A man stands in front of two large paintings in a gallery. He has his hand over his mouth, looking up with his head tilted to the right.

Brett Park uses phantasmic phalluses to explore bodily taboos

In the prolific YouTuber's art, two-dimensional cartoon bodies hide a secret third dimension of meaning

Brett Park's art doesn't just stop at being whimsical.

Courtesy of Brett Park

Words by Kelvin Mak

Looking at Brett Park’s paintings, you might be struck by their hallucinatory yet whimsical quality. They frequently depict cartoonish male bodies, doodled penises, acts of self-consumption, and realistic, fleshy textures. His work, Park says, is all about exploring taboos.

Park, a third-generation Korean American, prolific YouTuber, and queer artist now in his last semester at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art & Design, did not always set out to question the male body through his work. In fact, he was well on his way towards being recruited for college soccer before deciding to pursue fine art. “I did soccer for like 13 years,” Park says. “Everyone on my team got recruited to all these great D1 schools like UCLA, UMich, Yale, Princeton—and I was the only one who chose to just do my own thing.”

Park ended up applying to several art schools with a high school art portfolio, but it wasn’t until he was rejected that he dedicated himself to art. “I didn’t know what I was doing educationally. But when I got all these art school rejections, it randomly lit a fire under my ass to try to do art even more. It's bad that I was so motivated by spite, but that’s who I am as a person, I guess,” he says with a sly smile. Although Park was initially attending USC as a communications major in his freshman year, he applied with a new portfolio and was accepted into Roski as a sophomore. Now, he’s double majoring in communications and art. 

"When I got all these art school rejections, it randomly lit a fire under my ass to try to do art even more. It's bad that I was so motivated by spite, but that’s who I am as a person, I guess.”

Park’s paintings are often both provocative and playful with their dreamlike portrayals of the male body. The levity of his work is intentional. “There is a pressure to make art, if you are a minority or in a marginalized group, to make art only about that experience,” he says. “That was honestly my initial draw to start exploring those topics relating to self-identity and self-concept in terms of race, sexuality, and gender. But I found a real passion in finding joy as rebellion to that oppression. There's a happier edge to it, rather than this sadness that I was trying to be consumed by all the time…I’m just doing it in a humorous, fun way that can be a bit more digestible for wider audiences rather than just a white wall gallery vibe.”

This happier edge manifests in a recurring cartoon character in his paintings and on his website, who Park first conceived of on his high school webcomic account, @thumbpaint. Generally appearing naked, this character is simple in construction: its eyes, nose, and mouth are comprised of single dots or lines. The character, Park says, was initially an avatar to disseminate different messages without attaching his face to them. 

A painting of a cartoonish stick figure eating itself starting from its arm.

Park's works often depict self-consumption.

Courtesy of Brett Park

But as Park progressed in his art practice, the character slowly became a metaphor for how he navigated a world where racial and sexual stereotypes were foisted upon him. “It’s supposed to be about myself, and about how stereotypes flatten a person's image and hyperbolize them into a caricature that doesn't tell the full story,” Park says. “And so it's me trying to navigate the world in this flat kind of cartoon body.” 

Through much of his art, Park uses this character as a vehicle for his hyper-awareness of the body and queer masculinity. However, because of the phallocentric nature of his art, Park has always felt that people have projected a specific personality on him. “A lot of people think that I'm this hypersexual, crazy-in-the-bedroom person when I literally have not had a sober kiss ever. And it's not like I'm ashamed of anything, it just hasn't happened,” he says. “But then everyone imposes these double stereotypes of like, ‘Because you make this art, you must have this whole slew of sexual experiences that you're drawing from.’”

A painting of a naked man sprawled on the floor, with a transparent cartoonish body overlaid on top.

Man down! The second in Park's "Phantasmic Phallus" series (2023).

Courtesy of Brett Park

Despite this imagined hypersexualization, Park believes how he’s perceived brings up worthy questions about masculinity as both a behavior and an identity. “[Masculinity] is everywhere for me. It’s literally how I dress and it's how I even choose what body parts to work out,” he says. “Do I want a bigger chest because everyone right now is into push-ups and developing their shoulders and making sure you have a Dorito figure?” Park adds that with gym culture, you're always re-masculinizing yourself. And in the queer community, being more masculine makes you more desirable for other masculine-presenting people. “There's different entry points into how masculinity is appealing and also pervasive,” he says. “I know that it's contributing to these larger structures of a phallocentric, heteronormative patriarchy, but I feel like it's inescapable.” 

Park explores this inescapability in his visual piece titled “Sisyphus (blow)job.”  The piece takes its name from the Greek myth of Sisyphus: the tyrant who is eternally punished with rolling a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down when it nears the top. In “Sisyphus (blow)job,” Park attempts and fails to inflate a cellophane body suit by blowing into a tube connected to his penis, an apt symbol for the fallacies of adhering to masculinity as a queer Asian man. 

A painting of a cartoonish stick figure eating itself from the hands.

Om nom nom.

Courtesy of Brett Park

“You can see how my scrawny body doesn't fill out this big suit that's supposed to represent a masculine ideal that I can never assume because I'm Asian,” he says. “It speaks to queerness. Queer Asian men are always the receivers and the bottoms, but creating this insular cycle of self-inflating puts me in the position of the top and the person penetrating by blowing the air into the tube. And so it is me in a way, taking power by adopting both positions at the same time. But of course, it's impossible to self-inflate.” Just like in the myth, the task of attaining masculinity is endless and futile labor.

Many of Park’s pieces lend themselves to various interpretations and readings of race and gender—though there was a time when he was satisfied with making art that communicated a singular idea about queerness or masculinity to an audience. But, he says, there’s a flatness to creating art that is closed off to interpretation. “It's very prescriptive, being like, ‘This is how I feel. This is what it is—no questions asked,’ and providing an answer to how I feel with all these structural issues happening to me,” Park says. “But providing answers is so surface. How can I, with all my knowledge and limited experiences, provide an answer to anything?” Now his work  is more about trying to poke holes in certain things or visually communicating something that articulates a question such as, “What is a top? What is a bottom? What is the receiver? How do you consume something? How do you penetrate something? What is sex? What does gay even mean?” Park hopes his work asks questions about sexuality through an exploration of top and bottom relationships.

A man stands in front of two large paintings in a gallery, with his hands behind his back.

Brett Park is finishing his last semester at USC.

Courtesy of Brett Park

When asked what’s next for him after graduation, Park is open to possibilities and wherever the wind takes him. “I would love to do more art residencies and just meet new people and travel. Going with the flow is the best way,” he says. “I'm just shooting [my job applications] everywhere and going where the wind takes me, but also opening myself up to whatever happens and putting myself out there.”

Published on April 9, 2024

Words by Kelvin Mak

K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.