The Real Earl Boykins

In his signature charts, artist Andrew Kuo mixes whimsical words with meticulously constructed abstract forms. Although it’s hard to tell from just looking at images of his work or his music charts in The New York Times, everything is done by hand, an artisanal approach to art of the digital age that can only be fully appreciated in person. “I would never get an assistant,” Kuo explains, gesturing to his paintings. “I say that now—but I think they have to be made with me sitting there looking at them, and spending time with them.” It is two days before Kuo’s debut solo show at Marlborough Chelsea, and we’re watching as he paintings are placed around the room. “I don’t even like to be here because I have separation anxiety: ‘What do you mean you’re not going to put it in?’,” he says.

Titled “You Say Tomato,” Kuo’s Marlborough show features his charts at their best: the colors are lurid and bright, and the text and titles, such as Making You Feel Better (by Making Myself Feel Better) and Everything I Know is Probably Wrong, are charming. But they are not the only work on show. Other pieces include more lyrical abstractions and a small portrait of the basketball player Jeremy Lin, a personal favorite of Kuo’s.

EMMA BROWN: How long have you been working on the pieces from this show?

ANDREW KUO: I started so long ago; because of Sandy, the show got pushed back. I was ready to open in December. Sandy hit. [Marlborough Chelsea] got hit really hard—the whole basement was flooded—so, all that work left. It went to fairs and they just sold it out of the back room. I had to make it all new. I made two shows for this one show.

BROWN: Your paintings got ruined?

KUO: A few, but I don’t think any artist can complain about that. People got hit. But, a few. And a few at Casey Kaplan, I had to repaint. It’s fun repainting them, but it was a weird experience. I want to make changes, but I know I can’t, so it’s really frustrating. These, even though they look like you could duplicate them, I can’t really. They’re approximations. But it wasn’t that bad. I’ve had to do worse things.

BROWN: How long does it take you to do an individual piece?

KUO: It depends. I struggle with a lot of them. It has nothing to do with the complexity of it. It mostly has to do with the writing—the writing kind of has to marry the formal part of it, and sometimes it takes a long time to figure that out.

BROWN: Do you start with the colors? Or do you start with the concept?

KUO: Always the concept, but even if I try not to start with the colors, I always have something in mind. It’s like when you make dinner every night for a week—after the second day of pasta, you’re just automatically not going to make pasta again. That’s how I feel about these colors: the conceptual side of the colors comes from the limited process of working with them. For a while I was really interested in chromatic gray. Then, after four or five pieces, brightness was really interesting to me. It’s less about theory—I’m trying to make this statement with colors. I’m basically just trying to make myself happy, as I’m working.

BROWN: Are you sick of these colors now that you’ve finished this series?

KUO: Yeah, totally. [laughs] I can’t look at them. This is the first time I’ve used this much yellow. And it’s funny because this is the first time I haven’t had this racial side of the writing. I’ve stayed away from yellow, because I felt like it was too tongue-in-cheek, so I couldn’t do it. Because I’m Asian. But, subconsciously, I think that’s why I let myself use all of this yellow; because none of it’s racial. There’s a portrait of Jeremy Lin in there, but he’s not yellow. There’s certain things—if the subject matter is especially dark, I try not to use dark colors. I don’t want that kind of relationship.

BROWN: But do you ever feel flippant when you use bright colors?

KUO: [laughs] A little bit. I have to be totally truthful. The colors are all about what’s happening within the one painting. It’s not about this overall thing. I’ll be like, I want to start with yellow, and then 12 other colors will be a response to that yellow, as opposed to something broader, like an Albers theory thing. I think I respond to intensity and tonality; I have all my paints organized in those kinds of categories. For this show, obviously, I was really partial to the intense spectrum.

BROWN: Have you found something to do while you wait for the paint to dry?

KUO: I’ve learned that I can’t do anything else but watch them. If I try to do anything else, like clean, pick the next color, write something—even return an e-mail, or text somebody—I lose my train of thought. I’m the worst multitasker ever. So literally, when I watch paint dry, I’m sitting there, watching it. In a couple of these you can see little fingerprints because I think it’s dry and it’s not. I’ve been having anxiety dreams about fans. I have so many fans in my studio to make the paint dry, so I’ve been having all these recurring dreams where all the walls are melting and there’s not enough fans for them to stop melting. It’s horrible. [laughs]

BROWN: Is there one painting you’d want people to start with in this show?

KUO: It’s hard for me to go there. I’m super emotional about these things as objects, and the time I spend with them. The Jeremy Lin one means a lot to me, because that’s the most clear thing in this show. I only say thing, because it’s all these motifs accumulating to one portrait of Jeremy Lin, looking sad. But no, I don’t think there’s a specific entry point. A lot of these things are patterns that have no entry point.

