artists

Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse! Andrew Kuo Goes Big

If I Wasn’t Sick on 1/11/13 (2013) by Andrew Kuo.

If I Wasn’t Sick on 1/11/13 (2013) by Andrew Kuo.

If you were to make an Andrew Kuo-style diagram of the past few years of the artist’s life, it might be a curving line graph titled “Things I Managed to Do While Making a Bunch of Paintings,” with colors to represent values like “Watching sitcoms” or “Arguing about the Knicks on Twitter.” Data would be off the charts, almost disturbingly so, for certain pithier values. “Pizza,” say. Or “Instagram.”

Not that those things get in the way of his work. Mr. Kuo’s new show at Marlborough Chelsea features some his largest paintings to date. The graphs in them still represent mainstay topics—sample works: If I Wasn’t Sick on 1/11/13 (2013), Watching TV on 3/23/13 (2013)—even if they look more Abstract Expressionist than ever.

The show came together quickly, all post-Hurricane Sandy, which had flooded the gallery. Mr. Kuo lost some work, and other work sold at Art Basel Miami Beach, so he had to remake the show. At the gallery earlier this month, he said he tends to work this way anyway—that if someone gave him a show a year down the line, he’d still wait months before starting to paint.

“I overthink it,” Mr. Kuo said. “I’m really tentative and save ideas, which is annoying. You know when you have a TV dinner and you save that last thing, you save the apple pie, because it’s your favorite? But then you’re too full to eat the apple pie and you don’t eat it? That’s what happens to me if I have too much time. I just need to go right for the apple pie.”

Mr. Kuo’s Twitter avatar is a picture of Milhouse from The Simpsons, and with his thick glasses, there’s an inclination to describe him that way physically. He has Milhouse’s neuroses, and his occasional dopiness, though in his case it’s self-aware and harmless.

“I’m really bad at sending emails,” he said during an explanation of how he works at night and deals with chores when the sun is up. “I read an email and I feel like I need to think about the response before I respond. And in my mind I formulate the response, and I think I’ve already sent it out, but really I haven’t touched the email at all. That happens to me with texts too, which is terrible. It’s like, ‘Oh, I want to say something thoughtful’ and them I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s what I’ll say!’ and then later I’ll be like, ‘Oh wait, I never actually said anything.’

“Sometimes I’ll take forever to respond to something,” he said, “and then just respond, ‘Maybe! I’m not sure what you’re asking.’ It’s ridiculous.”

For the apple pie-fixated, deadlines help. Over the past five years, Mr. Kuo has made charts for The New York Times and its weekend magazine that describe, say, the influence of the movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke (“Would Pitchfork have given Nevermind a 10 in 1991?” the chart asks, placing it on the unlikely end of the scale) or thoughts he has while scratching a lotto ticket (“Is being ‘not rich’ more punk?” pops up near the end).

If unconventional, the charts make you think he’d be a good graphic designer. In fact, when he tried to start a graphic design company with his brother a few years ago, it didn’t work out.

“What I would do is, I would just take an image I like,” he said. “I’d be like, ‘Okay this is for a serious company? Okay I’m just going to draw a picture of Bo Jackson, or whatever. And the type? I’m just going to make the type the same size, every time, on the bottom. It doesn’t matter. And [the clients] would be like, ‘We can’t do anything with that.’ And I was like, ‘I quit!’”

Since then, he’s been doing what he wants. He started making graphs about sports and music on his blog, and soon The New York Times was in touch. He has a surprising amount of freedom at the Times. “Sometimes I have to explain it to my editor to a point where I think she’s mad at me,” he said. “She’ll just give up and say, ‘Okay, let’s do this one.’” (His main editor at the Times, Sia Michel, said she loves working with him.)

THERE’S A BIT of a disconnect between the Andrew Kuo who’s represented in the paintings and the one in real life, the one who watches a lot of basketball, sure, but also plays in a band with his dealer at Marlborough, Pascal Spengemann, called Hex Message.

