Engage in Dialogue With the Diligently Layered Paintings of Oscar yi Hou

New York based painter Oscar yi Hou explores subjecthood and identity through his work. The exceptionally textured compositions present the viewer with a collection of shapes and objects. These serve as symbols that leave the spectator to analyze and attempt to decipher the code of identity presented by the artist through his stroke. Yi Hou dives into questions of language, queerness, cultural signification and identity. Read on to learn about the artist and his latest and upcoming work. 

Confessions of two Chinatown Cowboys, or: Cowgirl A.B & Cowboy Crane go smoke a cigarette2020, Oils on Canvas, 57″ x 45″, Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and when did art first come into your life? 

I was born and raised in Liverpool, UK, and moved to NYC a few years back for college. Kids love to draw and I was no different— I just kept drawing. I took art classes in high school, where I learned how to paint by copying paintings by Lucian Freud or Vincent Van Gogh— only ever Modern paintings, I was never actually too interested in the Classical. Liverpool also has some great art institutions, such as Tate, so art was never absent in my life.

birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait, 2020, Oils on Canvas, 43″ x 61”, Courtesy of the Artist

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies? 

I’ve always been interested in figurative work— questions of how to depict personhood. I wasn’t taught how to formally paint, and learnt through painting copies of other works in acrylic. I transitioned to oil paint from acrylics without actually learning or being taught how to use oil paint— how to blend oils on canvas, how to use mediums— how to mix colours to form specific hues/blacks, for example. To this end, I focused more on stroke to convey shape and form, having each mark be a discrete colour/element in itself (somewhat like patchwork)— in other words, I was basically drawing with oil paint, and waiting for each layer to fully dry before applying the next. Throughout the years I’ve grown a little more deft with oils— I have a fatter bag of tricks now — but I can trace the way I paint, faces at least, to those formative years of copying van Goghs and Freuds.

Inquiries into language, yellowness, cultural signification, relation,  queerness— these all flowered over the past few years as I read more and more and learned more about the world and my position within it.

My Pisces Loverboy2020, Oils on Primed Paper, 11″ x 15”, Courtesy of the Artist

What is your process like? How do you begin a work? 

Generally, my work begins from two ideas: one of composition and one of concept. For the former, I’m generally inspired by any image— sometimes other paintings, sometimes photographs. A conceptual idea comes from my own research practise.

I usually draft a painting with a sketch, alongside taking a few pictures of the model(s) in various poses. For the various signifiers or symbols in the painting, I draw from life or from images from my accumulated archive— old posters, photographs, saved internet JPGs, museum documentation, books, sketches, etc.

I have an “other-ache”, a.k.a: God, I miss you, 2020, Oils on Canvas, 53” x 29 3/4”, Courtesy of the Artist

Walk us through a day in the studio. 

At 2:30pm I get off an electric Citi Bike and enter my studio. I hide my phone somewhere clandestine in the studio and try and forget it exists. I prepare my palette, then get to work on whatever main piece I decide, switching to alternate pieces if I feel my focus wanes, cycling stategically through various playlists or genres of music.

At 5:00pm I get egg and sausage on a roll with ketchup no cheese for $3 from the deli, then get a medium latte with oat milk from Dunkin. Once the caffeine hits in I typically switch to house music or Detroit techno and ride it until I crash, usually at around 9:30pm, from which I pack up and cycle back home. 

2 lovers, 2 cranes (and then we took a bath)2019, Oils on Canvas, 50”x 40”, Courtesy of the Artist

From where do you draw inspiration?

I draw inspiration from so many places. I’m interested in Relation, so other people interest me deeply. I look at other paintings and artists a lot — Martin Wong is someone very special to me. It’s a hard question to answer because for me inspiration comes from the fusion of many disparate and varied things.

Have you explored other forms of craft? Why or why not? 

My magnum opus was actually this really beautiful ceramic calabash I made a few years back that rolled off a bed and broke into a thousand pieces. The trauma has deterred me from ceramics for the time being but I’m sure I’ll get back into it sometime soon. Working with clay feels like working with oil, with the addition of subtraction as a mark/stroke. It’s a real joy.

Chickendick , duckfeet, 2020, diptych: 14.5”x 22”, and 15”x 20”, Oils on Primed Paper, Courtesy of the Artist

What larger questions do you think your work asks? 

I think my work tries to question the liberalised conceptualisation of identity politics (ethnicity made transparent and consumable under the guise of multiculturalism) through a kind of signification overload, through opacity. I’d say that my work also tries to question American myth, and draws a lot from the elided, oppressed presence (and forced exclusion) of Chinese people in America starting in the 19th century. My work seeks to question the terms and conditions of Yellow representation.

I’d also say that my work tries to examine Relation— the way that we are constituted through those others living in the world with us, our being-with-others— the idea that others are extensions of selves— and seeks to examine this within a queer framework, exploring ideas of queer kinship, relation, desire, platonics. 

Self-portrait (21); or to steal oneself with a certain blue music, 2019, Oils on Canvas, 52”x 43”, Courtesy of the Artist

Does your work reference any Art Historical movements? 

My work references art history from East Asia— for example, Chinese emperor or ancestor portraits. I also look at a lot of fellow contemporary queer figuration artists.

What’s next for you? 

A lot! I have a few things next year to look forward to, including my graduation and a few solo shows, at T293 in Rome and James Fuentes in New York. Also, I’ll be in the group show, Breakfast Under The Tree, at Carl Freedman Gallery, sometime next year. 

2 lovers, and then we got bagels2019, Oils on Canvas, 60”x 44”, Courtesy of the Artist

At the end of each interview we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you admire and would like us to interview next. Who would you suggest? 

Please check out Amanda Ba, who is my wifey and dear friend.

Mlle. Chris à central park 103rd, en automne, 2019, Oils on Canvas, 60”x 40”, Courtesy of the Artist