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date: 19 October 2019

Chu, Kenfree

(b Hong Kong, 1953).
  • Margo Machida

Ken Chu: Café Cure (detail), mixed media, 1994 (New York, 42nd Street Art Project); Photograph by Becket Logan/© Ken Chu

Asian American mixed-media and installation artist and cultural activist. Ken Chu came to the United States from Hong Kong in 1971, settling in California where he received a BFA in film studies from San Francisco Art Institute (1986). Relocating to New York City after graduation, his encounters with local Asian American artists, activists and cultural organizations supported his artistic efforts, in which he often drew upon subjects that emerged organically from personal experience in the US as a gay Asian man. Adopting popular cultural idioms from film and comics, while also drawing upon symbols and motifs from Chinese and other Asian cultures, his imagery from this pivotal period featured Asian men cast as prototypically American masculine figures, such as California surfers and cowboys, who populate colorful, imaginary scenarios of cross-cultural contact, mixing and desire. In Western societies, where the dominant norms are non-Asian and few viable role models for Asian men exist, Chu’s art strongly asserted their collective presence and place. His socially inspired work has since also engaged matters of anti-Asian violence, internalized racism, stereotyping, homophobia and the impact of AIDS on Asian diasporic communities.

Through painted mixed-media sculptures, room-sized installations, public art projects and exhibitions curated by the artist, including Dismantling Invisibility: Asian & Pacific Islander Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis (1991), Chu addressed inter-related issues of ethnic, cultural and sexual identification. His interests also led him to co-organize the influential pan-Asian art group, Godzilla: Asian American Art Network (1990–2001) and to work in arts philanthropy, providing grants to fellow artists. Chu’s work has been exhibited in Great Britain, Germany, Canada and venues across the US such as the San Diego Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Asia Society Galleries, Clocktower Gallery, Creative Time and the Museum of Chinese in America, all in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, CA, and Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT. He has received grants and awards from New York State Council for the Arts, Artists Space, Art Matters, P.S.1 National Studio Program and Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, UK.

Bibliography

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  • M. Machida: “Ken Chu’s Clash of Symbols,” i) Art Magazine: A Bi-monthly Review of the Visual Arts, ii) Arts Magazine [prev. pubd as Arts [New York]; A. Dig.] (Spring 1991), pp. 44–5, 53
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