Cary Kwok

Sex and Politics tamed with a Biro Pen

Cary Kwok is a complex artist with a refreshingly open perspective on himself, his art and human sexuality. Born in Hong Kong, Cary then came to London to complete a BA and MA in womenswear at Central St Martins.

His work touches on themes of race, politics, religion, sex, minoritism, fashion and art history. He is well known for his beautiful detailed drawings in biro pen, some of which show men at the height of orgasmic ecstasy; in one triptych, he depicts a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, and a Hassidic Jew, all equal, all ejaculating.

 

 

In the same method but mixing with acrylics, he also shows a fascination for period dresses from various eras, shoes and hairstyles, all painstakingly researched and rendered; capturing the flavour and feeling of that moment.

Cary’s skill at using the biro creates a strange and glowing effect that feels 80s glossy yet when combined with different time periods,  and even varying degrees of explicit sexuality, his work takes on an otherworldliness that is decidedly original.

By Håkon Lillegraven

 

To start, your drawing technique is exquisite! How did you settle on your style, what about it appeals to you?

Thank you! I’m not sure how. It’s just my style, it became the way it is organically, influenced by a lot of things I was inspired by when I was growing up.

Where does your interest in a subject or a series of images begin, does it begin with historical/visual culture sources, or with personal experience?

I think it’s mainly what interests me, and my fantasies, whether it’s sexual, period fashion or architectural. 

 

What is your relationship to fashion illustration? It seems you use the form as an inquiry into past eras and style histories. Similarly in your recent Herald St. show you refer past architectural styles and propositions. What is your relationship to (visual) history? How did studying at a hybrid fashion/art school such as Central Saint Martins influence this relationship?

My drawings are not really fashion illustration although I have done some editorial stuff for magazines, and I worked as a fashion illustrator for a while I was Marchesa’s illustrator for several years. It was such a great experience working with the girls they were amazing they gave me a lot of space for creativity. Their work is beautiful they also often draw inspiration from different cultures too. It was a good match I had great fun working with them.  For my own work, I create images inspired by things that I love. They’re not commissioned by designers or magazines for specific collections. I love period fashions and styles. I often draw inspiration from different cultures and past eras. I guess it’s the fantasy, the romance of the past that attracts me. I have always been fascinated by history and period fashion ever since I was little, watching old films and documentaries on TV.  I still love a lot of the things I loved as a teenager like period films.  A Woody Allen film ‘Midnight In Paris’ that came out a few years ago:  for some reason, a lot of people I know didn’t like it, but I LOVED it. That’s a fantasy come true, if you could travel back and forth between different periods knowing that you can return to the present.

You graduated as a womenswear designer from Central Saint Martins, do you still design garments?

Not professionally but I make things for myself, family and friends when I have time.  I worked as a design consultant for a good designer friend for several years. It was really fun. I also teach fashion design.  I have a critical eye for improvements but I don’t see myself as a fashion designer who designs clothes full time.

You often (to me) depict a spontaneous, uncontrollable moment in your images, the moment of orgasm/ecstasies, but with excruciating detail – how do you preserve the feeling of sensation in what must be a lengthy process?

I’m pretty anal when it comes to certain things. I consider myself a perfectionist in some respects. If I want something done I want it done perfectly to my standard.

A famous Hollywood stylist once said “it all begins with the face”, this seems to be true both in your fashion portraiture of women as well as in your works such as ‘Cum To Barber (Orgasmic Yellow 1970s)’ . What is it about the isolated face which fascinates you as an artist, and where do you “get” your faces from – historical/art references or people you meet or know?

I also like to start from the face.  I’ve always loved drawing since I was a child. I love making up faces, it’s kind of like giving birth to a baby, you don’t know what it’s going to look like until you’ve completed it. I often make faces up but sometimes I reference faces in old photos for my period fashion stuff. 

To me, of course, beauty is timeless. Something beautiful, whether it’s a person, an object or fashion, will always be considered beautiful.  But people’s taste changes with fashion. My taste doesn’t change according to trends but I’m fascinated by how things are perceived as beautiful by people who are influenced by them. And trends are influenced by history, politics, world events, technology, climate, cultures and many other things. 

When it comes to drawing orgasmic faces. I sometimes make them up, I sometimes reference porno, sometimes I ask guys to pose for me.  

Looking at your Instagram, architecture is clearly something which catches your eye. You are clearly surrounded by a mix of “Western” and “Eastern” architectural styles and eras, being born in Hong Kong but now living in London – how has this influenced your work?

