Nina Kuo’s Chinatown

By Connor Sen Warnick
January 11, 2024

This past November, filmmaker/writer Connor Sen Warnick met with artist Nina Kuo in Manhattan’s Chinatown to discuss her work, life, and reflections on Asian American art today. “When I found her that afternoon, she was hanging new paintings on the side of a storefront on East Broadway,” said Warnick.

At work for nearly five decades in New York, Kuo is a pioneer of Chinese American art. Shapeshifting between painting, sculpture, collage, photo, video and sound art, her prolific body of work blends a unique mixture of ancient mythology with humor and fantasy, each piece creating its own universe. Kuo’s art has been collected by and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA, New Museum, and Library of Congress.

Beyond the lasting marks her artistic visions have made on AAPI culture, until one experiences the singular, unforgettable energy that Kuo possesses in person, a full understanding of her art does not feel complete. “I’ve been fortunate to get to know Nina over the past two years, as she was one of the elders who kindly shared her memories of early Chinatown activism with me as research for my upcoming feature film debut, CHARACTERS DISAPPEARING,“ said Warnick. “Nina also has a cameo appearance in the film.”

During this recent get-together, Warnick documented Kuo for a candid film portrait on Super 8mm as she guided him through the neighborhood, identifying significant landmarks in AAPI cultural history, as well as places of personal importance. “I’d like to extend a warm thank you to Nina’s partner, Lorin Roser, for being our unofficial production assistant for this interview, wheeling around equipment and wardrobe in their shopping cart—a familiar prop to those within Nina and Lorin’s orbit,” noted Warnick.

Warnick and Kuo’s conversation is transcribed below, accompanying Warnick’s film portrait.

