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Interview: Yikui (Coy) Gu

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

Feel The Shine. 2018. Gouache, charcoal, Wonder Bread plastic bag, fabric, aluminum foil, yarn, acrylic, photograph, glitter, semen, & plastic on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

1) Could you introduce yourself? When did you first develop an interest in art? Where did you study painting? When did you first see yourself as an artist?

To introduce myself, my name is Coy Gu. I am an artist based on Philadelphia. And I’ve always been interested in art. Ever since I was a little kid, I enjoyed drawing. My mom could reliably leave me with just paper and pen and I didn’t need toys. I could just sit there for hours and hours and hours. And in some ways I always saw myself as an artist and I never saw myself as doing anything else. So I think I always knew. So I studied Painting at two places. So for my undergraduate degree, it’s from Long Island University. It’s where my BFA is from. And I did my MFA candidacy at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which is here in Philadelphia. And then that’s where I ended up staying.

2) Instead of trying to hide or compromise your Asian identity, you seek to put your identity out there in the open, to rebel against the iconicity or "universality" of whiteness that otherizes and dislocates Asian-ness. Did you have a breakthrough moment in your art or your perception that guided you towards this direction?

I don’t know if there was a breakthrough moment. I think I sent you a link to my website, and the body of work that I’ve been working on for the last several years now is Classic Yellow. The other stuff is older, so I am not going to talk about that. I am going to focus my comments on Classic Yellow. So with a name for that series of work such as Classic Yellow I think it already kind of tells you to some extent what the work is about and also where my perspective is coming from.

Not only is it not trying to hide my identity, I think it centers my identity. And that's the whole point is that, you know, in a previous series, so if you look on my website in another series called, Lovers Melt, which was something I did as an artist and residence at the School of Visual Arts, you know, I remember someone asking me, you know, how come all the subjects or most of them are Asian? And I said, well, you know, you would only ask that if you assume white to be the default setting, if they were all white, you wouldn't ask me how come they're all white. So I, I think just by the mere act of centering my identity, it should hopefully highlight the fact that white is often assumed to be the default setting in the art world. So it kind of hopefully challenges that notion already.

(Right: Not A Chinaman’s Chance. 2020. Gouache, acrylic, charcoal, $1, colored pencil, photograph, & yarn on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.)

You know, specifically for me, it's I got the name from, I was just making cake one day and there's a box of cake batter that said Classic Yellow. And to me that is just like, “Hey, that's something I can use to appropriate from everyday life.” So, I'm not trying to hide it. The identity is front and center in the work. You can see that in all the work. It takes as a starting point in each piece, it takes myself and my wife who's Caucasian. And we use that as the starting point. It can go in any number of directions, but it's important to have that be the origin point. And then allow that to turn into a piece that can be about anything, about art, about social political events, about, you know, digital technology in our lives… things of that nature.

3) You own the color yellow in your work because you openly talk about your identity and depict yourself in this hue. But it's not the real skin color of Asians, just as white is not the real skin color of white people. How does language conceal and distort the reality that all races are beautiful?

Yes. So, of course I'm not like, you know, a magic marker, yellow, just like nobody is white or black or brown or whatever. So to me it's just sort of a playful use on words, and it touches on the larger importance of language in the work. I use text based elements in my work. There are places at times where I'm using, for example, materials from the real world. It's important that I use, you know, like I said earlier, I'll take the cake batter that says Classic Yellow and literally use that in a piece. Right? I will use, for example… Is it okay if I pull up if I share some images?

No Synthetic Colors. 2019. Gouache, charcoal, acrylic, printed first page of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, colored pencil, gouache on photograph, & cardboard on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

This one's called No Synthetic Colors. And so that's just from the original box I saw at the store and it's especially interesting because next to it, there's the Classic White cake mix too. So those are the real, those are the real boxes from the store. And I just cut each side from each side of the box and then collage it in here. But text is important in other ways, too. This is the actual first page of the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1802. So I found, I found it online. I think the library of Congress, if you go to their website, you know, they catalog many, many things, many documents throughout American history. So, you know, the internet is a wonderful thing. So I just literally printed that out and then collaged that into this painting. So that's literal a text there. And then, you know, there will be text in other ways like this piece, and by the way, this is my artist statement for the entire series. I'll send this to you afterwards along with the images… But, you know, with something like this, there's the text of, again, a newspaper ad from that era, cuz, you know, prior to the passing of the Exclusion Act, there was a lot of, especially in California and the West Coast, you have these, these newspaper ads that are pro Chinese exclusion, et cetera, et cetera. So that text here in the newspaper, you know, underneath Trump, there's a line of text as well.

