Owen Fu: the Geisttiere Dwells in the Void 

Owen Fu, Panic, 2020, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 213.4 cm
Courtesy the artist and O townhouse, Los Angeles

Owen Fu doesn’t really concern himself with the “decisive moment” in experiencing painting. He’s like the chin-propping man with a cigarette in Panic(2020), his gaze hovering over the surroundings without knowing where to land—despite the many things that hide amongst the sombre shades of the painting’s background: pendant lights that resemble sliced-open pears and a few children with expressions teetering between intimacy and estrangement; not to mention the cynical face peering out from within the protagonist’s burgundy coat. To some extent, these personified figural elements of Fu’s paintings are “creatures that sprung from feelings” or, simply, “geisttiere (mind/spirit-animals).” They never wait in lines to be painted and seen; instead, they conceal themselves within a temporality that manifests no distinctions between the artist and the viewers, wandering like crepuscular shadows that just got separated from their owners. Of course, it is still possible to converse with them or even caress them—if you also happen to be doleful enough. 

Owen Fu, The Remains of the Day, 2022, Oil on linen, 116.8 x 152.4 cm
Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Owen Fu, A Curtain Call, 2022, Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 71.1 cm
Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

When mingling with these geisttiere, Owen Fu employs varied linework as a vocabulary for chitchats. In his small-size paintings, a lamp, a vase, or a teapot could become animated by charcoal lines and metamorphize into amicable or cunning avatars. These lines carry no intention to reify anything into concrete figures, yet it is within their “aimlessness” and “inaccuracies” that the transmutations of emotions take place: the painter casts the line with no particular aim, and his subjects willingly leap out of his memories and psyche to land onto the canvas. These “voluntary catches” are fragments of the artist’s genuine lived experience. Language is always inadequate: the passing and accumulation of time blur certain experiences and reactions, but as the imprecisions manifest in the painting, they also create space for reinterpretations and evolve the artist’s initial feelings. Time lies, but it also preserves relative truths, namely the perceived significance of a particular emotional experience. Therefore, Fu’s paintings rely on neither detailed recollections nor high-minded contemplations; Instead, he develops forms and scenarios from imaginations and (improvised or rehearsed) feelings, and it is the flow of these emotions that outlines the paintings’ dramatic space. 

Viewers accustomed to pictorial interpretations might assume that Owen Fu’s paintings are about cute little things: faeries, dolls, or inanimate things given a face or body–from mundane objects to unnamed geometric lumps to an actual chair painted with limbs and expressions (Robin’s Chair, 2020). Beneath the figurative mask, however, the geisttiere gets no face. Considering the artist’s sensibilities toward time and the minuscule beings that dwell within, his depiction of certain figures could very well be abstract arrangements nonchalantly collaged together—not a face, but two dots and a levitating curve; Not a chair, but a few short lines sorted in a certain way. The “figures” are born out of the reciprocal gaze between the viewer and the painting, and they’re sometimes brought forth by the former’s own geisttiere. This is why one would be mistaken to generalize Fu’s works as “cute”: If you only see the crab that is surrounded by flowers, there’s no need to acknowledge the bowl that is seemingly sobbing [Shanghai Crab (Table Disarmed), 2020]; If you’re captivated by the innocent curiosity of the black imp that discreetly draws the curtains, then the tilting and falling human figures on the red curtain don’t need to have anything to do with the fingers that might soon touch them (Late Night Boogie, 2022). For Fu, the paintings produce motions that toss and turn with the shifting moods, sometimes even acting as treatments for soothing or examining a specific feeling. The constant creations and revisions that emanate from flashing thoughts become the artist’s meditation for finding inner balance. Just before a painting is moved out of the studio, a string of blue, ambivalent “pearls” could be added to it impromptu (Flowers for Algernon, 2022). 

In the short writings that accompany his paintings, Owen Fu says: “No.” The short poem No Story could be read as the artist’s confession to the core of his œuvre–No to (not) this body; No to (not) such admission; No to (not) confiding in the people I know I can trust and love. But I am not vocalizing these “No’s,” either. 

Owen Fu, Untitled (turn it on), 2022 – Oil on linen, 55.9 x 71.1 cm
Untitled (turn it on), 2022 – Oil on linen, 55.9 x 71.1 cm
Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

In the long single life that stretches from his adolescence, Owen Fu has been re-enacting memories and fantasies that once skimmed over his mind, as well as recollections of small talks (Small Talks) with friends and family–like how “My father told me to be happy; My mother told me to lose weight.” Fu admits in the end that “If love is a question, I’m not able to answer.” His geisttiere also says: “No.” In Fu’s paintings, his attitude, which we may tentatively classify as one of refusal and restraint, is translated into a kind of stubbornness or weirdness that doesn’t sit right with any reality; Instead, it morphs into a pale profile enveloped by the mass of another face in dark grey, both turning their heads outwards the painting with apparent dissatisfaction (Remains of the Day, 2022). However, in some other works, the geisttiere may manifest as perceptive, devoting, desiring creatures, sometimes holding bouquets in what seems like a stage after the performance is over (A Curtain Call, 2022), sometimes reaching for the moon from a swing in the hope of seizing its light (Voleur de lune, 2021). They might even return to the embrace of a warm palette in a rare moment of tenderness, though they’re still looking around with vigilance [Untitled (Summer Thing), 2021]. 

In a sense, Owen Fu is also looking around. He uses his Stealing Beauty (2021) as his profile picture on social media. In the work, a budding face wrapped in a red scarf emerges from behind heavy white curtains, surveying the outside world with a gaze that is at once innocent and shrewd. Everything else on the canvas revolves around this pair of eyes while the viewers are left to ponder what this person sees. Some things happened too long ago. In looking around, one transforms time into loneliness, which may, in turn, dilute the impulse of rejection. “Stealing Beauty”, Fu’s 2021 solo show at Antenna Space, points to a yearning obscured by time. The featured artworks, which share a well-developed visual language, evidence Fu’s capability to convert sadness and lust into a unique sense of “grey humor”—it is as if the paintings are attempting to mute the sheer intensity of his emotions. These more recent artworks differ from Fu’s earlier works, which retain messy and rough brushstrokes (e.g., One hundred ways to say “love you”, 2018; I Light Myself, 2020; Hands, 2020), as the former’s linework softens into the blurry borders that meld together patches of colour [Untitled (turn it on); Untitled (turn it off), 2022]. The serenity and gentleness of these recent images may also result from the artist’s development in self-restraint. 

Owen Fu, Stealing Beauty, 2021, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 152.4 cm
Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

If viewed in a literal way, the paintings appear to have too many “holes.” Or, to put it another way, every line and colour is in the service of these holes—around the holes, the artist gives rise to desires, digests desires, and occasionally conveys urban sentiments or essences of the wilderness through brushwork and hues. However, no matter the subject, these paintings are never wholly light-hearted or cheerful: the holes are forever voids that cannot be filled; It is a kind of temporality that is nearing expiration, a pair of lonely eyes in search of equally lonely things, and a mouth that calls without uttering a sound. The sceneries and characters that become figural by chance are self-revealed hints of the artist’s lodging in the void; they are conduits of joys and sorrows once real, places for Owen Fu’s geisttiere to dwell and play. By chance, and only by chance: these paintings let a broader picture of empathy surface from the disappointment or pleasure of the Other, as they also give the Owen Fu from No Story and his secret friends an opportunity to momentarily meet each other’s gaze. 

Translated by Kevin Wu