FEBRUARY 19, 2021
THE MACABRE ARTIST Mu Pan shot to a new level of visibility when a mural he created for the critically acclaimed horror film Midsommar (2019) was featured in the film’s opening. The mural, which foreshadows plot developments while also setting the tone for the film’s stylish combination of boreal solstice and shocking brutality, features delicate vignettes of a family connected by umbilical cords and a blonde woman dressed in white and crowned in flowers, all under a whimsically benevolent sun. Yet if this opening visual, with its slow pan in close-up, was a compelling introduction to Pan’s art, the mural itself is somewhat atypical of his unique style. Midsommar’s Swedish setting required a pseudo-Scandinavian folk style devoid of the eclectic cultural references that tends to characterize Pan’s work, reflecting his biography as a Taiwan-born, Brooklyn-based artist. The mural’s narrative progression and clean Scandinavian design lacks the dizzying imagery of Pan’s typical work, which usually teems with figures whose action spreads in all directions, and for which close scrutiny is rewarded with constant new surprises.
American Fried Rice: The Art of Mu Pan, a new book from ABRAMS art imprint Cernunnos, offers an unprecedented opportunity to view Pan’s signature style, which is both more perverse and finer than Midsommar’s faux naïf aesthetic. Pan is known for precisely drawn animal and half-human creatures, whose portrayals — usually caught in actions somewhere between human and bestial, and accompanied by the logos and uniforms of 20th-century culture — suggest a cynical misanthropy. In Monkeys and Peaches (2018), a tribe of priapic primates ruts with giant peaches with legs. The fruits’ blushing swells and slightly furred surfaces have the delicacy of a Japanese print, even as Pan’s imagery makes their eroticism explicit. In Big Deer, a watercolor diptych from 2011, a gigantic antlered satyr with nunchakus, Pan’s face, and the glowing bracelets of a Chinese fire god wards off Japanese soldiers, as if in some politicized unrated version of Bambi (1942). In the large acrylic battle scene of Big Bad Wolves: Chapter 5 (2017), Jesus, Michael Jackson, and Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Pulp Fiction (1994) make cameos in a massive dog fight between sheep and wolves, some of whom walk upright.
Such studied depiction of modern society as a regression to its most base organic impulses embodies the alienation and estrangement that Pan inhabits. Born to mainland Chinese émigrés in Taiwan and raised on a military compound among aging, retired soldiers commissioned for an armed force often at odds with the local population, Pan grew up surrounded by the irritable gloom of exile and obsolescence. In 1997, his family immigrated to the United States. Pan, just a month short of his 21st birthday, was already far enough along in his art studies to appreciate the stylistic freedoms encouraged by New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), where he enrolled. His English required rapid improvement, which he secured by immersing himself in American media, starting with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and barreling through to Taxi Driver (1976). The eclectic cultural references throughout Pan’s imagery reflect this enthusiastic adaptation of global media as a means of artistic expression. Alternately calling himself a “Chinese Larry David” or “just an otaku who draws,” Pan imbues the substance of monster comics with the virtuoso gravitas of Old Master painting.
Perhaps not surprising for an artist of such cynicism, Pan is happy to self-isolate from the society he critiques. When interviewed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, Pan claimed to be grateful for the freedom to work undisturbed. “It did me a big favor,” he says, dryly noting that the sudden mandate to stay home removed distractions and gave him more time to concentrate on existing projects. It’s a stark contrast to the turn taken by many other artists, who responded to last year’s crises by addressing contemporary developments. However, to interpret Pan’s position as indifference would be a mistake. Rather, Pan, who “stopped reading the news because it makes me angry,” prefers to focus on creative production as a diversion from the constant disappointment he feels in the discrepancy between liberal ideals and society’s actual historical record. When asked about the summer’s racial protests and the anti-Asian racism the pandemic unleashed, Pan at first scoffed that it was “nothing new.” But when pressed, Pan clarified that “Americans, everyone, always need imaginary enemies.” Recognizing this scapegoating for what it is, Pan paraphrases Bruce Lee: “I don’t hate. I hate hate itself.”
