BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 22 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Cary Kwok

Herald St, London, UK

BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 22 SEP 16

As a child, my favourite toys were coloured wooden building blocks. Before I could recognize Versailles, I would attempt elaborate palaces with symmetrical tiered facades.

Cary Kwok’s new works in ink and acrylic remind me of these early exercises in solo imaginative pleasure. In Homoseuxally Art Decoed (all works 2016), a vast cruise liner-style block spans an inlet between two cliffs, a central shaft dangling over the bay; in Homosexually Hijacked and Steampunked, a flamingo-pink castle, sporting ersatz ruins and art nouveau ironwork pavilions, rises on a rock in the sea. In Homosexually Tanged, a cluster of pagodas are slathered with Chinoserie stylings, while Homosexually Colonized and Cyberpunked features
a multi-purpose city block, with an in-built canal and arcades in the sky. The logic of these imaginings is additive, adhesive: storey piled upon storey, like the Marquis de Sade adding bodies to an orgy. Gangbangs in brick, they come garnished with athletic, priapic male Caryatids, whose phalluses oftendouble as gushing fountains.

Cary Kwok, Homosexually Colonised and Cyberpunked, 2016, ink and acrylic, 51 x 36 cm. All images courtesy: the artist and Herald St, London

Yet, these works seduce not through titillation but accommodation: enthralling, maze-like detail reassures you that the world has space and a room for everything, however monolithic the floorplan. Every nook, cranny, parapet, neon sign or ludicrous bridge teems with careful attention. The artist dotes. It’s rather sweet: in each of these four works, a tiny human couple surveys the view (at a pinch Dante and Virgil, but more likely a pair of retired sunbirds on a sightseeing tour).

Kwok’s style here has developed some of the hard, 1980s look found in, say, the work of Antonio Lopez, though something about the way these buildings array visual information across the page reminds me of Eduardo Paolozzi’s quasi-diagrammatic screen prints of the 1960s and ’70s. Of course, as their titles indicate, these works are fundamentally exercises in style or pastiche – art deco, Tang dynasty, steampunk. 

Cary Kwok, Well Prepared, 2016, ink, pencil and acrylic on paper, 21 x 30 cm

The attempt to distil an air, an era, has long been part of Kwok’s practice – even in his hitherto more strikingly photorealist works. The titles of his ‘Cum to Barber’ pictures (2006–ongoing), for example, depicting male faces at the moment of sexual climax, include cities and dates. Thus located, tastes and mores appear in the shape of a quiff, the thickness of a moustache. Cultural difference, however, is always undermined by certain constants: the three-part Cum to Father/Muscle Toss/Buddjism (2010), for example, portrays a sexy pastor, rabbi and Buddhist monk each ejaculating onto their own face – sectarian difference undone by the levelling petite morte; similarly, there is a hint in these structures that architectural trappings are mere cladding, just as ‘homosexually’ is gratuitously slapped on in front of their titles.

While Kwok’s earlier works were all about climax, in this show the final release of orgasm is substituted for endless flow. The startling three-dimensional Arrival (La Belle Époque) – a wood and pearlescent resin lamp in the form of another ejaculating penis – is another a masterclass in parody, accentuating the symbolic fecundity that underpins the forms of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Emile Gallé. It also registers as a kind of mystical object, with cloud-like, shimmering jism seemingly pooling below to rise and be released again in an eternal loop. 

Cary Kwok, 2016, Herald St, exhibition view; front: Arrival (La Belle Époque), 2016

Always the question, when building with wooden blocks, of conclusion: how many arches are enough? What about another row of columns? If the underlying fantasy in this show is one of plenitude, on closer inspection the ending hasn’t been erased but displaced. The works’ edges are highly charged: bounded by a solid arch in the beautiful Homosexually Baroqued, exquisitely coloured and crimped in Pimp My Vice (Sottsass Style) and Well Prepared. Where does the fantasy end, and how? With a snip, a stroke and a sigh Kwok shows us: Oh, just so.

Matthew McLean is creative lead at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.