Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Liu Ye, Kyung Jeon, Chie Fueki

Liu Ye: “Temptations”
Sperone Westwater
14 September-28 October 2006

Kyung Jeon: “The Impulse Garden”
The Proposition
16 September-28 October 2006

Chie Fueki: “Lucky, Star, Super, Hero”
Mary Boone
9 September-21 October 2006

Liu Ye Banned Book 2006  acrylic and oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-1/2 inches Courtesy Sperone Westwater
Liu Ye, Banned Book 2006 acrylic and oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-1/2 inches Courtesy Sperone Westwater

Pop appropriation meets eroticism in the work of Liu Ye and Kyung Jeon. These artists remind us of the persistence of sexuality throughout East Asian art. Along with Chie Fueki’s large, busy, and heavily textured paintings of psychedelically decorated athletes in cubistic action poses currently on display at Mary Boone, these artists are linked by their use of allegory.

Liu Ye uses a cartoon persona to unsettle the viewer. He does what many fine artists do with mass media imagery; he put it in a high art context through technique and compositional devices. Kyung Jeon fills his paintings with cartoonish male and female characters that run amok in their undies. Both artists sexualize child-like figures. The large, busy, and heavily textured paintings are quilt like accumulations of sports related symbols. They employ a cubistic formalist structure. Considering these exhibitions, it is clear that allegory or expression by means of symbolic actions and figures is integral to these artists’ oeuvre.

The catalog indicates that Mr. Ye was drawn into the world of art when he read classic fairy tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen as a boy. However his work attempts to replace the clear cut moral dichotomies present in such tales with an art world staple, ambiguity.

Liu Ye appropriates the image of Dick Bruna’s Miffy the girl rabbit in five of the paintings in this exhibition. Like many contemporary artists he recontextualizes popular imagery in a high art context. Seeing Miffy rendered in acrylic and oil paint in such paintings as “Lost Miffy” (2006) is different from seeing the simplified form of Miffy on the television. Ye reclaims the ubiquitous cartoon character for his own purposes. Does Miffy represent something, fallen innocence say, or is Ye simply borrowing, like Warhol and many others after him, cultural icons in order to draw attention to the work without having to reinvent the wheel? Ye exploits Miffy’s anthropomorphic qualities. We read Miffy as a lost child and the delicate rendering of the girl rabbit’s fur lends the image a certain pathos. A particularly unnerving example of this can be found in “Temptress” (2006). In this painting Liu Ye does a portrait of Miffy dressed in a school girl’s outfit. Certainly there is a perverse element present in a painting that combines a baby rabbit that preschoolers are familiar with and the notion of a temptress. But in reality isn’t the image of Miffy used to lure children, to get them to watch more television and to purchase Miffy products?

Ye wants to recontextualize the familiar, but these paintings also have a strong formal quality to them. They are very stripped down, for the most part using only two or three compositional elements, especially the rectangle within the rectangle format. In paintings such as “Boogie Woogie, little girl in New York” (2005) and “Once upon a time in Broadway” (2006) Ye appropriates Mondrian’s compositions. What are we to make of the bringing together of Miffy, a cartoon little girl, and Piet Mondrian? Are the figures of Miffy and the little girl to be seen as little more than forms and colors playing off of other forms and colors or does Ye hope that these iconic images will tap into some deep psychological reservoir? It could be a lament for high modernism which has been replaced by postmodern pluralism (Yves Klein’s “International Blue” is referenced in one painting), but often the juxtaposition seems more eccentric than thought provoking. Mr. Ye is trying to tell a story, a narrative (“Once upon a time…”) filled with opaque symbols.

Ye uses two abstract and cartoonish female forms recurrently. Both have disproportionately large heads, but the “little girl” character is stocky and almost looks like a standing rectangle with a rounded top, while the pre-pubescent character is highly fetishized and relates directly to the female characters found in anime. The green skirt, red bowtie in the hair, and bowl shaped hairdo of the little girl are cultural signs, and the exaggeratedly emaciated form of the teenage girl, is an example of an erotic shorthand, because all of the messy things like bone structure, bodily blemishes, and of course body fat are absent, but Ye makes sure to include porcelain white and delicate skin tones, bright red lipstick, bright red nipples (“Night” (2005)), and heavily rouged cheeks. The egg shaped heads on these potentially pedophilic caricatures and the long distance between their eyes and eyelashes makes them doll like and alien. Compared to the sexualization of children one finds on MTV and assorted TV commercials for products aimed at teens this stuff seems innocent, but it is clear that Ye is able to generate eroticism from unsettlingly weird and nubile female caricatures. Is he titillated or manipulative? It is hard to say.

