Yowshien Kuo’s erotic paintings of Asian cowboys examine the themes of submission, pleasure and power

The artist discusses how they explore their Asian-American identity in their dream-like reintepretations of the Wild West.

5 April 2022

“As a child I loved the line,” Yowshien Kuo tells It’s Nice That. “The line work of 80s-90s American cartoons and comics coupled with the gestures and marks from my Chinese painting background which is calligraphic – they go hand in hand.” But while the artist has found a poetic fluency between American pop culture and Chinese calligraphy, their lived experience of navigating their Asian-American identity has not always felt so coherent. Their series Frontier Romance which depicts Asian cowboys in strange, spacey environments and bonded in shibari rope is both an ode to the artist’s love of pop-culture, film, folklore and the supernatural and an examination of their “instilled lust for white adjacency or acceptance”.

Yowshien’s artistic training took shape both in America and Taiwan. “My education in America was not an extraordinary experience, more of a struggle lacking in comprehending context and finding motivation,” says Yowshien. Born in the US, the artist went to study contemporary and traditional Chinese arts at a Taiwanese school for expats. They then returned to the States to study at Fontbonne University. Though “rather small” and “not a ‘cool’ art school”, Yowshien was allured by its unusual curriculum that focused on traditional Western Renaissance style painting techniques, stone carving, and darkroom photography, disciplines that have gone on to influence their eclectic visual style.

Alongside their training in more traditional media, Yowshien also developed a fondness for drama, cinema and the supernatural. In Frontier Romance all these worlds collide in a series of complex and dynamic compositions which feature Asian American cowboys. Popular interpretations of the American West’s history, particularly in cinema, have often appropriated the image of the cowboy as a white heteronormative male identity, glossing over the reality of a much more diverse population of range cattle-workers in the 19th century, a quarter of whom were Black. Joining a movement of creatives that have begun re-interpreting this white-washed history, Yowshien stages erotically-charged scenes of Asian cowboys.


Yowshien Kuo: Ornamental Oriental, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)

While we are used to seeing cowboys wielding pistols and galloping into the sunset astride a dashing steed, Yowshien’s cowboys enjoy no such freedom. In works like The Mourner is perfectly Content to Kill, the figure is bound tightly with leather straps in the style of shibari – an ancient artistic form of Japanese rope bondage. Reflecting their own visceral experience of “lust” for agency in white American culture, “the bonding exemplifies sensations of submission, pleasure, and power,” says Yowshien. The cowboy in this painting looks from under their dark curling locks with a coy gaze at the viewer. Their tight jeans have fallen unbuttoned at the crotch. The ambiguous gender identity, erotically charged clothing and pose of the cowboy go further in complicating the stereotypes surrounding this problematic figure in American history.

Speaking about this complex theme, Yowshien notes that “the complexity and diversity of the topic far outweighs what I am able to show in a single series”. But through their dreamlike paintings of the Wild West, Yowshien powerfully re-appropriates the cowboy figure to resonate with their own experience, hoping to “bring light to the emotional struggle that is often hidden behind our armour, in this case Western clothing which allows a character to blend into their surroundings to avoid standing out, avoiding the fear of harm”.


Yowshien Kuo: Two Right Feet, Snake Eyes and Cherry Pie, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)


Yowshien Kuo: White Snakeroot, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)


Yowshien Kuo: Dreams In A Barrel Aimed At The Sky, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)


Yowshien Kuo: But Victor Denies the Similarities Between Himself and the Monster, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2020)


Yowshien Kuo: A Country Boy Meows, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)


Yowshien Kuo, A Decadent Veil, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)


Yowshien Kuo: The Mourner is Perfectly Content to Kill, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)

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Yowshien Kuo: I Was A Virgin To Myself, I Do Believe, (Copyright © Yowshien Studios, 2022)

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About the Author

Elfie Thomas

Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.

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