Over the past decade, Andrew Kuo has become the sort of energetic, omnipresent New Yorker who appears, like magic, wherever you may be. I last encountered him in the backstage guts of Terminal 5, a ghastly cement nightclub in the hinterland of the West 50s. It took a few days before I even thought to wonder why he was down there. Years ago he used to give fat, lavish, multicolor-silkscreened zines of new work to the greenest and most approximate of acquaintances. I have two, and I forget when and where it happened. Kuo and I do not know each other, at all, yet I have seen the man on more occasions, and shared more smile-and-upped-eyebrow combos and peace signs with him, than I have with folk I know well. It’s best to be suspicious of young artists who are quite this comfortable on the scene, yet–and perhaps it’s a particular physical radiance, or the fact I’ve never witnessed him project the unmistakable shrill frequency of opportunism that young artists usually emit–Kuo seems OK.
The ready charms of I’m Dying Over Here!, his solo debut at the architecturally remarkable new Taxter & Spengemann space (weirdly) in Frank Stella’s old studio near Union Square, are hard to argue. The show has forty new works in it, all but two from 2009: evidence of discipline in the artist’s studio. The show’s palette is bright, the execution crisp, the design careful, and the materials sincere. Montessori is what I’ll call the aesthetic. You’re well disposed to trust this installation of work from the first look.
About thirty works in the show can be described as charts, schematics, or diagrams: color-coded representations of data in mathematical form. There are columns and graphs and curves and, often, cross-referenced combinations of these devices on a single canvas or piece of paper. The data being analyzed is the emotional minutiae of the artist’s life, a shamelessly solipsistic breakdown of Kuo’s obsessions, ups and downs, private peccadilloes and friends. And it is silly and it is indulgent, but it is engaging.
On Second Thought, Please Don’t Text Me Back on February 12, 2009, for example, describes all sides of a late night recap-to-self after feeling a spark with a girl, from neurotic hedging to unqualified overthinking, self-hatred, and self-preservation. Kuo’s concerns, if not naïve, are definitely juvenile. Perhaps boyish is the word. Kuo affords himself a lot of pop culture, a fleet-footed fluency on the social circuit, and not many life commitments. A bar-graph entitled I’m Sorry tabulates three people to whom he wants to say “I’m sorry I took you for granted,” while there’s five to whom he wants to say “I’m sorry I didn’t stop by your store.” He parses his life into banalities and shortcomings, celebrations and hangovers, and a step towards enlightenment is always short-circuited by something gloriously dumb. It reads as an easy life, but one that is not really going anywhere.
Exuberant and small figurative paintings, cut paper works harkening back to his silkscreen zine days, and simple sculptures round out the show. What I Was Afraid of Before (Blue) and What I’m Afraid of Now (Purple) is a fruitful place to take a definitive read on this relentless navel-gazing and all these jokes. The piece is two cheap two-by-fours, seemingly unchanged from their original eight-foot-long state at the Home Depot. One is painted in a blush of blue acrylic, the other purple. It is a minimal intervention: This is the Montessori aesthetic of plain and bright. The planks quote the work of John McCracken, whose pink surfboard slab remains a beacon in the MoMA’s ’70s sculpture room. The blue plank leans up against the wall, while the purple lies along the floor. The different orientations of the two elements render it impossible to tell if the two bits of lumber are indeed exactly the same length, or if one is a little longer than the other. Now take the metaphor and run with it. Kuo is afraid of more or less exactly the same amount of stuff now as he was then, or at least such a similar amount of stuff that it makes no difference. The only pertinent information is that the color of those collective concerns has changed from blue to purple.
Kuo is tuning his life and tuning his work, very slowly, but systematically, and with an eye on maturing. This is why his art is immensely likeable, despite the fact that it really shouldn’t be. Sustained effort pays off no matter how slowly it’s enacted, and the works here ultimately serve as proofs that the artist is inching forward. What I Was Afraid of is a satisfying, successful sculpture because it has been won, won through hours in the studio and hours of all the navel-gazing adolescent rhubarb that the artist inserts into almost all of his works. Worthwhile ideas don’t just happen, and despite the Peter Pan complex of this man in his 30’s, Kuo is nothing if not committed. He has built an enormously appealing and sincere body of work here, and as we continue to think on the growing pains of the overstimulated and overindulged young contemporary art world, that is certainly enough for now. Kuo seems OK.-Bones
I’m Dyin’ Over Here runs until May 16th at Taxter & Spengemann, 123 West 12th Street, a few blocks away from the Strand bookstore. The gallery space really is unlike any other in town. Andrew Kuo’s reliable blog of thrown-off works, gags and videos, emo+beer = busted career, can be found at earlboykins.blogspot.com.
Next week, Bones visits Matthew Marks Gallery for a show of works from the mid ’80s by Charles Ray, an enigmatic sculptor from California. There are only three things to look at, but it is a big deal for New York that we’re able to look at them. All will be explained as we reflect on an extremely important living American artist.