531 West 25th Street
New York City
212 242 4215
March 6 to April 5
By JONATHAN GOODMAN
Fay Ku Secret 2007
graphite, watercolor, ink on paper, 38 X 50 inches
Courtesy The Artist
Cover MARCH 2008: detail of Pet Me II 2007, graphite, watercolor on paper, 9-1/2 X 12 inches
When Fay Ku was a child, her parents used to tell her fairy tales with horrible rather than happy endings—it was their way of introducing their daughter to the dangers of the world. Ku, who moved to America from Taiwan at the age of three to be with her parents (her grandmother had raised her after birth), responded sensitively to the troubled narratives her parents entertained her with: she became an artist whose work incorporates children and adolescents in situations that emphasize the sheer strangeness of childhood. Not unlike the fantastic, whimsical artist Henry Darger, Ku refers to a mindset populated by children who undermine confidence in the world as it is. She prefers to present disturbing tableaux, in which young girls pull each other’s hair or regurgitate snakes, so that the scenes become meditations on transgressions that make no sense, that seem to come out of nowhere.
Ku is invested in secrets, the kind of intimacy that occurs when something private is told privately. It is an intensely female world, whose idiosyncratic habits do not lack for aggression. The viewer hopes for a key to the eccentricities of the imagery, but none is offered—we must make sense of the uncanny aggression Ku’s subjects submit to. While not all the girls are engaging in destructive activities, even the supposedly benign drawings emphasize exotic situations, with the girls’ bodies caricatured in poses that are humanly impossible to carry off. For example, in Secret (2007) two attractive young women are head to head, transmitting secrets—the figure on the right cups her hand to her ear in order to hear better. Both figures are being violated by sexless personages—we do not see their faces—who wear striped clothing and seem to peer at the subjects’ genitals. Regularly, Ku invites us into a world where nothing seems right.
Sometimes the images deliberately seek provocation—in the erotic sense, where the young women are both vulnerable and sexually available. In Nightcrawlers (2007) a naked post-adolescent girl, lying on a bed, is covered with large worms; they are attracted to her breast (which she also covers with her hand) and her sex, hiding the pubis. A worm is found at her lips and in her hair, and the figure’s expression is troubled, as if she were enduring her condition for the sake of someone else. The masochism becomes even more apparent in Thorny (2007), in which a nude young woman remarkably like Ku herself is enveloped in thorns, which wrap her hands, enter her mouth, and curl under to her genitals. These two images both suggest psychological as well as physical pain, yet we don’t know why the artist has portrayed her subjects as she does; the enigma of their existence turns on the experience of suffering, but the vivid conundrums of Ku’s drawings show only the effect and not the cause.
One of the more affecting drawings pictures a young girl with a short haircut, in a print blouse and shorts, walking off toward the left. Titled Didn’t Feel a Thing (2005), the subject has left five bloody footprints; her right foot is steeped in blood. The young girl’s profile reveals a somber demeanor, while the title of the work only emphasizes her predicament. Again, pain is key to the painting. In general, Ku’s art is excruciating to the point where it doesn’t make sense, resulting in a surrealism whose physical aches stand in for another kind of suffering. Although Ku describes girls and young women in raw circumstances, the hurt seems to be self-induced. This poses a seemingly intractable puzzle: Why should they do this to themselves? The answer to the mystery isn’t all that clear, but what results is an extraordinary range of scenarios whose close familiarity border on frankness. We may not know the secrets, but nonetheless we are taken in by them; our bemusement results from the girls’ unsolvable quandaries.