Trained as an architect and multimedia artist, Yuqiao Guo sees her painterly practice as a product of her fascination with self-portraiture and interest in the narrative capacities of the body. Approaching the majority of her work through an autobiographical lens, Guo paints her figures in a way that closely balances surrealism with intimacy, creating striking visual metaphors for the fleeting moments of self-awareness.
Icarus, 2022, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 30.5 cm, © The Artist
Kelly Foster – I’m fascinated by your use of self-portraiture, and the surrealist atmosphere that you create. How did you start painting in this style?
Yuqiao Guo – I grew up studying art in China, and then after went on to attend university in the USA. After university, I didn’t paint for almost four years during architecture school. Then all of the sudden, somehow my mentality with one painting was drastically different from the design mindset. It wasn’t until my last semester in architecture school where I tried to paint a watercolour as a way to explore the spaces I wanted to design in a more abstract way.
That process reintroduced me to the idea of painting as a thought process instead of trying to solve a question or be a representation of space. When I started working as an architect, my life was limited in some ways in terms of creativity and self expression. I started painting again as a hobby during the pandemic, and I discovered that my subject changed.
I used to paint more spatial aspects, but during the pandemic, I naturally gravitated towards other topics. I didn’t have a big, grand theme, I just instinctively started thinking about myself more and what I wanted to express with my body. There was a lot of humour too when I think about my body. Sometimes I write down phrases, so a lot of it also came from the language I would use to describe it and then transcribe these phrases into a picture.
Red room, 2022, oil on canvas, 91.44 x 60.96 cm © The Artist
KF – I like your use of the body. We see breasts a lot, which feels very feminine but sometimes the figures feel genderless. How do you decide on the scene that you want to depict? Is your work based on personal memories or are they explorations of ideas?
YG – It’s a good observation that these figures seem to be a little genderless, even though I see them as a kind of self-portrait. I subconsciously wanted to remove the eyes and hair, which to me are very personal traits of someone’s character.
Breasts played a very important role. It’s almost as if they could talk and dictate one’s true desire. In some ways our daily lives revolve around breasts; how we conceal them and reveal them in certain ways. We’re always conscious about them and we are somehow always being watched by ourselves and of course other people. In my paintings, I wanted to take back their playfulness and give breasts a central stage to express ideas and become a focal point to control the narrative.
Mother and Child, 2022, Oil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm © The Artist
KF – They do have an individuality to them through the way you paint them. In some of your works, the breasts could have eyes or faces, as if the rest of the body of the figure is totally irrelevant. Your body of work has a mixture of different emotions. Sometimes there is a serious, calm, serene, quiet or meditative tone. Other times the works come off as bizarre, humorous and intriguing.
YG – I would say it has to do with my state of mind. Sometimes I feel like my work is going to be witty and humorous, and sometimes it becomes very emotional. Now I’m gravitating toward something slightly more serious.
KF – Even when there is a playfulness, there always seems to be an edge of seriousness. In the painting titled, Icarus you are obviously referencing Greek mythology, and you have a work called Mother and Child, which could reference religion. Do you draw inspiration from mythologies or religion besides just working with your personal autobiographical narratives?
YG – That’s a very good point. I don’t bring it up because I haven’t really studied these Greek mythologies, but I am very drawn to them. I am also drawn to medieval religious paintings. Primarily for their perspectives, there’s a lot of magic in them. I hesitate to say that I reference them because I don’t know enough about the history to have a conversation about it, but I do look at them a lot.
I think about the timeless idea of the mother and child. I am standing in between these two figures, between being a child and also someday, maybe soon, becoming a mother. It brings up a maternal feeling that’s not literally breastfeeding, it’s just something that I keep going back to. It also makes me feel a respect for mothers and a fear about our situations.
Insomnia, 2022, Oil on canvas, 40.64 x 30.48 cm © The Artist
KF – The mother and child is a type of archetypal image. It’s a universal topic that is expressed over and over again in different ways and styles of painting. Are you thinking about what it would be like to one day become a mother through your work and trying to depict that emotion?
