Popdose at Kirkus Reviews: The Art of Luke Chueh

Written by Books, Kirkus Reviews

 For more than 75 years, Kirkus Reviews has served as the industry bible for bookstore buyers, librarians, and ordinary readers alike. Now Popdose takes to the virtual pages of Kirkus Reviews Online to dish on the best — and sometimes the worst — in pop-culture and celebrity books.

This week, an acclaimed pop-artist comes in for assessment on the release of a new retrospective book…

Bearing the UnbearableThe whimsical, macabre work of painter Luke Chueh seems tailor-made for merchandising. His remarkably popular and collectible work centers on iconic animal figures — bears, bunnies, chickens — that are boldly designed, with the simplicity and clarity to survive the transition to a CD case or a postcard or a skateboard. (Indeed, Chueh has created original works on skateboard.)

But studying the beautifully-realized reproductions in Chueh’s first art book Bearing the Unbearable, one realizes that what makes the images work is the part that doesn’t translate. Slapping the figures onto the matte-color background of a T-shirt would lose Chueh’s delicate, fraught color fields. Chueh’s negative spaces are rendered, in turbulent storms of crimson or bottle-green or pale, exhausted grey. They swirl with spotlight brushstrokes as the corners of the canvas recede and grow dim. The figures are isolated, but the eddying acrylic of the space is haunted by the energy of the hand that holds the brush.

If the strength of the rendering is the saving grace of Chueh’s work, the most frustrating aspect is the content. Chueh worked in commercial graphic design before making the leap to fine art, but the move seems to have been a lateral career move rather than an aesthetic evolution. He’s painting like a rock star, but he’s thinking like a political cartoonist.

There’s a surface layer of cleverness of the paintings — much of it inspired by puns and wordplay — but that surface is thin. For the most part, Chueh is painting punchlines, rather than making statements. To be fair, some of the jokes are pretty good. Saltpeter (2003) shows the reliably upright, rigid lines of a salt shaker gone drooping and flaccid; 2005’s Silverfish/Goldfish finds the former creature dreaming of itself as the latter.

The trouble is, having read those brief descriptions, there is no longer any pressing need for you to see the actual paintings…

 

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