Contributed by Wells Chandler / My favorite painters use symbols structurally, as shape-shifting formal narrative devices, and push paint in a variety of combinations in vast and surprising ways. Such a painter is Charles Yuen, whom I somehow discovered online during the pandemic. The mycelia network of interweb algorithms finally delivered a plump mushroom. “Between Here and Now” is Yuen’s second solo show with Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, NY.
Piled-up books forming rainbow bridges and electric keyboards, birds, tree people, honeycomb lattices, mushroom networks, the cosmos, paint as spores, and decomposing foliage populate his paintings. They feel like friendly, humorous diagrams for shedding one’s ego. Humans become trees and instruct one another how to do so – communally in Humans Pretending to be Trees and one-on-one as in Up and Down.
Sandwiched between two horizons on an op-art vibrating boundary of cobalt blue and burnt orange ground, a Marsden Hartley-esque humanoid encounters the Jungian shadow as a primordial algae blob in Ladder Hands. I am reminded of Rhoda Kellogg’s theory on children’s art regarding our shared evolution of mark-making. She hypothesized that we crossed the threshold from scribbles, which she called biological art, to nameable subjects by way of a ladder that eventually becomes the sun and later humans and other identifiable things. Brian Belott articulates these ideas further in his 2021 talk at the Drawn Out Conference.
In Ladder Hands,a genderless figure with strangely fashioned arms – a reoccurring motif in Yuen’s work – seems to receive sacred knowledge from a green alien. This annunciation scene makes me think of the popularity of slime among tweens. A fascination with its formlessness might be a rejection of the gendered body, which feels prevalent in Yuen’s paintings and reinforces his (and our) apparent interest in our beginning as pond scum. Viewing his paintings also suggests the work of Katherine Bradford and Forrest Bess.
Sometimes the paintings are straightforward in relation to their titles. Water Falling is an exception. The external world melts away in a wavy gravy haze, and the referenced waterfall has been internalized by a humanoid figure with tingly tentacle-like arms. Initially, the painting seems to poke fun at bathers and serves as a cautionary reminder to clean yourself. Nestled in thick paint that looks like decaying tree matter, the waterfall morphs into an upside-down, psychoactive mushroom, releasing spores and perhaps magic.
Yuen is enamored with light and paint’s translucence. In On the Road, made in 2009, a meditative figure floats in an emerald-green astral plane over a landscape littered with oil wells. Dislocated psyches in the form of brainy, peach-colored morels and slumping algae blobs survey the land. The topsy-turvy road and power lines question where we are going and what our connection is to power, both natural and divine. There is a pathos in this work that reminds me of the landscapes of Matthew Wong. Puff-like spores compose a hazy starry sky. A concern for the well-being of the planet in the face of climate change is manifest in many of the works. Our connection to the natural world and our larger place in the cosmos are recurrent themes.
Filling up two floors of the gallery with overflow in the flat files, the work on display was made over a number of years. Presented as it is in this exhibition, Yuen’s work seems to ask how we receive knowledge and how wisdom is stored. Perhaps more artists – and more galleries – should show a range of works made over relatively long periods, allowing us to consider the strata of their oeuvre and ask such questions as well as view beautifully rendered and thought-provoking imagery. This show, in any case, satisfies on both levels.
“Charles Yuen: Between Here and Now,” Pamela Salisbury Gallery, 362 ½ Warren Street, Hudson, NY. Through August 28, 2022.
About the author: Wells Chandler is a Bronx based artist who explores ecology, community, gender and queer iconography through the mediums of crochet, embroidery, drawing and cake. His work has been exhibited internationally and nationally at Andrew Rafacz (Chicago, IL), Diablo Rosso (Panama City, Panama), and Galerie Eric Mouchet (Paris, France) among others. Chandler is a member of Soloway gallery in Brooklyn. He writes poetry and art reviews infrequently.