Connor Sen Warnick: Okay, Nina—tell me where we are.
Nina Kuo: Oh, we’re in the best part of Chinatown. This is the best time and place to exhibit my work; I’m playing against the backdrop of gentrification and the pandemic era. It’s similar to the kind of work that [Lorin and I] did in the ‘80s and ‘70s, here in the local area that I’m gonna tour you around, like Basement Workshop and Catherine St. It has this raw aesthetic.
CSW: Could you tell me about what these artworks you’re hanging represent?
NK: This is the Tanglady Scholar. It’s about restaurants, food, and the abstractions and surrealistic feeling of signage. A lot of that is always disappearing. It’s always in flux. I want to convey that it’s very painterly to be in this kind of area. It’s multi-Asian, pan-Asian. It has a lot of influences on how we’re directing our expression towards our neighboring communities.
CSW: Nowadays, do you feel like the situation that people are in reminds you of when you were younger in NYC?
NK: Sure, there’s still the same homelessness. The same migrant issues are always there. It’s affected us indirectly, but we’re always gonna be searching for different solutions. And that’s what I did in my paintings too. They’re about global warming, or women that have to deal with frustrations with food and diet and technology and survival.
CSW: Tell me about when you first moved to NYC.
NK: That was a smaller community, full of people with newness. I think because people were reliant on their friends and associations, places like Basement Workshop, Just Above Midtown, and other artist collectives and alternative spaces opened their doors to that type of experimentation.
CSW: What’s the significance of 22 Catherine St?
NK: Oh, it’s the Basement Workshop! It was the last space that they had for the experimentation with the poets, gallery space, openings, and solo shows. We self-curated sometimes. It went on from ‘82 until ‘86 or ‘85. There were Latino artists, Black artists…It was very diverse.
CSW: How do you feel like that connects with what A4 does today?
NK: Oh, well actually this is the neighborhood of A4. I met my partner Lorin Roser at Basement Workshop. He worked with musicians there. People like Fred Ho, and Bob Lee, and many of the other performance directors of the Asian American cultural scene got together and did this great “Roots to Reality” exhibition. People like Corky Lee were so passionate about how to build up an umbrella group like A4. We did a lot of the newsletter and fundraising. It was pretty awesome.
CSW: Talk to me about the presence of fantasy, not just in your artwork but in your everyday life.
NK: Well, I try to find the kind of humor, the kind of senselessness that should be brought out. If we analyze that, we can really admire the true heroism that exists in everyday life. For example, workers, those who exhibit the kind of dedication that’s needed to portray the communities we belong in.
Nina Kuo, Tang Lady (2024).
CSW: I’m curious, when you were younger, before you considered yourself an artist, were you interested in fantasy?
NK: Oh, yeah. I traveled to Asia, and I was struck by the Tokyo scene when I was a teen. I studied the beatnik ways. I always considered myself more of a beatnik than a hippy. I guess that was my way of protesting, and learning how the Eastern sensibilities actually became more Western and the Western became more Eastern. So all these philosophies affected me, and I think that it’s a really rich and rewarding way of looking at art.
CSW: As someone who’s oriented towards community, I feel like you’re also a very unique individual. Where do you draw the line between being committed to supporting the community, but making sure you have enough space to nurture yourself as an individual?
NK: That’s so true. You’re always being pulled by certain forces, whether it’s your colleagues or your family. I think it is a big dilemma now, because you want to stay true to yourself; you want to stay committed and contribute as an artist. But it really takes a lot of sacrifice—a deeper love and camaraderie—and that’s really something you don’t explain. You just have it within you.
CSW: How important is it to have a support structure to create from?
NK: I feel like if I meet someone and I don’t spend a lot of time with them, I still know that they’re there. I can feel their warmth or their karma. I don’t think it’s good to always be with people. It’s good to understand yourself and have your own alone time. Many people don’t understand that being alone in your own space is so important as an artist.
CSW: I want to hear more about your recent work. Do you feel like there’s still something you’re trying to discover? Can it still surprise you?
NK: Definitely. I look at a lot of public art and works by contemporary masters and how it really brings out a new language. Even the language we hear now has such a vitality, such great sounds. You can’t really understand everything, but you know it’s there. It’s better to be there and absorb as much as you can.
“You just gotta suit your own system. What’s Asian to someone might not be Asian to the mainstream.” —Nina Kuo
CSW: How would you describe the current status of art in capitalism? This era is very much defined by design, algorithms, efficiency…
NK: You said it, Connor. Everything is revolving around the spin and we go for the joyride, and we’re happy to stay on that turntable. It’s a very long haul. If you get on the U-Haul, you’re carrying all that baggage with you, you better make sure you’re invested in things that don’t just pay off, but make you a more solid person, if being an artist is definitely in your soul.
CSW: Who do you think of when you make your artworks?
NK: Ah, that’s a good question. I think of so many scholars from different centuries. I think of so many different civilizations, from the Xian tombs to civilizations in Africa, and even outer space. I think of how light would evoke different emotions. How electronic light or media is gonna change painting and video, perhaps. We’ve got to wait and see.
CSW: Talk to me about your fashion sense.
NK: I just collect things for years. They last forever. You just pick something apart, then reshape it. That’s how we always did that. We were taught to recycle, and reform, and appreciate the sculpting of fashion. When I traveled the world, I saw a lot of ethnic clothes. You just learn to find the right shapes. I don’t think of it as just fashion. It’s bodywear, and your head and your body kind of match together.
CSW: It’s like your skin.
NK: Yeah! Right! And you too! I like the way your body gestures out, and it matches your voice and your sway. It creates a memorable effect. I mean, in your film, I saw a lot of that—they were all like stills put together. It was like a huge storybook put together of different movements. It could’ve been anywhere but I could sense that NY was the focal point in your mind and you were trying to expose that. And you did a great job with how the characters all change in their relationships with each other.
CSW: Wow, thank you. I can’t wait for you to see the whole thing.
NK: Oh, yeah. It was really the best revelation for our community because that era was so misunderstood.
CSW: Do you feel like Asian artists are sometimes unfairly pressured to make work that is expressing things about their identity, to pander to institutional crowds or certain critics?
NK: I think that’s what people are looking for. Curators are looking for that, or sometimes buyers. You just gotta suit your own system. What’s Asian to someone might not be Asian to the mainstream. So it’s a really tough question, but it’s too abstract right now for us to figure that out. You can swing in many directions. I do that.
CSW: Were you thinking about that question when you were younger?
NK: All the time. People would say, “Oh, I can recognize you’re an Asian artist,” or “you’re a woman artist.” To me, it doesn’t matter. I just make it, that’s just the way it comes out. It’s like being in your own comic book.
CSW: What do you mean by that?
NK: Well, you make your own word balloon, and you do your little storyboard, then you jump around in your own character. Kind of like having your own sanctuary built around you.
CSW: Do you like comic books?
NK: I used to want to be a comic book artist. But I realized they were too simple, and they weren’t really funny. They weren’t satirical enough. And if they were, they were too sexy and erotic, but not for my taste.
CSW: Do you think you’ll ever retire from being an artist?
NK: Probably not. It’s good to take a break and travel. Even that may be more demanding than making art. But you’re still making it in your bloodstream.

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