Taiwanese-American artist Brook Hsu grew up in Oklahoma, received her BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2010 and her MFA from Yale University in 2016, and is presently based in New York. She is known for interweaving the fantastical, the mythopoetic and the autobiographical through an array of mediums, creating a distinct species of apparitional, haunting imagery. Working across painting, drawing, sculpture, writing and felt making, Hsu produces abstract and figurative works that employ a host of pagan signs and motifs, most notably the demigod of Pan, recounting stories of love, pain and humour. Her art, which focuses on examining pre-Christian myths, histories, modern literature, films and personal histories is at once psychedelic and tranquil, revealing the ways in which existing narratives can induce fear, anxiety, joy and sadness in the contemporary time. Depicting voluptuous, emaciated, demonic, satyric bodies, fashioning shroud-like, torn and ephemeral clothing, or reanimating memories of her beloved dog in the form of a clay boot, Hsu masterfully associates disparate themes and subjects, revisits forsaken icons, and invents new forms.
Brook Hsu is a naturalist, a keen observer of the objective, physical world, also an explorer of the inner world as she shows autobiographical tendencies in art. The artwork Essay (Panic Angel) (2017) is a literary piece, compiling lines from her iPhone notepad, exchanges with friends, and a list of rejected show titles – she favours essays and lists as literary forms “because their purpose is to be transparent and unpretentious” – telling for the first time the devastation it brought to Hsu, as her mother passed away after struggling with breast cancer for 15 years. The artist finds it difficult to talk about death in art, and understands her practise as questioning such conundrum. The series of small-scale paintings ‘Aesop Looking at His Reflection in a Pond’ (2019) repeatedly depicts her deceased dog Aesop. In Hsu’s dreams, Aesop was once looking at his reflection in the pond. Aesop’s figure blurs as the series continues, testifying to the excruciating yet cathartic fact that the artist’s memory of the beloved animal companion fades away as time goes. The sincere autobiographical nature of Hsu’s art renders it relatable; taking loss and grief as its direct subject and making recourse to ancient and contemporary myths – from the Dionysian to the Kardashian – Hsu’s art explores the spiritual passage that is opened by death and its leftovers.
‘Green Panic’ is the name of a grass that is widely available on farms and fields. The large, emerald leaves cover many rolling hills, and form impressive natural spectacles of expanded green. “Panic,” on the other hand, could mean fear or anxiety in English language, and therefore “green panic” could mean fear and anxieties covered, enveloped by the colour of green. The word “panic” finds its origin in Pan, the ancient Greek god of the wild and shepherds. He has the legs and horns of a goat, and could scare humans away as they are overwhelmed by fear. In her twenties, Brook Hsu was obsessed with reading Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s books, especially ‘Pan’ (1894). She finds comfort in the beautiful text, and even named her dog after the one from the story. Recurring in Hsu’s art are motifs including the demigod Pan, the notion of panic, the predominant phosphorescent green colour, the horned skeleton, and an eerie bodily absence. As a skilled panic merchant, Hsu calmly presents to the audience what is haunting for her, often upon nature-versus-culture narrative structures as in Hamsun’s literature, or after canonical artworks such as Ingres’s ‘Grande Odalisque’.
Brook Hsu uses shellac ink for a number of her recent large-scale paintings. Shellac ink is made from lac, bug shells and resin; it is easy to layer images one upon another with it on canvas, as it is possible to produce different shade and depth variations by using merely one colour. This special material works well for her monochrome (green) ink paintings. She collects imagery from films and literature, conceals and blurs identifiable forms, and explores different shapes and means of painted lines – spiral, zigzag or serpentine, since lines represent an archaic and natural aesthetic force. The ‘Flower of Buffoonery’ (2020) and the ‘La Froggy Victime’ (2020) in their simple, monochrome compositions bring about an emotional charge that is exceedingly strong. Hsu repeatedly explores, examines and feels the same group of painting subjects, such as Aesop from ‘Aesop Looking at His Reflection in a Pond’, the phallic fruit from ‘Cell Death’ (2018), and the obscene human figures from the ‘Fruiting Body’ (2018) – she tirelessly depicts time and again these characters and objects. Ponds and fountains are also favoured motifs, pertaining to notions such as reflection, mirroring, escape and eternal return. Depictions of a pond remind one of Narcissus from Greek mythology, and of Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage, that speaks of the confusion of the Real and the Imaginary; fountains, vomiting, crying and shooting in Hsu’s art are all charged with sexual implications, standing for the perpetuity of the body’s metabolism and of erupting mental activities. Hsu transforms her personal experiences, pains and ecstasies via historical symbols and mythological signs, turning electrifying moments and events into artworks, presenting to the audience a space in which they can reflect upon their own lives.
Brook Hsu was born 1987 in Pullman, Washington, USA, and currently lives and works in New York. Recent solo exhibitions include: Conspiracy theory at Et al., San Francisco (2019); pond-love, Bortolami Gallery, New York (2019); Fruiting Body, Bahamas Biennale, Detroit (2018). Group exhibitions include: More, More, More (curated by Passing Fancy), TANK, Shanghai (2020); LIFE STILL, CLEARING, New York (2020); The End of Expressionism, Jan Kaps, Cologne (2020); Polly, Insect Gallery, Los Angeles (2019-2020); A Cloth Over a Birdcage, Château Shatto, Los Angeles (2019); Finders’ Lodge, in lieu, Los Angeles (2019); and Let Me Consider It from Here, The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2018-2019). Upcoming exhibitions include a solo show at Et al. Gallery, San Francisco (2021) and group exhibition Particularities (curated by Chris Sharp), X Museum, Beijing (2021). A monograph and edition is forthcoming from American Art Catalogues.