The Wife Aquatic: Fay Ku isn't dead, she just sleeps with the fishes

John Photos
11/25/2009

Double Entendre, Fay Ku’s exhibition at Eight Modern, is a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe just a crowd-teaser. Or maybe I’m a pervert. Whichever it is, I was left wanting more, both for the beauty of the art and, at only six drawings, the brevity of the show.

The unadorned figurative works nimbly fulfill the trifecta of contemporary drawing: they are well-crafted, inscrutable and sort of naughty. I found myself nodding my head at her line work, scratching my head at her motives and shaking my head at her lascivious subjects.

It is obvious that Ku can draw, but her craft never devolves into showiness. On the contrary, her compositions might be described as restrained or inhibited, if not for all the tomfoolery. She renders the forms with thin, curving contours, using just the faintest flicks to denote a fold in their flesh. For the most part, the subjects’ lithe limbs and torsos lack texture or detail, but Ku’s subtle watercolor washes warm the bodies, providing a sense of weight.

The large sheets of paper remain mostly empty, leaving the figures floating in off-white voids independent of gravity or architecture. The relationship to Asian woodblock prints is unmistakable, with its economy of line and sparse compositions, but the provocative imagery is a far cry from some Katsushika Hokusai desk calendar. Ku’s protagonists are all alone, and the lack of supervision is starting to get to them. It might be said that they lack perspective.

Art historical references aside, I also was reminded of a less academic tradition: those kids who sit and doodle through all their non-art classes, defacing their desks and weirding everybody out. Certainly Ku’s graphic style would find approval among the comic-book crowd, as would the graphic content. Indeed, most of these drawings would land Ku in detention.

After reading an interview with the artist, she seems to fit the bill. She is a self-described loner with a compulsion to make art. In a telling moment, she was asked what advice she had for up-and-coming artists. She replied, “Don’t become an artist unless you have to,” implying that her art helps her cope (with what I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem too happy in there).

Several of the works depict figures in sexually suggestive poses, often children, often with non-human animals. Though the figures are typically nude, the subject matter is never explicit. Erogenous zones are either turned away from the viewer or covered—and by covered I mean suckled by a fish.

Strangely, except for one little boy in the work “Fish Sticks,” the figures derive little pleasure from their aquatic accompaniment. The twin drawings “Sea Bed” and “Nibble” depict the same adult female lying prone with an expression of utter indifference among schools of fish, as though the phalanx of fins swarming at her nethers is starting to get boring.

The show’s title, Double Entendre, implies a tension between what is said and what is meant. Indeed, the innocuous titles do give way to jarring imagery, as though these ideas spring forth from Ku’s brain at the mildest provocation. This is a fairly sophomoric approach to content—and there is nothing I dislike more than when I feel someone is trying to be shocking—but the psychological weight of Ku’s subject feels genuine. The images recall moments of sexual excitement that predate our understanding of sexuality and the way in which these events can develop into fully formed fetishes that defy our understanding of sexuality.

Alone on the west wall of the gallery is Ku’s punch line, “Mermaid,” a fish/woman hybrid born not of myth but of perversion. Is it just me, or is the artist being koi?