke or paint and solvent to play evocative parts in creating his tableaus. Shifts in scale question how we might read a face: is it meant as a landscape, a still life, or a portrait? Behind all this lies a biting sense of humor combined with a formalistic visual logic that can stretch the bodies of a couple into a colorful Möbius strip, or crowd the chandeliers hanging above an elegant sitting room with a brilliant Rothkoesque magenta cloud. In “Four Faces,” one of my favorite pieces, variously colored profiles are arranged along the edge of the picture to frame an empty central plane. The square format and sequence of colors reveal Yuen’s formalist sense, while the goofy faces allow him to poke fun at the bloodless notion of austere design. “Hairdo” is a satirical send-up of vanity, a pairing of two female heads, each with Rococo locks piled high and festooned with interconnected strands of pearls like Christmas tree garlands. Nestled among the pearls and bows are framed pictures of the ladies’ prized possessions—fancy shoes, a prosperous spouse, an island getaway, or smoking oil derricks—comic visualizations of vulgar conspicuous consumption.

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