YG – I think in a way it is about how I imagine myself in that situation, but also it’s not so literal. It’s hard to say, but it’s also about taking the iconic scene out of a religious or domestic context and situating it in a natural setting. By taking away the context, the scene looks like the end of the world, and that creates a feeling inside of me and a psychological space.
KF – In this new context, the landscape is very minimal. There is maybe one lonely, bare tree blowing in the wind which has an abysmal feeling. It reminds me of being a young woman thinking about the state of the world, the challenges, ecological and ethical responsibilities of raising a child. It can be scary and there are a lot of intense thoughts and feelings today for young women contemplating the realities of motherhood. It’s not really this happy, carefree thing.
YG – There’s a lot of subconscious uncertainty about the future, about the state of the world. I try to reflect that through my colour palette and atmosphere. I want to paint figures in movement, so I express that through parts of the figure such a hair or breasts responding to the movement of atmosphere. The works carry a momentum and the figure is situated in the changing landscape. Although, I don’t want it to sound like I’m making a commentary on the perilous state of motherhood or reproductive rights necessarily. I want to discuss these topics, but through painting I needed to express a larger feeling, a kind of unwavering trust in a perilous and changing world.
Blue Room, 2021, Oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm © The Artist
KF – The way you distort the body with different directionality of the torso going one way and the breasts going the other way has a very Cubist reference to me. I think this formal quality adds to the feeling of loss of direction. It contributes to the sense of instability. It makes the viewer question the meaning of the narrative, the symbolism or the environment depicted.
YG – That is a very good observation. I feel like this sense of instability reflects our daily reality, where our bodies keep contradicting us, going against our will, and making suggestions that we may not even be aware of. That is something I especially like about Cubism and Fauvism – like Matisse’s dancers – the bestiality bursts out from the contorted and free-willed body parts.
KF – There is always something symbolic in your work, it is never directly that explicit or literal. You use gestures sparingly, and the paintings are not overly dense with information, they are very subtle. In some of your earlier works, the brushstrokes were more visible and added a certain texture – almost like the surface was scratched or that the paint had aged. The mixing of the textures and colours creates a dreamy effect.
YG – You commented on that when you saw the paintings in person in my studio. I was very happy about the progress that I had made this year and it’s what I wanted to achieve. Now I’m trying to be more free, and less fussy about the forms or colours.
KF – There’s one painting I’m looking at that wasn’t in the show called Blue Room from 2021. It really speaks to that transparency you were mentioning and less about the texture of the paint itself. That painting specifically has a veil that’s enveloping most of the scene, but it’s really subtle. The painting feels like it has a lot of space and depth to it. There is also a flattening of the perspective shown through the apple on the table. I really love the use of transparency, texture, layering and how even your architectural knowledge and perspective is coming into play as well.
YG – I have recurring window paintings showing a bit of trees and landscapes. The Painting Blue Room is an attempt to flatten the space and challenge our perception of the interior world versus the exterior, and not just in a spatial sense. For me, a window space is a very magical threshold where the interaction between the inside and outside world is not direct. It’s ironic that window as a threshold not only imposes a distinction of far and near, views out of reach versus things at hand, a person confined versus a person free; it brings a directionality to everything that appears through a window – as you look out and interpret the landscape, the landscape also poses back at you, blurring your sense of reality, through this framed space of a window. This idea is somehow very attractive to me.
KF – I also noticed that you incorporate the horizon a lot in your work. It’s a very natural and humanising element which makes us feel small and provides this sense of universality that we can all relate to.
YG – Sometimes it almost feels like the figures are submerged in the landscape, which isn’t necessitated by like any specific narrative. Emotionally it gives me a sense of being engulfed.
KF – The figures are always very close to the viewer, which makes them feel intimate. It’s as if we’re invited into their intimate world that is just a void in space.
YG I’d like to think that in my paintings, the figure commands the central stage, and the space serves to add emotional density to the life of the figure. I like to think that my figures command the stage but they don’t need to acknowledge the viewer’s existence – I think that’s where the feeling of intimacy may come from, as the viewer finds their own personal space with the painting, one that is not intended nor dictated by the artist.