The whimsical, macabre work of painter Luke Chueh seems tailor-made for merchandising. His remarkably popular and collectible work centers on iconic animal figures—bears, bunnies, chickens—that are boldly designed, with the simplicity and clarity to survive the transition to a CD case or a postcard or a skateboard. Indeed, Chueh has created original works on skateboard.
But studying the beautiful reproductions in Chueh’s first art book The Art of Luke Chueh: Bearing the Unbearable (Gallery1988/Titan Books), one realizes that what makes the images work is the part that doesn’t translate. Slapping the figures onto the matte-color background of a T-shirt loses Chueh’s delicate, fraught color fields. Chueh’s negative spaces are rendered, in turbulent storms of crimson, or bottle green, or pale-exhausted gray. They swirl with spotlight brushstrokes as the corners of the canvas recede and grow dim. The figures are isolated, but the eddying acrylic of the space is haunted by the energy of the hand that holds the brush.
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If the strength of the rendering is the saving grace of Chueh’s work, the most frustrating aspect is the content. Chueh worked in commercial graphic design before making the leap to fine art, but the move seems to have been a lateral career move rather than an aesthetic evolution. He’s painting like a rock star, but he’s thinking like a political cartoonist.
There’s a surface layer of cleverness of the paintings—much of it inspired by puns and wordplay—but that surface is thin. For the most part, Chueh is painting punch lines, rather than making statements. To be fair, some of the jokes are pretty good. Saltpeter (2003) shows the reliably upright, rigid lines of a saltshaker gone drooping and flaccid; 2005’s Silverfish/Goldfish finds the former creature dreaming of itself as the latter.
The trouble is, having read those brief descriptions, there is no longer any pressing need for you to see the actual paintings.
Science-fiction writer Gene Wolfe says that ideas are like tigers. The tigers in the zoo are just as big, powerful and scary as the ones at the circus, but they don’t really do anything—they just lie around. And while people pay good money to go to the circus and watch the tigers jump through hoops, or allow the trainer to stick his head in their mouths, in many places you can go to the zoo for free. Chueh has plenty of ideas, but mostly those ideas just lie there, presenting themselves without mystery or spectacle.
Many claims are made for the authenticity of Chueh’s dark vision, the intensely personal nature of his images. A testimonial from his onetime mentor L. Croskey, reproduced in Bearing the Unbearable, makes the claim explicit: “When Luke paints he is writing a diary—he is painting his life, his fears, his vulnerabilities, his loneliness.”
There’s no reason to doubt Chueh’s sincerity. But his works, coincidentally or not, run down a checklist of hot-button issues: addiction, alienation, body image, codependency, cutting, ethnic identity, the struggle for self-expression. There’s something for everybody—that’s the opposite of “intensely personal.”
And always Chueh lays his themes out in the most obvious, blunt, on-the-nose fashion possible. A figure struggles to stay upright beneath the weight of a gigantic pill (Pharm-Life, 2004); another is imprisoned inside an enormous pill bottle (2005’s The Prisoner); yet another is speared through by a giant hypodermic needle (Impaled, 2006). DRUGS ARE WACK, KIDS, stay in school.
In a sense, Chueh is the perfect artist for our time, when the culture of therapy meets the short attention span of the Internet. You could stumble across a low-rez JPG of one of these images, on DeviantArt or something, and after looking it over for five seconds or so you’d have a handle on it. You’d get it. It is a thing very much of the moment.
And yet extraordinary claims are being made for his historical importance. Croskey gushes, “Luke is going to survive, he’s going to be legendary, he’s going to be irreplaceable.” Gallery owner Jensen Karp, who helped launch Chueh’s career, says, “He’s a talent we won’t find again...He has ‘that thing.’ ” Chueh himself seeks to turn the lack of mystery and subtext in his work into a virtue. He is quoted as saying, “If the audience can’t understand what the artist is trying to communicate, doesn’t it automatically fail?"
Well, no. The point of art is not understanding but beauty. Art has always been oriented toward the process, not the goal; toward contemplation, rather than apprehension. Chueh’s work is sometimes described as surreal. But when one looks at the cryptic and, yes, “intensely personal” symbolisms of the historical Surrealists, one finds an entirely different effect. One might live with and study an image by Dali or Magritte—or a contemporary pop surrealist like Mark Ryden—for decades without yielding any absolute or fixed meaning. The mystery has no definitive solution, and so the work never loses its power to fascinate.
There is a word, though, for the phenomenon that Chueh is describing—of instantaneous and iconic communication. That word is advertising. And Chueh’s body of work constitutes an extended set of advertisements for himself, for his status as an important and collectible artist. He’s painting billboards for his career. Much good may it do him. You hope he enjoys the ride.
Jack Feerick (b. 1967) is an American writer and critic at large for Popdose. His work has been described as “florid,” “creepy” and “needlessly mean.” He lives nowhere.