Artist of The Week: Oscar yi Hou
British-Chinese artist Oscar yi Hou is a jack of many trades: though first and foremost an accomplished visual artist, yi Hou has dabbled in photography, music, and design and is now based in New York City, where he studies visual arts at Columbia University. Exploring themes of personhood, sexuality, Chinese diaspora, and young adulthood, yi Hou’s portraits embrace, in his words, the “idea of life from the assertion of the personal and the subjectification of subjects in opposition to the objectivization.”
Made up of determined brushstrokes and thick, vibrant layers, yi Hou’s portraits are also impressive feats of texture and technique. Intensely and carefully detailed, you could spend hours studying his paintings, following the brushstrokes, tracing the depth, and deciphering the doodles in the margins. But perhaps more striking is yi Hou’s unique ability to vividly capture his tender, often intimate relationships with his subjects, inviting the viewer into introspective reflections of self, experience, and identity. We sat down with yi Hou in his studio to learn more about his pieces, the influences behind his artistry, and what it means for him to succeed as an artist.
Tell me about yourself. Who is Oscar?
I study visual arts at Columbia University. I’m from Liverpool and my parents are from China, and I love to paint.
How did you get your start in painting? Was there ever a clear start?
I’d say that I just started and then never stopped. As a kid, everyone paints, but I just kept doing it for a long time, and eventually I was like “oh shit, I’m actually kind of good at this.”
What techniques do you like to play with?
Flatness, depth, linestroke, line texture and quality—like dry brush, wet brush—using crayons, doodling, drawing from various iconographies. I like playing with frames and then trying to artificially contain the subject.
Do you usually have people in the studio with you?
No. I can, and it’s good company, but normally I just listen to music and sing loudly. I’d much rather be alone when I paint…the activity of painting itself fills the room when you’re by yourself.
What themes do you find yourself exploring in your works?
Personhood, humanness, life affirmation. Not cynical…it can be sad, but not cynically sad. Life affirming in the sense that it tries to be hopeful and is a repository work of the life of people.
How does your background influence your work?
I’d say one of the reasons why I cling to personhood is because, systematically, as someone who’s queer, as someone who’s a person of color, I’ve not been affirmed by the hegemonic gaze. And that’s why I don’t like being cynical and I feel like people who are very cynical and take this very cynical view have the privilege to do so. And also, being a yellow person, an East Asian person, and not speaking Chinese, and kind of British, I’ve been exploring a lot of— well, it’s called asemic writing, I think, and it’s basically writing that looks like it should be writing but actually is meaningless, so I do that by basically writing English downwards in the same way as in the Chinese language, but it’s English, so you have kind of this bastardization of both languages forming, and forming into something you cannot understand. It’s not a third language, it’s just more mysterious I guess. I’ve been around a lot of Chinese iconography and language, but I can’t really speak it.
What emotions do you try to convey in your work?
I would say, the whole gamut of human emotion, I guess. So like, happiness, love, sadness…though I don’t paint that many sad paintings because it makes me sad too. For me, because my work is rooted in humanness, I think emotions are inherently part of that. If I don’t convey any emotion, I’ve failed as an artist, I think.
You mentioned “failing as an artist”— do you try to invoke some certain reaction in the people viewing your paintings?
Yeah. I specifically want them to realize that the people—the subjects they’re looking at—are subjects and not objects. They’re the ones taking the action in that moment. Because, normally, there is this one-sided relationship between the spectator and the image, the piece of art, and usually the subject contained in the image is objectified by the spectator. I don’t want that to be the case in my paintings, which is why I try to have the subjects look directly at the spectator, I always have them centered, and I’m always trying to show their entire body. So it’s like, they can look me in the eyes and say “Fuck you, I’m here, I’m a person, not just like, an aesthetic object.”
Do you usually know the people you paint?
Yes. I think it’d be weird if I painted strangers. I am friends with all of them. I have very good, unique, or special relationships with the people I paint. I think…when painting someone you love—so like, for example, my partner, Isaiah— it’s kind of weird. I did one of Isaiah, and he was naked, and I don’t know…it’s weird painting someone you love because you always want to get it exactly right. It makes it a bit more challenging, and interesting as well. And it wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t challenging.
How has coming to college influenced you and your pieces?
I think coming to New York, specifically, has been more important to me. There’s much more diversity and an authentic range of humanity, much more queer people, much more fellow people of color. I love Liverpool, but it’s like 90 percent white. I feel more at home here in the city. And I think the subject matter in New York, I’ve found, is just unparalleled.
Images courtesy of Elle Wolfley
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