Hidden underneath the vibrant and graphic markings painted by Oscar yi Hou are a plethora of personal narratives. First of all, yi Hou’s parents are Cantonese immigrants, so themes of identity, representation and family history tend be ironed out in his works; he uses the canvas to explore tales of his two identities. Secondly, the Liverpool-born and Brooklyn-based artist uses his medium to depict queer, Asian diasporic subjects. His friends will sit for him, and through the conscious splashing of paint on the canvas, he will portray the relationships they have with one another. It’s an intimate occurrence.
In 2017, yi Hou moved to New York for his undergrad studies at Columbia University. He’s remained in the city ever since, and upon graduating, has taken part in three solo shows – one in Rome and two in the Big Apple. With an upcoming solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in autumn, it’s an exciting time for the artist. And this has only been verified by the fact that he was awarded the third annual UOVO prize from the museum, which includes the exhibition, public installation on the facade of UOVO’s Brooklyn dwelling and a $25,000 prize. “For my upcoming show at the Brooklyn Museum, I’m incorporating depictions of the Museum’s Asian Art collection,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve always been interested in the archive and Western collections of East Asian artefacts. But there’s no specific message, just hopefully a constellation of different connections and invocations.”
Besides the detailed depictions of his friends, yi Hou also adds graphic symbols to his rich artworks that resemble characters from Chinese calligraphy and American graffiti. What’s more is that his Chinese name (“一鸣”) refers to a bird’s cry which is an element that often appears throughout his work. By doing so, not only does it give the work an intensely personal aspect, it also allies to Chinese tradition and history. This can be seen in a favourite artwork of his titled Self-portrait (21); or to steal oneself with a certain blue music, 2019”. Crafted while in university during his junior fall semester, he was in his dorm room due to the fact he wasn’t taking any studio art classes at the time. “So I would spend any spare hour I had on the piece,” he explains.
“There are several references in the piece; the tea set I bought from a store’s liquidation sale somewhere in Ridgewood many summers go,” continues yi Hou. At the time, he was reading a handful of books such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other, which have inadvertently had an influence on his practice – even to this day. There are many more allusions like this pepper in the painting. This includes the “floating” 21 featured on the left of the subject’s head, which refers to his age at the time of making. Additionally, the drawing placed to the right of the figure is actually one of Picasso’s famed artworks of bulls. “Finally, it’s hard to decipher,” he says, "but the vertical text fragment in between the legs is the word ‘Gidra’, in reference to the revolutionary Asian American newspaper that ran between 1969 and 1974.”
There’s a lot to unpack in yi Hou’s eye-catching paintings, but we’re all for it. With a signature style and an eloquence for sharing narratives – both personal and impersonal – he’s proving that there’s much more than meets the eye.
Oscar yi Hou: Self-portrait (21); or to steal oneself with a certain blue music (Copyright © Oscar yi Hou, 2021) Photo credit: Jason Mandella, James Fuentes
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.