BROWN: Do you care whether people read the text?

KUO: Oh yeah, it’s the most important part. None of these forms exist without the text. These are just shadows of the text. It starts with a bunch of writing, and then the writing tells me how these things can go. I’m creating the system, an architecture for it, but it’s an information graphic in that it tells me what to paint.

BROWN: Can you tell me a little about the universal you in the title of the show, “You Say Tomato”?

KUO: Oh, yeah sure! A lot of the subject matter has to do with my own personal history. But also, my own personal history with a genre of music: hardcore emotional music. Emo music. When I was growing up, I was really interested in that music, and there was always a universal you in those songs—whether it be about a girl or a friend or something bigger. A lot of the words here are about someone who is not around in my life anymore. And that’s always a you. It’s a whole mixture of my father, old friends, or old relationships. Even places [are] a you; New York City becomes the you. In a lot of these, myself is the you. My present and my past self, I talk about either as you. And the viewer, obviously. I don’t know if I can say that in any vaguer way. But it starts from a lot of personal histories.

BROWN: Do you only create in New York?

KUO: Yeah, I was born and raised here. I went to school in Providence, Rhode Island. To RISD. I made a lot of work there that has a lot to do with this—image and writing—but I really like New York. I don’t really leave that much.

BROWN: What are the New York colors? Are there New York colors?

KUO: There definitely is. And it’s not gray. I would say it’s blue, because I immediately think of Yankee Stadium. So you have the solid green and the blue with a lot of red in ita deep blue—for the wall, and a light blue for the sky. That’s what I think of when I think of New York—baseball—which is weird.

BROWN: Not basketball?

KUO: Not as much. I do, but it’s always Yankee Stadium. Because the Garden is kind of gross. When I think of the Garden… Times Square is so muddy.

BROWN: When did you start mixing text and art?

KUO: It goes back all the way into high school. I used to do a fanzine about this band called Superchunk. I did four or five issues of that, but around the fifth issue, it just became drawings and poetry. I was 16. I continued doing that in Providence. I would put out a record and put out an image of a photo I’d taken, and then some words that meant nothing. When I got out of school, I dabbled in straight abstractions. But I came back to this when I started my blog, seven or eight years ago. I started a blog about music. Well, first about basketball, and then about music. And then I started making charts about music. That’s when I started at The New York Times. And that’s when these things started as well.

BROWN: Do you listen to music while you work?

KUO: It’s funny. This is the first time I’ve exclusively watched movies as I’ve worked. You know Moneyball, I would just put it on like an album when I worked. I kept a tally of how many times I watched it, and I was up to 27. The sounds in the movie are especially beautiful, I think. It was a really pleasurable movie to listen to. Same with The Social Network or any Woody Allen movie. I like to hear the sounds of people arguing, especially the pace of those two movies, because it’s really snappy, and every sentence is a new idea. Sort of like talk radio. The writing is all done with music, because I get too distracted visually with movies.

BROWN: Will you be able to watch Moneyball again once this show is over?

KUO: Yeah, totally! It’s great. But maybe not singularly. I’ll have to be doing something else.

BROWN: Why is your Twitter handle @earlboykins?

KUO: Because he is a great guy. He is a 5’5″ basketball player; he’s exactly my height. It kind of ties into the whole Moneyball thing. Moneyball is basically self-help. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell. One of the overriding themes is what you think is a defect isn’t really a defect. It’s sort of like when someone has a really bad zit, and they’re like, “I can’t be seen in public!” But what they don’t realize is that people like them more because of it.  You see this 5’5″ basketball player, and everyone is like, “He can’t play!” But he can play pretty good. He can play good enough. He was never a star, or anything. I just really gravitate towards him. That’s why my handles are Earl Boykins. I like to keep a separation from my real work; it freed me up, a little, to relax. But now, of course, it’s come close together. But now there’s other people on the Internet that are like, “the real Earl Boykins,” but what he does is just antagonize me the whole time. I’ve been waiting for the actual real Earl Boykins to contact me: “Hey, you have my Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram… can I have it back?” Yes, you can have it back, because you’re great.

BROWN: Do you update Wikipedia articles ever?

KUO: No, I’ve never. I’ve been inclined to so many times. But I don’t. I don’t know why; I feel it’s not my role, but that’s exactly what Wikipedia is. Because I use Wikipedia so, so much, it’s too Wizard of Oz-y for me. It would take away the whole experience for me. Not that it’s an emotional experience being on Wikipedia, because it isn’t, but it’s an emotional experience being on the internet. And I think Wikipedia is written in stone in the way things aren’t.