Replete with Chinese motifs and symbols of Americana, the portraits in ‘East of sun, west of moon’ examine the performance of ethnicity and race in art

At the corner of Evergreen Avenue and Jefferson Street, on the Bushwick UOVO facility’s facade, is wildstyle graffiti text. The blocked letters, written in reverse, appear three-dimensional. It’s almost illegible unless you already know what it says: birds of a feather. Beneath the lettering stand three queer Asian Americans, two wearing cowboy hats. They are framed by a red-orange border, decorated with uneven bright blue stars. Maximalist chaos fills the remaining space: shades of indigo, gold, taupe, green, and animals from the Chinese zodiac.

This 50-square-foot mural is a painting by Oscar yi Hou, the most recent recipient of the UOVO prize for emerging Brooklyn artists. In conjunction with Flock together, aka: a mural family portrait, yi Hou is presenting his first solo museum exhibition East of sun, west of moon at the Brooklyn Museum. The name of the show derives from an accompanying poem, where the artist writes, “in this intermediary puddle / between those two great poles they staked out long before you were born.” His sense of resting in between these two celestial bodies is a reflection of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and a crucial aspect of his personhood. He’s between the East and the West; first and second generation; Europe and America.

The artist and writer was born to Cantonese immigrants in Liverpool, but moved to New York to pursue a degree at Columbia University. While studying abroad in Paris, the pandemic forced him to return to his parents’ house in the UK. There, yi Hou spent most of his time painting intricate assemblages of symbols and faces, while writing a collection of essays, which eventually culminated in a monograph published by James Fuentes Press. “I’ve benefited from lockdown and social distancing, which is a complex feeling—that you were able to succeed in a global pandemic,” he shares. The artist’s following semester in New York was similar. His classes remained online, stacked into a single day—the rest of the week was devoted to his craft.

The breadth of yi Hou’s accomplishments are taking some getting used to. “Part of it has to do with impostor syndrome as a minority, but [in some ways], I feel like [my success is] almost because of the rise of anti-Asian hate,” he confides. A sense of tokenization is familiar among marginalized communities, especially when companies and institutions commodify their experiences. Artists are constantly asked to center their work around their lived experiences with adversity, almost as if that’s all they are—all they can talk about. The Brooklyn Museum proudly advertises yi Hou’s show as “timely,” because it was created during a period of heightened Asian discrimination. The artist continues, “It’s, like, people felt bad for Asians. They were like, ‘Let’s look at their art, let’s buy their art.’ It’s just a lingering thought in the back of my mind. My work has merit by itself, but if anything, I’ve benefited from liberal, elite, white girls.”

“I don’t think there’s anything as visually compelling as a drawing of a human face or figure. As homosapiens, we’re conditioned to look out for and seek faces. It’s a natural response.”

Yi Hou may have received attention due to the social and political circumstances surrounding his identity, but his art stands alone. His showcase of 11 works at the Brooklyn Museum can take hours to unpack. The paintings are lush and lively, with each stroke of acrylic, oil, and gouache made evident. Reappearing American cowboy symbols are paired with Chinese motifs, almost like each painting is a page out of a scrapbook. There’s sheriff stars, taijitu symbols, hidden text, and red-crowned cranes. For this show, yi Hou took a site-specific route and references pieces from the reinstalled Asian Art collection. Many of the artist’s paintings are portraits of close friends, who are also queer East Asian diasporic artists. “I don’t think there’s anything as visually compelling as a drawing of a human face or figure,” says yi Hou. He believes it’s an aspect of anthropocentrism; “as homosapiens, we’re conditioned to look out for and seek faces. It’s a natural response.”

East of sun, west of moon has a few self-portraits, as well as newer practice for yi Hou. “There are a lot of ethical considerations when you present someone else,” says the artist. “When you represent yourself, you can make up a figure and do whatever you want with it.” These considerations informed the Brooklyn Museum show, which the artist frames as a commentary on the performance of ethnicity and race. Yi Hou’s characters executes “an iteration or manifestation, historical or otherwise, of Chineseness.” In Cooliesm, aka: Sly Son Goku turns 23, yi Hou is dressed as Dragon Ball’s Goku; in Cowboy Kato Coolie, aka: Bruce’s Bitch, he presents himself as Kato from 1960’s The Green Hornet, originally played by Bruce Lee. Both titles incorporate the British colonial era slur used for indentured laborers from East, Southeast, and South Asia, as an act of reclamation.

Those two paintings also contain graffiti lettering—“GOKU” on the bottom of the former, “AKA!” on the latter. The technique reappears across the artist’s practice. “It’s seen as a low-brow form of art—or not even as art at all. [But] it’s a creative and beautiful form of [expression]—this idea of people putting their name and signature onto a city that is often so unforgiving and unwelcoming.”

East of sun, west of moon is on display at the Brooklyn Museum until September 17, 2023.