 I get asked this question all the time. I have lived in the UK longer than I lived in Hong Kong.  The fact that I’m ethnically Chinese, born in Hong Kong and living in the UK certainly influences my work as an artist.  You’re bound to be influenced by places you live in unless you isolate yourself in an enclosed environment and community where you don’t interact with people outside of your own culture. In this day and age, with the technology we have that brings you information from all around the world. It would take a very unworldly person willingly not to be influenced or inspired by cultures outside of their own.  

 I’m fascinated by interactions between different cultures. Different nations have been interacting with each other for as long as we’ve existed, through international trade, immigration, study abroad and even invasions. I often explore past trends and art movements, especially those influenced by intercultural appreciation and the desire to know and understand foreign ideas, objects and ideals of beauty.  I am fascinated by the way in which people often remain unconsciously loyal to their own ingrained aesthetics by altering foreign imports to suit their own tastes. For instance, in the late 19th century, Japanese goods were introduced to Europe at international exhibitions. Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints were the most popular form of Japanese art.  Japonism had such a great influence on art and design in Europe. It transformed the look of art, fashion and architecture. The Belle Époque era was born.  With its organic lines and motifs,  it provided inspiration for the Art Nouveau Movement that became in style all over the world.  And Japanese textiles also found their way into European fashion. Fashionable European women didn’t wear kimonos, they had kimonos made into European styled gowns to suit their own aesthetics. Elaborate Japanese fans made to suit Western taste for the European markets were a very popular choice of fashion accessory.   People have a curiosity and desire for novelties, novelties that often have significant and unforeseen impacts which go on to influence our cultures, our ways of thinking, aesthetics and lives. 

 

The impact of some of the negative experiences from living in the West as an “ethnic” person left a bitter taste in my mouth, but, more importantly, it inspired me to become a person who is happy to accept other people’s differences.

Living in the UK and Europe as a non-white member of an ethnic minority has given me an opportunity to see myself in a different light and made me a great deal more aware of the culture I come from. It made me feel strangely responsible for behaving well to represent “my” people and it taught me to appreciate my own culture, and especially the differences of other cultures too. 

 Despite all the positive experiences I’ve had, the impact of some of the negative experiences from living in the West as an “ethnic” person left a bitter taste in my mouth, but, more importantly, it inspired me to become a person who is happy to accept other people’s differences. I want to celebrate differences through my work and with my sense of humour. The message I try to get across is that, although we are culturally different, with different customs and different languages, we also share a lot of similarities.  If we can allow ourselves to be influenced by things around us, surely we can influence ourselves and people around us to become more thoughtful, considerate and empathetic. Equality is progress, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age or anything:  that’s what I try to say through my work all the time, whether it’s obvious or not.  

 Someone asked me why the people I draw are so stereotypical and why I don’t make them look ambiguous if I am trying to say we’re all the same. I never try to say we are all the same, but that although we share a common humanity we should still be able to be individuals and of different cultures.  That is what makes the world a vibrant place to be. It’s the matter of acceptance and appreciation of differences. I don’t want to pretend we have no differences, because to do so would be to fail to acknowledge the diversity of cultures the world provides. To me, it is also a form of discrimination to pretend we don’t differ from others or that others have to be the same as “us” in order to fit in. It’s almost like saying if you want to be accepted you’d better be like everybody else or you’d stand out too much. That applies to all cultures, not only to the West. I see that happen in Hong Kong too towards certain minority groups. (I mention Hong Kong because that’s where I grew up).  I get very confrontational when I witness injustice. One of my aunts says the most racist things about certain minority groups in Hong Kong. I don’t hesitate to have a go at her when that happens in front of me.  I understand anger is not the best problem solver to make some people understand something beyond their ability to but sometimes it’s difficult not to be angry.

 Also the subjects of my work are usually from previous eras. They are not stereotypes. They are characters I create based on the styles and fashions of those periods. If I draw a Chinese woman of the 1930s wearing a period cheongsam the hair, makeup and the dress would be in the style of the period. I research exhaustively to ensure the accuracy of these representations.   I suppose that if one were not familiar with the cultures or period costumes of other countries one might mistake my work as stereotyping.  

 Being a minority (gay) within another minority (East-Asian) in the West can be somewhat frustrating and infuriating at times.  I guess I’m too much of an optimist despite how much I like to rant. I expect things to work and people to be good. I don’t just assume people are rude and things are shit. So when things don’t happen the way I think they should I get upset.  It sounds insane but I’m constantly disappointed.

You infuse historical architecture with erotic male figures… How did the relationship between architecture and the (gay) male nude peak your interest? Are the buildings and male figures something you see as complementary, or do you see them as confronting each other and their respective histories?

