Cary Kwok’s Cinematic Paintings of Everyday Intimacy

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Cary Kwok, One Cigarette in an Ashtray - Chapter 2, 2023Photo by Andy Keate

Cary Kwok’s new London exhibition, which focuses on everyday moments, speaks to human activity and closeness. “Everything around us can tell a story,” he says

Cary Kwok is known for playful erotic paintings and sculptures, featuring towering phallic forms and profusions of glistening ejaculate. His works often combine human-made objects with the body, touching on everything from furniture design to fashion illustration and speculative architecture. His new exhibition at London’s Herald St gallery is decidedly more subtle, focusing on the small details that may go unnoticed in his larger scenes, and highlighting a tender sense of intimacy.

“I would say my humorous, erotic work reflects the side of me that my friends would associate me with – I like being silly around friends,” he says. “When I create my erotic pieces with detailed interiors and period fashion, every character and object is placed meticulously in the compositional sets I design to provide a narrative. I guess my new work is an even closer, magnified look at these scenes. When details are zoomed in, you, as a viewer, are now only given clues and have more room to construct your own narratives.”

The human body is shown sparingly in this new series of works – two rare portraits, Jack and David are of close friends, and Kwok wished to capture the emotion in their eyes – though its presence is suggested frequently. The romantically titled Till the End of Time features a pair of toothbrushes placed with their bristles interlocked, as though caught in a passionate embrace; One Cigarette in an Ashtray shows a freshly lit cigarette, with a long curl of smoke trailing up into the air and a red smudge of lipstick at its base. These moments speak to human activity and closeness, whether the everyday intimacy of two partners’ toothbrushes sitting side by side or the tangible, suggestive smack of a lipstick-adorned mouth around a cigarette.

“Many things which are often overlooked can become clues of human activities,” Kwok says. “Traces of life, human interactions, and relationships are there to be read. People place objects in ways out of habit, practicality, or sentiment. Everything around us can tell a story.” Viewers of Kwok’s work might find themselves wondering about the couple who have chosen to place their toothbrushes in an embrace; or perhaps imagining that the toothbrushes have decided to kiss while their owners aren’t looking. 

“I used to put my toothbrush and my ex-partner’s face to face,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s an East Asian thing, or a shared universal sentiment, or maybe I just watched too many cartoons as a child. Often without thinking, I anthropomorphise objects, especially those that I have sentimental attachments to, objects that represent people I care about or myself. You romanticise objects by giving them lives, and it makes you treat them with care and respect.” 

The pieces also have a cinematic quality to them. Some feature perfect sunsets in gradients of pinks and blues; others are flooded with dramatic lighting, as though the sun is falling at exactly the perfect angle to light a glass of deep red wine (And I Sit Alone) or highlight a tiny ladybug in the palm of a hand (The Luckiest). “I have always been greatly influenced by cinema,” says Kwok. “My new works are like scenes in a film: the sets are a crucial element of each piece, even down to the tiniest details such as the colours of the backgrounds, how something is lit, how a shadow hits an object, or how a hand is reaching for a cigarette. Every element contributes to the storytelling.”

Framing is an important final part of the work for Kwok, who has reflected the subtler feeling of this work with simpler choices than usual: black and white with the occasional painted soft pink and blue frame. “To me, a framed work can be considered a beautiful object in its own right,” he says. “The colours of the frames should either complement the work or help tell the story.” 

True to form, there is one small moment of signature Cary Kwok humour in the show: a small resin light switch titled Am I Turning You On, with an erect penis to toggle on and off.

Cary Kwok is on show at Herald St’s Museum St location in London from May 30.