Underneath his cranky misanthropy is a fundamental innocence that pervades all of Pan’s work. His color palette is surprisingly upbeat and fanciful, visible in candy-colored hues more reminiscent of Magic Marker than the graphic violence his images depict. In Mu Pan’s Dinoasshole: Chapter 8 (2016), a massive air-water battle scene, a broad swath of aquamarine bisects the image to reveal a cross section of ocean where schools of Asian-faced flying fish await antediluvian monsters. The vivid lime green backgrounds of Frog Wars: The Final Battle (2013) and Charlie and Friends (a 2018 Vietnam War scene whose soldiers are armed chimpanzees) set the stage for jungle warfare, while also composing an almost decorative abstraction. In other images, fuchsia, violet, turquoise, tangerine, and chartreuse streak across the sky.
This latent delight within Pan’s work is more evident since he became a father, and it is particularly apparent in the elaborate sketchbook drawings where he uses red, black, and blue ballpoint to first play with the images in his head. Pan’s first son, Kaede, was born to him and his Japanese wife in 2013, prompting pictures like Kaede’s and Daddy Sunday Adventures, in which Pan’s face is grafted onto Thomas the Tank Engine and his son is gigantized to Godzilla proportions, gleefully striding forth to swat away the infrastructure of modern civilization. The scene somehow manages to be both tender and ironic, a parodic imitation of disaster films that also celebrates the next generation as a source of renewal. It’s also suggestive of Pan himself, a doodler extraordinaire unembarrassed by juvenile enthusiasms, whose studio overflows with manga imagery and the miniature animal figures he uses for reference.
In early 2020, the family welcomed another son, Hayato, and, either because of the demands on his time or his evolving identity, Pan works less and less in his sketchbook and instead moves straight to the major work. The sketchbook, he says, was “more like an [adolescent’s] diary,” whereas now he is “facing more reality.” An instinctual artist who usually finds that the “outcome looks like nothing I had in my head,” Pan always wants to “find new ways in the storytelling image.” His larger works can take several months to complete, not surprising given their depth of detail and the spidery delicacy of his line. Yet the combat scenes and other moments of dynamic action that used to drive his previous work have taken on a new feel. Among his latest pieces is The Ark (2020), another massive painted wood panel, which shows an aerial cross section of the biblical ship, each animal pair rendered motionless in tightly wound fetal positions, stuffed into their respective stalls like abductees in a slave ship. Although Pan began the painting before the pandemic, it’s hard not to see it as an emblem of our times. Tremendous suffering is necessary for generational survival, which still remains fragile and uncertain.
The Ark showed in Copenhagen, Denmark, last year, and more of Pan’s new work will be on exhibit in Paris this coming fall, but while travel remains challenging, we’re lucky that the book American Fried Rice: The Art of Mu Pan, published in November 2020, arrived in time to offer anyone an in-depth, up-close experience of Pan’s singular imagination. While the descent into nihilism that is Pan’s longtime subject may be uninviting reading in the wake of our recent hardships, the ironic genius of Pan’s misanthropy is that it makes our present reality not look so bad. When everything is different, Pan says, “nothing has changed,” and by “hat[ing] everything equally,” he also can claim to “have no bias.” American Fried Rice, with its 200-plus reproductions and detail images, is a superb introduction to this most singular artist. As densely illustrated as any one of Pan’s individual pictures, the volume includes several illuminating pieces of reading matter: a conversation between Pan and critic/curator Sasha Bogojev; a preface by his close friend and fellow SVA alum, the prominent Taiwanese American illustrator-turned-artist James Jean; and a foreword by Midsommar writer/director Ari Aster.
Book form, in fact, may actually be the ideal platform for experiencing Mu Pan’s art, as it allows infinite time and total collapse of distance for contemplating his engrossingly dense imagery. “Every piece,” Pan says, “is a relationship.” To while away these days of pandemic-induced isolation, there might be no better activity than poring over these seemingly cynical, actually deeply hopeful images, which fictively portray civilizational regression in order to imagine cultural reinvention.