Passage Arts spoke with Yowshien Kuo, an artist and educator currently working in St. Louis, Missouri. “My artist statement could literally be, he grew up in Taiwan and America. That says so much more than anything else.”
Kuo examines constructed histories and representations of race and masculinity, especially in the American West. He received his MFA in 2014 from Fontbonne University in St. Louis.
“I’m Yowshien Kuo. My first, legal name is Albert and my middle name is Yowshien. I went by Albert most of my life. I was young and unaware of the influences of culture that are upon me. I think a lot of second-generation immigrants have this consciousness of being different compared to first-generation immigrants like my parents.
“I went by Albert as a means to not be different. It wasn’t until recent years that I started to embrace my middle name, Yowshien, which is my actual, Mandarin name. I did this to represent a transformation of perspective on myself and my own identity. That’s reflected in my art as well.
“I think the issue of naming is important to introduce the kind of work I make. I’m combatting the sense of dissociation or racial melancholia that comes with being a second-generation minority person, or a person of color.
“I grew up in Taiwan as well as the United States, and at that time the way to get under my skin was to attack my identity from a different angle. The way to get under my skin there was to say, ‘You’re the American guy. You don’t know anything about us.’ I was seen as a foreigner there, too, not biologically but culturally. In the United States it’s more biological. Obviously, your appearance has a dramatic impact, especially if you’re a person of color.
“It’s taken me my entire life to unravel that and it’s still a conversation I’m continuing to explore. We’re not prepared to have this type of language, even these kinds of conscious thoughts, especially for me when I was growing up in the ‘90s. I think that Generation Z is more articulate about these subject matters than my generation, which makes me optimistic to see. I work with high school students on occasion and it’s always so exciting to hear their impressions about their society and their environment and themselves.
“As far as my artistic practice, this was always part of my life. My father is an architect at the University of Hawai’i. Growing up under his influence really pushed me towards the visual arts. Growing up, there were always conversations about Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus. I was inclined to go into design when I was young because I was familiar with it.
“My education as a kid also pushed me in this direction. I went to Montessori school, which I always forget to share but I think is a big influence on me. I think that set the cards for me and how I see myself and how I access my surroundings.
"It’s a confidence thing in association with perspective. For example, I was active in music and musical performance in my teens and early twenties. During that time, I could not go to concerts because I felt like it should be me up there. I felt frustrated that it wasn’t. Many of my peers feel they can’t imagine themselves in those situations. They feel like it’s unattainable or unrealistic. Whereas, I’ve never felt like anything I wanted to do was so far away that I couldn’t do it.
“I went to public school for high school and thankfully, my school was extremely diverse. The Middle American suburb that was associated with my high school had a lot of first-generation immigrants, so we had lots of people from Asia and Eastern Europe at my school, which made it very cool.
“But even in that diverse setting, listening to the radio when I got home from school, watching television programs and films, walking around the mall with my friends and seeing posters and advertisements, I didn’t realize that I was battling with the influence of culture. I thought the standard was to be white, to equate myself to my white peers. I describe it now as a carrot tied to a stick. ‘Here it is, but good luck getting to it.’
“My parents probably realized right away that this was unattainable. The way they navigated it was to eliminate it entirely and say, ‘discrimination is discrimination, it’s just a part of life.’ That was very much their attitude. Today, younger generations would never say that. I call that time my whitest years. I dressed the part, I talked the part.
“At the same time, I was living partially with a Christian family that was more well-to-do. My mother was struggling financially so this family took it upon themselves to be like a second family. I was conflicted there, too. We have a Buddhist shrine at home for our ancestors and on Sundays I prayed at an altar in church. I felt like I was being pulled by one side or the other.
“Even at that age, I was confused about gender and sexuality. That was in the mix, too. ‘Why am I different? Why do I have different thoughts than my friends at the lunch table?’
