Stoic, Sensitive, and Unworldly Men in Willie Yao’s First U.S. Solo Show

Man-348_Watercolor on Paper_275X355

Named a “Critic’s Pick” by Time Out New York, Willie Yao’s (姚微粒) first solo exhibition in the United States, 2 or Ér, features a series of paintings of unworldly blushing brawny men against cosmic backdrops.  This exhibition at Carma, a restaurant that has established itself as a supporter of emerging contemporary Chinese artists, expands on a posthuman homoeroticism first introduced in his Blush series that was presented in Beijing last year.

Although at first glance, the works look like illustrations done with markers, Yao, a newcomer to New York, paints with pencil-thin lines — lines that at times densely overlap to create solid colors and at others are a restless tangle — entirely freehand.   The men exude stoicism in their stature and emotions from their eye, blushes, and color.  Bullseyes on various body parts suggest an invitation for human touch.

There’s also a whimsy and vibrance distantly reminiscent of Keith Haring’s works, an inspiration of his, that allow the distinctive images to carry over to other formats — tote bags, badges, and sneakers.

The exhibition also includes Rice 60 an unassuming (given the restaurant setting) installation of wide-mouthed glass jars filled with uncooked rice and garlic that represents a juxtaposition of Eastern and Western practices.

We talked to the ebullient Yao about his work, being in New York, and why Carma is a good space for his works.

You’ve described this style as “lines to starry night”, referring Van Gogh painting.  How did you develop this style?

Man-347_Watercolor on Paper_275X355

Man-347. Watercolor on paper, 275 x 355 cm

In fact, my “lines to starry night” does not really connects with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, although I admire him very much.  “Lines to starry night” is my method to compose the background.  By pulling together lines of great density, narrow space is created just like the flickering stars at night.  The visual effect is even better with black lines.

The figures you draw have a Herculean physique and bear a resemblance to you.  Tell us about this design.  Have you always seen the male figure or yourself like this or is this something that evolved over the years.

I am actually not painting myself.  The Man with Blushing Face series I brought to the New York solo show this time is a sentimental series.  It captures male figures who seem to be strong and rough, but their facial expressions, lines and colors reveal their sense of unease, sensitivity, anxiety and solitude.  They express my feelings toward the urban population: fancy, yet not confident.  Those figures are imagery expressions of my inner self and those around me.

The fill-ins are very intricate, and in one instance, you repeated the same word over and over again.  What are the materials and process for drawing these figures?  Tell us about the work in which you repeated the word many times.

Indeed, the act of repeating may look boring, but unexpected beauty will be created when you repeat something to an extreme.  I never draft my work. I choose all color materials that will enrich images on paper, and the final work should look relaxing, interesting, modern and smart.


Man-333.  Watercolor on paper 275 x 355 cm x 18 panels.  Installation view at Carma

You’re from Shanghai and have recently moved to New York.  How are the two cities different?  What do you hope to experience and learn from your time in New York?

I was born in Shanghai, worked in Beijing, and now live in New York City.  These three cities are quite different regarding urban styles, but they share striking similarities in their energy, inclusivity, and diversity.  Shanghai is very fast-paced right now.  Those who go there know what they want and what they want to be.  In Beijing, you can choose your own pace: you can live a comfortable and easy life, or you can make yourself busy and occupied by wonderful things.  

The artist outside of Carma

The artist outside of Carma

As for New York City, I am still an observer and experiencing it; so, I have not figured out the answers yet. The idea of city is one of my most important element for my artistic expression.  I wish to record and express the situation of people here through feeling everything in the city.  All works from this exhibition were created in New York City, and I consider them as an initial response.

Man-361_Watercolor on Paper_275X355

Man-361. Watercolor on paper, 275 x 355 cm.

“Man-361” incorporates a local element in the form of condoms in their wrappers.  Can you tell us more about this work?

I already mentioned that the works in this exhibition is tightly related to my observation of life in New York.  Man-361 has this element of used condoms, and through them I want to emphasis that people’s endless desires are unlocked by this city, and the busyness and expectations during the process of the pursuit of such desires.

You also work in the design field.  How does your personal work balance with your “day job”?

Regarding the design part, I am involved with some cross-disciplinary project, such as book covers, fashion, and interior design.  But they are all based on my own works. I will put 80% or more of my attention to my own artistic creation, and then think about those collaboration projects.

Who or what inspires you as an artist?

I still wish to be called a creator.  I used to be an editor and a journalist, and I was using text to express my feelings.  Then I gradually realized that text cannot fully express my sophisticated thoughts, so I started to use creative works such as paintings and images to express myself.

The Circle_Watercolor on Paper_275X355

Who or what inspires you as an artist? “The Circle”. Watercolor on paper, 275 x 355 cm.

Tell us about exhibiting in Carma.  Is it unusual?  What did you have to consider when arranging the works.

Yes.  First of all, the show didn’t choose a pure artistic space.  We know that for many contemporary art such as pop art, most collectors won’t prepare a gallery like space (white cube and super clean) to show them.  Those works might be placed in the study, living room, children’s room, dining room, lobby, department store, and even subway stations.  Compared to spaces like galleries or museums, these are complicated and crowded environments.   We thought, “Why don’t we put them somewhere that they will be put in the end?”  So, we arranged the exhibition at Carma.  We have had really good feedback from restaurant staff, diners and visitors.  Our goal is accomplished, and the sales are satisfying too.

adidas Originals ZX FLUX-3, Willie-style

Do you plan to continue this Man series?  Are there any other projects of yours you’d like to share with us?  

Of course, I will continue with the series. Except for the show next year in the States, we plan to put up solo shows in Tokyo and Taipei with different themes.  Although at the moment I cannot reveal more details about future cross-disciplinary collaborations, I will definitely work on product design and fashion.





2 is on view at Carma, 38-40 Carmine Street, through October 31.   See more of his works at

Yao’s replies were translated from Chinese by Hansi Liao.  The interview has been abridged. 

Lead image: Man-348.  All images courtesy of the artist.