It's from the American poet, Maya Angelou. She says, you know, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. So that was an important line to put underneath that image of Trump. So yeah, basically my point is, you know, the importance of language is there in the work. It's not the only important factor of course, but it's one of the important things for me to kind of take advantage of, and play with, you know, and some of the other pieces... I used the packaging from wonder bread. Wonder bread. So that's the actual bread bag that, I took, and I cut it apart and it says classic white on the bread bag. I see. So to use something like this in the piece, the actual bag from the bread to take those things from the real world is important. So that's you know, that's the importance of language in my work.

American Carnage. 2020. Gouache, acrylic, charcoal, gouache on photograph, yarn, ink, photographs, & newspaper print out on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

4) How do your paintings of white people establish a dialogue with your depictions of yourself and/or other Asians? Are you trying to come to terms with the status quo in which the white beauty is still very much considered iconic and universal within society and popular culture?

So I... for me, I don't always think about, you know, am I going to depict one group of people one way and another group of people another way. What I think about is if my wife and I are in the same piece, then I try to depict us differently. So if she's, let's say, if I draw her in a very traditional academic kind of way, well then I'll present myself in the same painting in a very, very different way. So I'll share my screen again to kind of highlight that a little bit.

So in this piece here, for example, she's painted in more or less sort of a traditional way, right? It's just what you learn to do when you're in school, in an academic setting. And then to contrast us while, to me, it wouldn't make sense to paint myself in a similar way. We must be as different as possible. That's an actual smiley face that I cut from a plastic bag, you know, and it's usually the plastic bag that Chinese food is delivered in. So to me, I use the yellow smiley face because one - it's funny - and two - it's at the opposite end of a realistic academic painting.

And then there's also a kind of, you know, they all look alike, right? Which is a racist perception. Like the smiley faces, they literally all look alike. So I think that's kind of funny to kind of subvert that racism by almost leaning into it in some ways. And then there's also the infinite reproducibility of the smiley face, you know. There are millions and millions of those plastic bags made every day. And so all those millions of smiley faces all look the same. So when I present people, and when I… cuz ultimately I kind of see myself as a portrait artist. I always want to render us in different ways. So in this piece it's literally called The Portrait. And so it's, that's another plastic smiley face and it's important.

(Left: The Scenic Route. 2019. Gouache, acrylic, gouache on photographs, plastic bag, & photograph on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.)

It's a white, it's a white hand, that's doing this. And then here, I'm drawn in a more kind of graphic way. It's just with a pen with an ink pen, but then she's depicted with charcoal… again, very traditional academically. You know what I mean? So it's like, I'm always trying to present us in a different way, and this piece here she's drawn academically. So then when we're in the same painting, we're painted in a more painterly style, like Sargent or some of these more slap dash Bouvier painters, you know, or here where… this is a colored pencil. And then so it's like intentionally very foggy. It's not specific. Everything is kind of blurry. So then if I'm gonna present myself, let's do it with just a Sharpie and everything is a hard edge and everyone has a sharp line and a sharp definition.

So when I, when I present people, those are the kinds of ways that I'm kind of thinking about, you know, she's depicted academically here, again, charcoal drawing. So what's the way I can contrast that? Well, that's literally just yellow paint. I just create my own profile there in my hand and that's it, nothing else, you know? So I always want there to be as sharp of a clash between us as possible. Now, if I'm depicting other people, I'm only, I usually do it more based on sort of what the piece is about. So for example, this piece here. She's drawn again with charcoal academically, so then… You know, what's a way I can, you can paint your spouse without becoming sentimental? So the way to do it is to make it almost grotesquely, comical, you know, you would never paint your wife this way, eating a hamburger like this.