In “Banned Books” (2006), a young girl delves into the pages of an adult book perhaps for the first time. Ye focuses are attention on the softness and sensuality of the girl’s long straight black hair and the way it is pulled back over her shoulders. She is viewed as a sexual object exactly at the same moment she is becoming aware of her own sexuality.

In “Sword” (2001), two little uniformed girl characters face one another with swords drawn on opposite sides of a dreamy, spatially ambiguous landscape. Except for the fact that the tears rolling down their cheeks are shaped differently from one another they are mirror images. Does this stand-off represent the divided self, the history of Ye’s birthplace China, or a perpetual conflict of universal forces? Ye borrows the heavy symbolism of allegory in this painting, without providing a clear cut moral vision allegories normally have.

Kyung Jeon Joust Fight 2006 gouache, graphite, watercolor on rice paper on canvas, 69 x 61.25 inches Courtesy The Proposition
Kyung Jeon, Joust Fight 2006 gouache, graphite, watercolor on rice paper on canvas, 69 x 61.25 inches Courtesy The Proposition

Kyung Jeon does delicate and technically impressive gouache and graphite compositions on rice paper, which consist of multi-figure action or battle scenes. These images bring the sort of life and death struggles that Hieronymus Bosch enjoyed illustrating to mind, but their playfulness is more reminiscent of the marginalia that Sergio Aragonés filled the pages of Mad Magazine with. Although the poses and actions of the figures in these paintings could represent different things — the battle of the sexes (“Joust Fight” [2006]), the life stages of woman (“On Motherhood” [2005]), and male sexuality (“Peek” [2005]), among others — they exude the lightness of an idyll but deal with serious stuff like sex, birth, and death. They are beautifully rendered microcosms populated by childlike brunette figures donning nothing but blue, red, and white loincloths. Whether a woman is using her animated and absurdly pendular breasts to threaten the people around her or a group of disgruntled looking cartoon males are poking their faces out of a giantesses’ extraordinarily long train of straight black hair, Jeon imagines males and females warring against one another, and humans blending with the animal realm, in an emotional and literal sense.

These groups of male and female figures form a symbolic nexus, in the sense that a battle of the sexes jousting tournament (“Joust Fight”) can only be read metaphorically, but there are many smaller actions going on within the larger conceptual whole. Jeon also tinges his child imagery with sexuality in such drawings as “Thumb Sucking” (2006). We see a beautifully rendered circular cluster of tiny flowers with little girl thumb suckers, their face, thumb in mouth, and hair, sprouting from it in several places. Again this fetishism is done in such a sweet and delicate way that it is hard to read it as a personal obsession. These drawings take on the air of the allegorical because the figures don’t have an individual character, and it is hard not to read them as symbolic types.

Chie Fueki Significant Moment 2005-2006 acrylic, mixed media, and paper on wood, 72 x 72 inches Courtesy Mary Boone
Chie Fueki, Significant Moment 2005-2006 acrylic, mixed media, and paper on wood, 72 x 72 inches Courtesy Mary Boone

Chie Fueki’s mixed media paintings are chock full of emblems from sporting teams, predominantly football team logos like dolphins, cartoon lightning bolts, attacking eagles, and numbered jerseys. In the Blakean “Significant Moment” (2005-06), a football player descends from the heavens with rainbow colored spirals swirling all around him. In “Every Corner Runs Two Directions” (2006), sports team emblems and football player body parts spread across the surface along with innumerable asymmetrical geometric patterns. Although the competition between the fractured surfaces, varying textures, myriad colors, and plethora of outlines often undermines the complexity of these compositions, Ms. Fueki’s symbolic overload is definitely of the moment. These paintings bring the best known painter of sporting events to mind, LeRoy Neiman, such high art luminaries as William Blake and Chris Ofili, and the folk art of quilting. Fueki incorporates sports imagery into her work, which is rare in the art world. The exclusion of sports from the majority of the content of contemporary art is evidence that the art world’s insularity from the daily life of the masses is as strong as ever, regardless of the Pyrrhic victory of pluralism. The artist attempts to make these static, colorful, textured, and fragmented athletes and athletic equipment and uniforms that bring magical spells and pyrotechnics to mind go beyond the earthly realm.

Considering that organized sports replaced religious ritual many years ago, and also the fact that so much earlier art dealt with religious ritual, one would think more artists would explore the psychological and sociological implications of these highly fetishized events. Fueki’s pretty but diffuse mixed media paintings portray athletes and their regalia as enchanted objects, but their psychedelic aura undermines any potential emotional content.

A version of this review was first published in the New York Sun on October 12, 2006