Pivoting around the artist’s body of work from the past decade, Before. After: J.C. Kuo 2020 Solo Exhibition comprises over 55 pieces that epitomise the visual prowess, underlying essence, and stylistic evolution of his work, most of which on view for the first time in public.
From the mid- to late-1970s, J.C. Kuo spent five years researching Taiwanese folk traditions, studying traditional crafts, and writing a lot of field investigation reports on folk arts. This experience has left a lasting influence on his practice, where Kuo integrates and transforms traditional techniques and aesthetics—such as jian-nian (cut-and-paste ceramic ornamentation), devotional plaques, and temple frescoes, windows, and doors—along with Taoist deities and icons—such as Mazu, Qianliyan, Shunfeng’er, Third Lotus Prince, Eight Generals—ultimately cultivating a deeply personal visual aesthetic. Through such universal rituals, customs, and beliefs, Kuo conjures an enduring common identity and cultural memory.
From as early as his 1979 solo exhibition, the artist evolved from his earlier abstract surrealist style towards a more realistic style reflective of contemporary life and society. In the mid-1980s, Kuo began juxtaposing traditional and modern human figures on his canvas. Through the use of techniques and imagery, he consciously emphasises the cultural contrast between China and the West. Entering the 1990s, Kuo continued to juxtapose the unique visual cultures of China and the West, past and present, but also began to integrate specific cultural issues of contemporary society in Taiwan, distinguishing further stylistic evolution. As he began to confront matters of contemporary life, art became his means of reflecting, exposing, and deconstructing Taiwan as a complex polyphony of various different cultures.
Since the 1990s, Kuo has utilised sculptural collage as a means to incorporate ready-made objects into his works, using them as symbols to signify specific conceptual referents. With this method, he adds an additional layer of visual paradox to the reading of his work, which presents the viewer with specious misperceptions that are also contradictory. From time to time, Kuo transforms popular, obscure, and even non-artistic images and materials into a unique and systematic visual language. Depending on the context, clocks, masks, floral jacquard fabric, medals, badges, imitation jewellery, compact discs, SD memory cards, newspapers, calligraphic prints, popular stickers, shadows, and balloons became visual motifs in different periods of his practice, evoking history and cultural memory.
Inspired by his mentor Lee Chun-shan (1912–1984), Kuo not only became interested in Freudian psychology at an early stage, but also developed a deep understanding of its theories. Later, Kuo’s interest expanded to ethnic and social psychology, as well as Carl Gustav Jung’s (1875–1961) theory of the collective unconscious. Kuo tends to perceive the ethnic composition and social psychology of Taiwan from a compounded cultural perspective. In reality, he has little interest in revisiting history. The retro aesthetic is neither his taste nor his appeal; rather, the artist engages in strategies of deconstruction in hopes of establishing new possibilities for innovation.
When he depicts symbols and images with traditional and historical implications, Kuo typically transmutes them into caricatures or graphic portrayals, often with a bias towards flat line drawing. In contrast, he also incorporates a wide variety of symbols, real objects, and realistic forms that embody contemporary life and popular culture. In recent years, Kuo has also begun using acrylic paint and Western techniques to render traditional Chinese landscape painting. Juxtaposing traditional landscapes with Pop art–esque waves, the artist invents a novel synthesis of traditional and contemporary visual cultures.
With the increased prevalence of and emphasis on landscapes, Kuo’s work encompasses a greater depth of space. The figures and landscapes leap through space and time to coexist in his carefully calculated compositions, as if orchestrating an endless succession of cross-over dramas. 'Anything that can manifest the characteristics of contemporary life is considered realism,' the artist contends. While J.C. Kuo’s work often appears fantastical, it is not surreal; rather, it faithfully mirrors the complexities, contradictions, and cultural polyphony of contemporary Taiwanese society.
Born 1949 in Lugang Township, Zhanghua Country, Taiwan. One might define him as a member of the first generation of artists born after World War II, and also one of Taiwan’s first wave of contemporary artists. His artistic cultivation and training, while highly eclectic, ultimately arose from a personal self-awareness and broad reading and experimentation. He continues to take the world as it is in the present day as the springboard of his creative consideration, and whether it be his concern for society or his development of a personal artistic vocabulary, he always maintains a high degree of self-consciousness—it is for this reason that his works always possess a pronounced quality of contemporary relevance.
Kuo’s formal language also reflects the hybrid nature of Taiwanese culture. From the friction existing among Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, and Western elements, he has generated an individual system that is visually vivid, powerful in expressive vocabulary, and highly charged with artistic tension. This quality that is both distinctly Taiwanese and decidedly international is seldom seen among artists of the same generation.
As an individualistic artist, J.C. Kuo has produced a cumulative body of works that affords us a glimpse into how the first generation of artists born and raised in Taiwan in the post–World War II era has explored the possibilities for a uniquely Taiwanese form of contemporary art.
Press release courtesy Tina Keng Gallery.