Afterthoughts, After Image: the Paintings of Charles Yuen

by Lilly Wei

Charles Yuen’s personae inhabit an enigmatic world, one of indeterminate location suspended on the margins of imagination, full of intimations and innuendos, of meanings in flux. All signs here are cryptic and swing in multiple directions, flicked by the painter’s fertile imagination. His protagonists— mostly male— are bluntly drawn, with simplified heads, barreled torsos and stretchable, detachable limbs that often end in tiny hands and feet. Nonetheless, they are gracefully buoyant — or the reverse — and gaze at us wistfully, uncertainly or blankly, devoid of expression, utterly self-absorbed. Many avoid our gaze altogether, their eyes closed or their glance averted, isolated, withdrawn into a dream of their own, a dream within a dream. Droll figments and fragments, many of Yuen’s stream-of-consciousness figures seem culled from carnivals and freak shows, from the Arabian Nights and other fables and wander, at times, from painting to painting like itinerant actors from a personalized commedia dell’arte.

His narrative structure is part Jung, part Freud, part an unconscious dip into the history of art, with references to Goya, Redon, Matisse, German expressionists, Persian and Indian miniature painting, comic books and Dr. Seuss. These narratives are often hermetic, encoded, playful, based on characters in various states of transformation and deformation: for instance, legs supported by heads not feet (“The Hand Shake”) or arms that terminate in heads (“Boxers”), an empty head full of other, more delineated heads (“Limbic System”), the doubled faces of pink- skinned, orange-haired girl twins (“Siamese Twins”) or the truncated woman with hands crossed in front of her breasts framed by a disconnected mandala of free-floating arms (“Reach”). Yuen wants to unsettle our expectations, to subvert and question appearances and identities. He also has his specific conventions: the translucent, skeined, club-shaped web that represents breath in “In Passing,” a genie about to appear or disappear into a lamp in “Siamese Twins” and escaping ideas in “After Thought,” the flipped hair-do that is often the sole trait that distinguishes his women from his men or the coupled figures posed in combat of one sort or another, entwined but deadlocked and so on.

While whimsical, there is a darker side to his world where things are not what they seem, where fun has bite and is double-edged. The charms of the factual are not for him; Yuen is a composer of fantasies and fables. He prefers oddities, the gently perverse, the slightly off-beat, the sexually latent. His subject is otherness, twinning, double identities, alter egos. Connections in this world are those of association and intuition, sensible on a visual and emotional level, such as the surrealistic “The Pearl Diver” with its beautifully painted, glowing pearl hovering tantalizingly before a dark, pearl-studded twist of a creature or the sweetly colored “While Contemplating My Navel” which depicts an upside-down torso with an elegant, right-side-up tree growing out of it, suggesting, among other things, the body as landscape or what might happen if you contemplate your navel long enough. “Dark Rudder,” a small painting, pictures a rowboat with an enormous rudder constructed out of bricks, a highly unlikely material. The boat is either floating on water or air, the pale blue-grey ovals reflections of clouds or the clouds themselves — incongruous, symbolic pairings and shifts in reading that resemble dream sequences and are characteristic of his methods. In Yuen’s wonderland of inspired nonsense and alternatives, there is nothing that does not have another meaning, another way of seeing the situation, another layer of ambiguity that keeps things open-ended, in perpetual question.

The paintings in this exhibition are of recent vintage and as usual range in size from small to large; they are never immense. Executed with seeming blitheness, they have a dissembled naivete that is beguiling. The colors — opaque, translucent, textured, smooth — are often dimmed but rich — greys, blues, browns, tans, olives, pinks — glamourized by a glaze that shimmers under certain lights and lends delicacy and vulnerability to the primitivist figuration. Yuen’s touch is light as he combines painterly brushwork with patterns that are variations on the grid and motifs that are repetitive, rhythmic, ritualistic. Insidiously, insistently, as an intimate and accomplice, he draws you into his introspective realm, into his version of the human comedy, where relationships are nebulous and disruption common, where bewilderment abounds and desire, tenderness and compassion are joined to loss and betrayal, where both joy and pain are silent. Yuen deals with all of this obliquely, subjectively, his paintings metaphors and meditations on life, their solemnity spiced with a disarming, lilting humour — to see us through.

The Hand Shake


Limbic System

Siamese Twins


In Passing

After Thought


Dark Rudder

While Contemplating My Navel