If you were to type in “Cary Kwok” into the search field on Instagram, you’d first come up with a hashtag. This is, presumably, because his own account is a constant tug-o-war with Instagram’s censors/community standards. Once you do discover that tag, it’s impossible not to be hooked. Kwok is a British-Chinese artist represented by Herald St Gallery in London. He meticulously crafts pictures of women, shoes, fashion vignettes, and, most noticeably, men and their sexual proclivities. Among the venues that have presented his work: Tate Britain, The FLAG Foundation, the Yokohama Museum of Art, and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin. Frontrunner goes one-on-one with Kwok.

WARNING: Some images are NSFW.

Let’s begin with the glaringly obvious – but still those that elicit the greatest number of questions in my mind! Your ‘Men’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Arrival’ and ‘Cum to Barber’ series: did the erotic material manifest early or recently in your practice?

I’ve always liked to draw what fascinates me since I first picked up a pen as a kid. All my school books were covered with shoes and women in period fashion. I also try to inject my sense of humour into my work too.  I don’t know if people get it, but if it makes me laugh it already works. I remember drawing erotic comic strips when I was still at school. I didn’t want anyone to find out I was such a pervert, so I had to hide them. When I was in college, I openly drew dicks in class. I gave a drawing to Louise Wilson, the Course Director on my MA Fashion course. She thought it was amusing, but didn’t keep it, although she later she said she should have done. 

Regarding the ‘Men’ series. One of the things I’ve gleaned from it is that there’s a kind of pleasure of emptiness/emptiness of pleasure dynamic. Once the act is complete, the negative background space communicates, to me, that there’s nothing or no one to lean on or curl up to.

To me, along with affection and tenderness towards people you love and care about, a man ejaculating is one of the most beautiful and erotic things to witness, whether or not you’re engaged in the actual act, and whether you’re the one watching or the one being watched. The intense excitement of the dynamic of both parties is indescribably intimate. You’re allowing your vulnerability to be exposed to another person, your senses are excited by this visual stimulation – knowing you’re being watched intensifies the experience. That beautiful, fleeting moment is captured forever in my work, even when the act is complete in my realm of imaginary spunky men. My subjects always have the viewers to lean on / curl up to. We hope we’re good enough people, we don’t just abandon the person who’s just cum for you. In my more recent work, my men are finally engaged with one another. Now they don’t have to rely on the viewer to lean on.

 

Cary Kwok
White Monday (2019)
Ink and acrylic on paper on paper, artist’s frame
44.2 x 34.2 x 3.8 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Herald St, London
Photography: Andy Keate

 

You also have created this humanist baseline in that you do not exclude or excuse any man from the raw necessity of masturbation and release. Surely two or more taboos are exposed in the process, right?

I guess for most cultures, exposing male vulnerability and sexuality challenges the traditional masculinity, yet we all know that all or most of us masturbate to orgasm all the time. Why is this bodily function such a taboo?   

But what speaks to me is that you don’t just depict the climax; the image also hints at the psychological landscape of this event. I read things like the temporary sense of power, of prowess, danger, frustration leading into euphoria, release, contemplativeness, loneliness and isolation. What are your thoughts?

Orgasm is an intimate moment. To share that with other people, another person, or even to experience it on your own often sparks emotions. I guess it’s hormonal. You want someone to hold you and cuddle you and fall asleep with their arms around you afterwards. You question stuff like, why isn’t he doing any of those things? Does he care? 

There’s such an exquisite, polished feel to your work that crosses into the realm of “finish fetish”. Do you ever reach a point where you feel the work can go no further with your own hand and it just transcends into public view or are you generally relaxed about the final product and can let it rest?

I sometimes get carried away with adding more and more details to my work. I keep looking at it and think it needs more improvement and symbolism. Or the way the guy’s cribbing his dick is not correct. Or the guys are not staring into each other eyes the way I want them to. I get very anal:  a drawing started off as something simple can easily turn into something complex. Or if I think a drawing’s too busy I have to start all over again. 

 

Cary Kwok
Nuts (Linus), (2015)
Ink on paper
29.7 x 21 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Herald St, London
Photography: Andy Keate

 

You clearly have a cheeky, dark sense of humour. The ‘Heroes’ series alongside the ‘Nuts’ (meaning Charlie Brown and Linus from the ‘Peanuts’ gang) are brimming with biting, acerbic wit. Do you feel that by depicting them ejaculating, you are humanizing them or bringing their heroic status back to earth?

Yes, it’s an intimate look at these heroes. A peep into the private world of some of these characters like Spiderman and Popeye. I thought it’d be funny to take the viewers into their private lives and to bring the heroes to our human level of desires and needs like masturbating. To imagine what they can do in bed with their super powers. You’d probably think twice before sleeping with Clark Kent. 

In the ‘Nuts’ series I gave Charlie and Linus stubble cos in human time they must be in their sixties now, but Linus is still holding on to his security blanket. Charlie and Snoopy are still friends. Woodstock also likes to knock one out over porn mags. I don’t even know if Woodstock is male. 

The Prince Charming/Snow White is almost believable as a plot twist at the end of the fairy tale! Who the hell wants to “live happily ever after” with a gullible, narcoleptic dwarf-fetishist, right?

I want to live happily ever after, but with fun and excitements.  The harsh reality with Snow White is now she realises why Prince Charming wants her to wear a strap-on. The question is: are you okay with your partner fulfilling their desires elsewhere if you cannot provide all is needed, hopefully with you included?  Or do you back out because you can’t have them all to yourself?  Just because you don’t permit someone to do something, does it mean they secretly won’t?

 

Cary Kwok
Cum to Growl-r (2017)
Ink on paper
29.7 x 21 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Herald St, London
Photography: Andy Keate

 

Your ‘Plumage’, ‘Chanel’, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Women’ series seem quite straightforward in showcasing your portraiture skill with a biro pen. Do you suppose illustrators and artists who work in similar modes should have a common goal of authenticity of appearance or authenticity of subject in achieving the final work?

I’m not really sure I understand this question but I’m gonna try to answer it the best I can. Period fashion, men and period architecture / interiors have always been subjects I’m passionate about.  To me, my different subjects harmonize with one another because I stay true to what I love and what excites me. I don’t know if I can answer for other people but I think artists should be encouraged to experiment with different subjects and media. I don’t want to be confined as an artist who only does this or that. People are interested in many things, we all have things we like and we all evolve in time. I think it’s great if you evolve within reason and with integrity.

 

Cary Kwok
Qipao 旗袍 – Hong Kong 香港 (1970s), (2012)
Ballpoint pen, acrylic, white gold, gold, and copper leaf, PVA adhesive on paper
42 x 29.7 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Herald St, London
Photography: Andy Keate

 

What kind of advice would you offer to a young graduate student or working artist just starting out? What kind of advice should they ignore?

Sounds corny but true: I’d say stay true to yourself and what you love and what inspires you. Being inspired, by others or by anything, is a beautiful thing but simulation and imitation are a sign of weakness, self-doubt and mediocrity.

As long as you stay true to yourself with love and kindness towards others you’re good. A close friend often says he’s proud of me and my work. He talks to people about me all the time, it makes me want to create better stuff. So you see, that’s powerful.

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