Mr. Kuo, 35, was born in Queens but grew up in Scarsdale. His parents, both first-generation Taiwanese, worked late, which meant many evenings at home with his brother. He wasn’t allowed to watch television but figured out that he could indulge in Growing Pains and Diff’rent Strokes if he placed frozen food on top of the set so it wouldn’t be warm when his parents came home and checked.

He has a tattoo of Bart Simpson that his friend drew from memory, because that’s how he wanted it done, and has a theory that Jerry’s apartment in Seinfeld is actually just the mind of one person, with George, Elaine, Jerry and Kramer representing various parts of that mind, Barton Fink-style.

It’s not like he can turn this sort of constant analysis off, but he seems more comfortable with it when it comes to sports. “The great thing about sports is, it seems so timeless in comparison to something like an episode of Law & Order,” he said.

He sounds off on the Yankees and Knicks, among other topics, on Twitter (“‘Everyone wants to hate us.’ —the Lakers. ‘Yeah, cause you guys are assholes.’ —Everyone”), where his handle is Earlboykins, the name of a Houston Rockets player who shares his height (5’5”).

His most trenchant social media presence is on Instagram, where he posts a curated selection of enjoyably weird found photos: pets doing human things, screen-grabs from sitcoms, Drake looking like a jerk. He has over 22,000 followers.

You could read a mean irony into the account. You want animal pictures? I’ll give you animal pictures. Take a look at this woman’s terrible yellow jumpsuit, which complements the rack of Lays potato chips next to her. It would be more accurate to see it as a window onto things you don’t see too often. The chaos strains against the boundaries of the app.

He watched the movie Moneyball 27 times as he made the works in the Marlborough show, because he liked its sounds and colors. Mr. Kuo’s paintings make you think that the colors almost don’t matter, because the charts draw you into this meticulous accounting of his days, and between their honesty and complicated internal logic, you’re tricked into thinking that the colors are organized that way simply because Mr. Kuo’s seemingly empirical data (e.g. the extent to which “One out of four times I’m ‘swamped in studio,’ I’m really napping on the floor.”) yields those results.

That’s not the case, of course. At his Lower East Side apartment-cum-studio, his poster-sized studies are rich abstract paintings, hardly charts at all. He tries to challenge the relationships between colors—“color nerd” stuff, as he describes it—which is another reason he likes to work at night, under controlled lighting.

The colors in the new show are strong, and not so far off from Francis Bacon, whose 1990 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art Mr. Kuo saw with his mother. She said she knew it would give him nightmares, but that he had to see it.

“It was the scariest stuff,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why is he screaming? Why is he screaming? Why are they all screaming?’ I wanted to get to the cafeteria as fast as I could. I was only around 10; this was before baseball came into my life.”

Mr. Kuo’s father was a novelist who worked for the United Nations to pay the bills, and while he could never get his son to read The Sound and the Fury, the two had baseball in common. Mr. Kuo discovered sabermetrics, the statistics-based baseball analysis method at the crux of Michael Lewis’s book, through fantasy baseball, which was, to him, “the reason the Internet was invented.” At the risk of stating the obvious, sabermetrics was a formative discovery for the boy who would go on to describe the last five women he’s kissed via charts.

The graphs in the Marlborough show have become more complicated. Instead of a simple line graph, the data might snake around the canvas, turn itself into a star or bend itself to look like a book with a broken spine—“accordion books,” Mr. Kuo calls them.

He seems to feel slight pressure to expand his repertoire, but at the moment, that’s just something else to be fake neurotic about. “It’s like when you’re with your friends and they say, ‘Let’s try this new restaurant,’” he said. “But then you think, ‘We know what we like, let’s just go to the place we always go to.’ Then you decide, ‘Okay, let’s go there. But let’s think about it. Let’s go to the restaurant we like with meaning. Let’s not just go. Let’s go because we like it. Not because that’s what we do.’”

dduray@observer.com

Follow Dan Duray via RSS.
Tags: artists