But it's funnier if, if it's done this way and there's sort of a clash again, and then I don't know if you've recognize this person or not. This is John Travolta from Pulp Fiction, the movie Pulp Fiction. And it's a, a famous scene where he opens a suitcase cuz the whole movie's about them trying to get a suit case and he opens the suitcase and it glows. So there's this light coming from the suitcase, but throughout the whole movie, you never find out what is actually in the suitcase.

So in that instance, I just simply needed people to recognize who that was and what scene that's from. So I painted it more or less realistically as it would be from the movie. So the way I depict people is just dependent on if it's her and I, we are different in the same piece. And then if anybody else is included, it just depends on what the painting calls for. If I need somebody to really recognize that fac, well, I need to paint it realistically.

Oriental Flavor. 2019. Gouache, charcoal, acrylic, ink, gouache on photograph, chopsticks, Ramen noodle packaging & flavoring pack on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

5) How do you incorporate your Chinese heritage in your art? How do you critique other people's appropriation of Chinese culture and history in their works?

I don't know if I'm... Okay, so that happens a little bit. And I think that ties in with a different question you had about a different piece. So as I stated of course my identity is front and center in my work, so there's no hiding it. It's not being brushed under the rug or anything like that. It's already at the center of how I start every single piece. I don't know that I'm really trying to critique other people's cultural appropriation so much?

I think that that there's enough critique of that where I don't really need to… I'm not interested in critiquing it. I will, however do this. I will use it. I will highlight it. Or by using it, I am inevitably highlighting it, which then can become a form of critique. So this is actually related to another question you had. So again, I'll just share my screen because it's the easiest way to do it. So with this painting, Oriental flavor, I think you had a question specifically about the individual here in this painting. This is for a scene from a movie from the 1960s called Breakfast at Tiffany's and, in the movie, there's a, an American actor named Mickey Rooney, who's a white man who plays a Japanese character named Mr. Yunioshi. So in the movie he's wearing, you know, prosthetics, he's wearing fake teeth. It's a very, kind of over the top racist character of Asian caricature. So my thought is so that's basically someone else's cultural appropriation of us, right? So for me I'm like, well, I don't really need to, a lot has already been said and anyone living in today's world sees that can recognize how cringeworthy that is. Right? So I don't really know that I need to go into it further, but here's what I can do. Let's center it and let's turn the thing around. And so this is actually just painted. So here's something else on a side note that I do in a lot of my work is that I like to take so I'd go online and find stock photographs of electronic devices like TVs and phones and stuff. And then I print them out at my local CVS and then onto the photo, I paint a painting and then I cut the little TV photo out and I collage it into a larger painting. So that's actually what's happening here as well. So for example, here, it's Dave Chappelle from his sketch comedy show from the early 2000s from like 20 years ago. And it's as if I'm watching it on my smartphone on YouTube, right? What it really is, is that's actually a smaller painting. So this is just a gouache painting that is onto the photo of the smartphone. So that's the photo and you just, all I do is I tape off where the screen is and I do this one of one painting.

Just A Little High. 2021. Gouache, charcoal, $1, gouache on photograph, colored pencil, used shooting target, & photograph on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

So you can see it in progress a little bit. See, here's the tape. And you build, you can see what was originally on the photo and then, you know, you build it up slowly, you know, like you would any painting. And then eventually it turns into this, right? And then you cut this, you cut this thing out and then you collage it into this larger painting. So it's kinda a painting inside of a painting. And what's important for me when I do this is there's a visual and a conceptual tension. So the visual tension is obvious you have the clash between the starkly photographic and the painterly image. They obviously look very different next to each other. And I think that makes the painting more interesting. I think that the conceptual tension comes from the fact that the, the photograph of the TV is not mine. I find it on the internet. It's a stock image. And it's very important that I have no authorship in that photograph. It has to be someone else's, it has to be a free available stock photo. That's kind of the rule, right? And I can, I can download it online and I can print it a million times at my local CVS. So there's an infinite, there's an infinite reproducibility to that image. I can print it a million times and all the photographs look identical to one another.