How people interpret my work is up to them, I don’t really considered my male nudes gay. It’s considered gay to a gay viewer and it’s straight to a straight viewer, maybe? They’re mostly portraits of men wanking on their own. Is it considered gay to have a wank by yourself? I can understand why people think it is when it’s presented in front of you. A lot of people tend to have preconceived notions of things in general. I’m an artist and I’m openly gay, therefore if my work is erotic it would automatically be categorised as homo-erotica.   Of course you can debate whether my male nude work is “homoerotic”.  It is homoerotic in many ways but not in all.  My subjects are often very self-absorbed in their own world, whether they’re posing, flying around doing acrobatic handstands, masturbating or ejaculating. They’re mostly enjoying their own fantasies and themselves. If you look closely none of my men are ever engaged in sexual activities with each other.  

 This brings up another question. Men’s insecurity and their lack of confidence in their sexualities. You know when some straight men feel the need to prove they’re not gay, like people care?    Men expressing vulnerability is not traditionally encouraged in many cultures. Showing the male nude is exposing his vulnerability.  How we dress has become such a powerful symbol of social status.  To be in the nude is to strip off one’s social status. 

 I think that maybe for the past few hundred years society has been encouraging the idea of the male being superior, a figure that could only be worshipped on a pedestal. And the male should not show his weakness or the pillars of society would collapse. Society changes and our beliefs and morals change with it. More people are becoming more accepting and sympathetic. Also, feminist movements haven’t only empowered women, they have also educated people to understand that men should also be allowed to show their emotions.

 The subjects of my drawings are often of different periods and different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in their different ethnic fashions.  As I said earlier, the intention is not to promote segregation of people but to try and draw people’s attention to an unconscious recognition of our differences, similarities and mutual qualities, like our human bodily functions and our emotions, regardless of ethnicity.  

 

How did you end up using the architectural styles of specifically steampunk and art deco? Do you see them as contrasts to each other, one belonging to the past, and one to the future?

I’m fascinated by different genres. It wasn’t a conscious decision to contrast Art Deco to Steampunk or Art Nouveau to Cyberpunk.  It was a selection of some of the architectural genres that inspire me. Like fashion, I’m inspired by styles from different periods and genres. They transport you to a fantasy world.  My architectural drawings in my recent Herald St. exhibition are supposed to be ‘pimped out’ buildings and environments from my fantasies. Sometimes when I’m on the bus or the train, or when I’m walking around the city, I day dream that what is in front of me is spectacular fantasy-like futuristic scenery.  And when I see a “potential” building I’d fantasise about what I could add to it. That’s how I sometimes entertain myself. 

Our desire for beauty is often expressed through interiors and architecture, clothing and accessories too of course. They allow us to express our taste intellectually and aesthetically, beautiful artefacts that move people in an emotional way and help us to become who we want to be and feel how we want to feel in the moment.    

A lot of people are very easily offended without listening to the point that people are trying to make. ‘Oh, he’s said a bad word!’ or ’There’s nudity!’

The use of humour in architecture, fashion, and queer culture is very different, how do you consider this, and the element of humour into your work?

 I think humour is pretty personal. Some things you find funny someone else would find offensive. You reference things from what happens around you, politics, personal experiences etc. But I think your humour sometimes should get a message across to make people think in a progressive way, hopefully with a positive outcome.  A lot of people are very easily offended without knowing why and without really listening to the point that people are trying to make. ‘Oh, he’s said a bad word!’ or ’There’s nudity!’.  Perhaps some people can’t process information when they face hurdles such as curse words and anything they’re conditioned to think is “offensive”.

When people are being provocative just for the sake of being provocative with no substance and not trying to get a thoughtful message across to inspire people to think and question, I have a problem with it.

In fashion imagery, the lines are often blurred between garments and nudity, fetish and heritage, what is your approach to these elements – do you see them as contrasts to each other, or complementary?

Both, contrast and complementary. They can often work with each other and they can also work against one another. It depends how you bring these elements together and make them work with good taste. 

As I mentioned, when something is done simply for the sake of it, with no substance or a point behind it, I don’t mean it always has to have deep meanings behind everything, but at least it should work aesthetically.  Working well aesthetically also serves a purpose.  When things don’t do any of that you can’t help but question their artistic or intellectual values.  Fashion is the same, I guess, but it’s so complicated it’s hard to discuss it in an interview. 

Also, can you speak about being part of Takashi Murakami’s ‘super-flat collection’ and exhibition. What does it mean to you to be recognised by a fellow artist, and possibly an inspiration? What does it mean to you to be exhibited with other artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Grayson Perry, and more?

I’m extremely honoured that I was part of it.  It’s always marvellous to be recognised by anyone, especially such highly regarded artists as Murakami-san. My work has been collected by great artists like Murakami and Mario Testino and I have exhibited with many great artists in many great shows. Of course it’s always an honour to exhibit alongside world-renowned artists and to be recognised.