“I was just watching a video of an Asian cowboy, a guy from China who moved to Texas to become a rancher. He adopted a Southern accent. He was so allured to this life because it’s the exact opposite of how people saw him. The cowboy’s this tough guy, a redneck, an independent figure, like the Marlboro Man or Richard Prince’s Cowboy. I could relate to what he was going through.
“When the reporters interviewed this cowboy, he spoke with a Chinese-Southern accent. He used certain words that weren’t necessary for speaking English, which is common when you go from speaking Chinese to speaking English. He still had those subtle ticks. He still had those linguistic connections to Chinese, even with this Southern accent. This had me thinking about masculinity and the male Asian body.
“On this theme of gender and masculinity, I intentionally presented myself as androgynous for most of my life. I was extremely thin and underweight and wanted to present my body that way. I also had straight long hair down to the lower part of my back. That was a weird cultural experiment because going into men’s restrooms, going into places like Irish bars, looking like that can be challenging. It was an interesting sociological experiment in how men felt threatened by their confusion at my masculinity. Usually, a reaction to that threat is some kind of inclination towards violence.
“Even when people say something derogatory to me because of my race, it never really hits me personally. What it does is it reminds me of the larger issues. I’m interested in incorporating histories and narratives and representations into my work. It doesn’t really bother me if someone says something derogatory about me, or at me. It just reminds me that there are many things that we need to change and adjust.
“If I’m going to make something as a visual artist, I’m making it public. I feel like my public voice is different from my personal voice that I have at home. Obviously, my work and my persona at home have a lot in common but they can be different. If I make myself vulnerable in the public sphere, even if I’m wrong, I feel like that’s legitimate.
“I think great art should connect with people outside of their direct personal experience. I’m thinking of people of all ages and all demographics when I make work.
“My greatest influences come from filmmakers who are able to tell a narrative and have us imagine the outcomes of that narrative. I could talk about film forever. I’m inspired by people like Paul Schrader, who co-wrote the script for Taxi Driver and was himself inspired by the Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu. I would have gone to film school, but I feel like it takes a lot of courage to make a film. There are so many factors outside your shell for which you’re responsible. Instead, I stay in the studio.
“I’m inspired by slow films, where the film becomes an instrument that asks you, the viewer to have an imagination of your own. Imagine a film where someone walks out of a room and closes a door, and the camera films the closed door for about three minutes after. Your brain starts to activate. You’re trying to piece the puzzle together. You’re not sure of this or that. These are films that linger in your thoughts, whether you liked them or not.
“This style of filmmaking influences me as a visual artist. When I’m creating images, all the details are put through that filter. Someone can wonder about the details, the American Eagle jeans or the cowboy boots, but initiating that process is the whole goal. It’s a combination of obsessing over paintings and details in art history and my study of filmmaking and visual storytelling.”
“In my opinion, the only romantic thing about being an artist is the fact that you’re willing to dedicate so much time to something that may not be able to reach. You’re still at it day after day. If there’s anything romantic about being an artist, it’s that dedication. It’s not like the idea just comes to me.
“The idea comes to me like it comes to a scientist in a laboratory: you run tests, you try things out, you make discoveries. It’s more analytical. My paintings take a long time because I have no idea what the final product looks like. It’s an evolution in the studio.
“For that reason, the final product feels very controlled. The colors all feel decisive, unlike artists like Willem de Kooning or Francis Bacon or Romare Bearden where the process is visible. Again, I’m thinking about my paintings metaphorically like films. The colors, the forms, the sounds, metaphorically speaking, have to come together in this deliverable package.
“Being an artist is the only life that I’ve known. And again, I don’t mean that in a romantic way. I mean that quite literally.
“As someone who liked to create things, and be imaginative, you’re desperate for innovation. Because you’re so desperate, you squeeze it out of everything you experience in your life: the shape of that, the shape of this, the color of water, the way someone looks at you. That’s the fuel you need for the studio.
“It’s not about me. I’m the person who’s curious about these things and I’m trying to work it out in the studio. It feels like a calling. I have to remind myself, this is not about you. This is forever.”