And then onto this one photograph, I do a painting. So the painting is only a one of one. I can never make the exact same painting again. The brush strokes will never match up exactly. So there's the conceptual tension between the 1 of 1 image painted onto a surface. That's not a 1 of 1. That's a infinitely reproducible surface. So that's, that's something that, as a side note is very important in my work because yes. You know, that's getting into, that's getting into art philosophy. This is the kind of stuff you're probably learning about, you know. It's something that as a painter, you have to kind of think about. And so like your relationship to photography, especially in today's world with digital photography and the internet and how common and everyday images are, how easy it is to find images now. So back to your question about, well, the cultural appropriation, how do I critique it? So I'm just simply highlighting what someone else did and using it within the framework of my own work. And by nearly doing that, I inevitably am kind of critiquing it as well. So that was so that would be the answer to that question.

Wonder. 2018. Gouache, ink, Wonder Bread plastic bag, cardboard, gouache on photograph, & plastic bag on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

6) What is the meaning of the smiley face? Is the smile supposed to feel empty and superficial? Does it relate to your own experiences as an Asian?

I see it kind of as a self-portrait for all of us. And yes, there's something funny about living in today's world, where you have this kind of smile. It's forced and artificial, but you can also, I think to an extent, understand it because when you live in today's world, you know, if you don't, you must laugh because if you don't laugh, you it's gonna make you cry. You know… so you kind of have to, so in that respect, and again, it being yellow, they all looking the same. It being a mass-produced item, you know, with how big China's population is all that stuff. So it's like, all of those things are, are reasons why I use the, the yellow smiley face.

Cry Me A River. 2019. Gouache, printed screenshot, unscratched lottery ticket, rice, Amazon gift cards, yarn, charcoal, acrylic, ink, & colored pencil on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

7) What is the meaning of the crying face? Is this how you really feel inside due to your experiences?

Okay. So this work is specifically about failure and kind of as an artist embracing failure, or I don't know if embracing is the right word, but learning from failure or accepting failure and, you know, I wanted to make one work that was centered around like the notion of failure. So here's kind of my thought process. So you're an MFA student right now. Have you ever heard of the Skowhegan artist residency?

It's extremely prestigious. It's super difficult to get into, you know, I've applied for years and years and years, and I've never gotten accepted. I know of a couple acquaintances, you know, friends of friends who got accepted you and it's a game changer for your career because it just really opens up new doors for you. And it really can bring you to the next level, like people who, you know, you went to the same school with who get got accepted there. And then five years later they're exhibiting in a major museum. So it’s a huge opportunity. So having been rejected from it, a number of times, what I did was I went, this is my rejection email from the last time I applied. So I just took a screenshot from that day when I got the email and I printed out the screenshot. So that got collaged into this painting. The rest of it is a painting of the laptop, of course. And then I really wanted to center that. So here's my charcoal drawing, self portrait. So that's actually individual grains of rice I glued onto the painting and then those are the smiles from Amazon gift cards.

So I wanted to take smiles and subvert them and make them frown instead. So I just glued the smiles over my eyes and over my mouth to turn it into from a frown… and add to the crying fake idea. And then to highlight how prestigious and how important the Skowhegan is. I wanted to really kind of conceptually add to that more. So I actually went out and I bought a scratch off lottery ticket. I intentionally, I never scratched it and I just collaged it into the painting. So I'm never gonna know if that ticket maybe could have made me rich, who knows. And part of not knowing that not knowing is part of the piece. It was Skowhegan, it's almost like hitting the lottery.

The Immigrants. 2020. Gouache, acrylic, ink, gouache on photograph, yarn, printed newspaper cartoon, & expired passport on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

If you get it, it's, there should be good things that come afterwards. So to highlight that I literally put in an unscratched lottery ticket. I will say that's not the only time, you know, there's crying in the work. That's the most evident one.... but, for example, this piece here, this one's called the Ameri cans. And this one to me is also, you know, this is the crying Michael Jordan, me, everybody knows that. It's the quintessential American he's kind of smiling, but he's also crying so that, you know, it references internet culture, but it's also just kind of funny and, you know, when I think of a quintessential American, I think Michael Jordan is on the list. And then, this was the first time I used, those are also Amazon gift cards, the smiles. And this is called the Americans. I didn't want to actually paint her and my portrait, I just wanted the smile to be the only thing, cuz again, it's this smile thing about, you know, this artificial happiness, but it's also from Amazon. So it speaks to consumption materialism, you know, just buying things, make you happy. You know, I think Amazon would say yes probably.

And then other things, you know, the thumbs up, which I know is also a very American kind of gesture. And then I wanted, you know, since it's the Americans, I wanted to kind of stake a claim as an American as well. So I think that's just from a Chinese food container. So then I wanted to cut it into the shape of an early homestead settler on the American Prairie. I see last 200 years ago, you know, a little wood cabin and I wanted to have the pagoda, but also have the top of the pagoda breaking. So, you're referencing tradition, but you're also breaking from tradition at the same time. And then center, like America, the home of laissez faire capitalism, I took… so that's a real dollar bill. So you know, I wanted to go to the bank and get, you know, when you get a brand new dollar bill that is smooth. So I got one and I cut it out into the shape of a cowboy riding a bull. It's, which kind of, again, when you think about America, what's another representation. It's Cowboys, it's the west, you know, the Chinese built most of the railroads that connect west to the rest of the country. And then after we built the railroads is when they felt, you know, there were too many of us and we were taken over, stuff that. So that's another instance where I used crying as well.

Fuck Yo Couch. 2019. Gouache, acrylic, ink, colored pencil, fabric, gouache on photograph, & plastic on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

8) Could you explain your painting titled, "Oriental Flavor?" You reference images such as the Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai and someone who appears to be an Asian leader or businessman. What do you think people mean by "oriental flavor" exactly?

Okay. So, well the name is actually pretty simple and I think you probably know this name just simply comes from… by the way, this painting Oriental flavor was last year, last summer, it was displayed as a billboard ad. Oriental flavor, that's just the ramen noodle flavor. You've had ramen noodles, right?

But you know, it's, yeah. It's the Maruchan so I bought a pack and I just took the actual package… I cut it out into the shape of a bomb and then that's the flavoring pack right there. And then those are real chopsticks that are glued into… So for this painting, it was to really, I think my most direct attempt at kind of centering the Asian American identity and just kind of, of present it as a kind of a big fuck you, in some ways. So it's this big yellow hand holding chopsticks and then it's this very sexually suggestive mouth, right. The way it's open with the tongue and then the bomb is obviously not food, but it's also I deliberately chose a bomb that kind of looks like a dick… so that it's extra phallic.

Here, you know, I was thinking, okay, well it can be a bowl of noodle soup. It can be ramen, it can be noodle soup. It can be pho, it doesn't matter. It's just some kind of Asian noodle soup and to take the great Hokusai great wave and collage it in, you know, I wanted to be, the soup was leaping out of the bowl. Cuz, here I drew, with a sharpie, barbed wire fence, cuz I was thinking again about Japanese incarceration… internment too. It makes, you know, cuz without the, the Barb wire fence, the, the bowl of food, it's not threatening enough. So putting the Barb wire fence around it makes it more threatening, but then it allows you to put something that's jumping over it. So that's kind of the thinking behind this piece and, then in a lot of my work, I have mirrors. So then, this is just the blurry photo with my wife and then collage.

And then I painted the chopsticks and then I cut the little Maruchan… you know, the little smiley face? Yeah. So that's just collage there. So it's as if it's in reality it's a bomb, but you know, it's actually just a little smiley face, so maybe it's not so dangerous, but then maybe the mirror is reality and maybe this is reflection. Like we don't know, you know what I mean? Who's to say which one is more real the reflection or what we think is reality. So that's where you're touching on, you know, art philosophy stuff. So in every piece there's everything, there's internet culture, pop culture, there's social political commentary there's taking from the everyday real world. There's just some dirty teenage humor. And then touch on art history and you know, just whatever else, you know? So it's never just one thing only.

The Fist Bump. 2020. Gouache, acrylic, gouache on photograph, printed newspaper ad, ink, yarn, colored pencil, & photograph on bristol board. 18 x 24 inches.

9) Who are some artists whom you look at and take inspiration from? What are your dreams and goals for the future, as an artist and a person?

So okay. Artists I look at, I mean, there's so many, and they've changed over the years, you know, when I was in your shoes as an MFA candidate, you know, who I looked at and was inspired by is probably different than who I'm looking at today. I would say, you know, there are some, there are some consistent voices in there, for example, you know, I think what I'm purely thinking about painting and, you know, really painting in a beautiful kind of gestural kind of impressionistic way. I'm thinking about people like John Singer Sergeant. I'm thinking about the British painter, Jenny Saville, I'm thinking about a lot of the impressionist and post-impressionist painters like Degas and Manet. I love Edward Vuillard. You know, when I look at contemporary artists, you know, one that kind of always stays with me is the German painter Gerhard Richter... his really relationship between painting photography and these things. They kind of, you know, he's done abstract drip paintings onto photographs. So I'm not the first person to paint onto a photograph. You know, I think about someone like Vija Celmins… I look at there's an artist who, he's more of a conceptual installation artist who doesn't make work that looks like mine, but there's kind of a clever sense of humor that I think I share a certain spirit with. He's the American artist, Tom Friedman. I'm excited by a lot of contemporary painting happening now, you know, I look at a lot of the young painters out there working, you know Dana Schutz and Nicole Eisenman, you know, there's quite a few great Philly, New York artists, some of whom I know, you know, like Audrey Leventhal, Doron Langberg, you know, Adrian Ganea is a fantastic painter.

So there's a lot of contemporary young painters, you know, about my age, a little bit older in that range that are really kind of exciting too, that I like to look at. So I would say the, you know, there are a group of kind of what I would call, like the artists from art history, the, the canon that I return to, and then there are like younger contemporary artists that I'm excited by and that I'm discovering constantly as well, right? And then as far as what are my goals? So, you know, your goals change over time. So the last year or so have been very good for me career wise, it's where I've made some steps. So just about a year ago, last spring, I had my first New York solo. And that was good because the art critic, John Yaw came to see the exhibit and he writes for the Hyperallergic and whatnot. But he saw my exhibit about a week before it closed. So he didn't have time to write a review. It wasn't gonna be up for very much longer, but he knew my works were then going to the Delaware Contemporary where that was my first museum show last summer. So he then ended up reviewing that show in the Hyperallergic. I see. So, you know, to have a New York solo and a museum solo and to have a review from a major art critic, that's really helped in terms of validating a lot of what I've done and also putting my visibility higher than it was say two, three years ago. From the Hyperallergic review, I've got some national opportunities.

So for example, Washington university in St. Louis, they saw the review and then they reached out and put me in a group show with Kehinde Wiley who's a big international artist. Wiley was someone when I was in your shoes, I was looking at, you know. So to be in a group exhibit with him now with other artists, of course, is, you know, that's a huge, step up for me and I'm just hoping to kind of maintain it. You know, I would say, I'm happy for the success from this past year or so, but at the same time, I don't really, I've really made sure to not let it go to my head. I'm still the same person. And you know, I was making this work three years ago when nobody knew about it and it was good, then it just it's not like it got magically better overnight.

So, it's nice to have the support. It's nice to have the validation, but at the same time, I don't… I try to look back and say, you know, if those things never happened, it doesn't make the work any less. Yeah. So for me it's kind of like just being, staying me, staying grounded and, you know I don't ever wanna behave like some kind of spoiled rockstar or something. I'm not first of all, but second of all, even if I were, I don't think I'd ever want to act or behave that way and just kinda, you know, I still need to get better. I still have to look at my studio practice critically. So… for me, I think in, in the coming years, so yeah, like you said, I hope I get in this Skowhegan.

I applied back in October. They don't announce till next month. I'll know in a couple weeks or now I do think this is my best chance I see getting to it, you know, so we'll see. But if I don't get accepted, which I have to expect, I have to admit that's the much more likely outcome is that you don't get accepted if I don't get accepted, that's not the end of the world either.

I'll just apply again and I'll just keep going. So I think, you know, the short term… I would like to get into Skowhegan this summer. Longer term, I hope to continue to build off of the success and momentum for in the last year.

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