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Cleo PengIllustrations celebrating the joys of intimacy

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Emma Firth
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Chinese artist Cleo Peng’s series of illustrations, titled “Affection,” depicts an array of colorful, comic-style characters kissing and flirting with one another. She tells Emma Firth about how she was inspired by the affectionate exchanges she sees between people in New York, and why she’s always been drawn to these little intimate moments. 

People watching. We’re all a little guilty of this pleasure. Though there is something unmatched about the magical realism when observing, more specifically, couples. Alas, they are often far too present in company to notice onlookers clocking such moments of tender curiosity, picking up on various frequencies of intimacy in a look. A laugh. The way someone’s body language bends to meet someone else’s. The more we stare at strangers the more we realize we are really looking at, into, ourselves. Cross comparing our own wants and needs and hopes. 

For NYC-based illustrator Cleo Peng, this habitual absorption of romantic encounters planted the seeds for her electric, comic-book style project, titled “Affection.” A term of endearment that, for her, is far more ambivalent than, simply, love. “There’s always a tension going on,” she explains from her apartment in Queens. “Affection for me is attraction, an intimate move, a strong feeling towards another person that brings you together.” 

Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Cleo—who relocated to New York City in 2019 to study communication design at the Parsons School of Design—has always gravitated towards capturing people rather than places: “I was always interested in noticing their interactions. Whether they’re kissing or making some intimate movement, I’d watch how their bodies move and how their eyes connect.” Animations she grew up watching as a kid have long inspired her own style. “I would watch everything I could. Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar movies, obviously,” she says. “I’d focus on the character design. What they would wear and how they’d act.” One scene in particular, a surreal dreamscape, yet one that touches upon a universal desire - stands out, in the movie “Spirited Away”: “when the girl and boy were dropping from the sky, they were crying, their tears flew upwards, and they kissed.” 

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Affection for me is attraction, an intimate move towards another person that brings you together.

In Peng’s vivid frames, the kiss serves as a wordless tool, a physical manifestation of something that lies beneath. Often as an expression of longing, or unknowability. One pair, for instance, while situated in separate vehicles, both launch out of their car windows to make out. Another, only the sides of their faces smooched together are visible, naked flesh intertwined, set to a backdrop of red clouds bursting through the sky. In some cases, the character’s eyes are firmly closed. Cut to another couple, who appear in a state of anti-synchronicity, stuck in the middle of two moments, looking out into the distance. There’s a layer of self-consciousness you’re desperate to decode.  

“The gaze is definitely important, when you’re looking into each other,” Peng says. “For me looking right into someone’s eyes, I’d feel shy. But if you look away and you’re still connecting, it doesn’t feel so intense.” 

This endless questioning and self-awareness, through connecting with another, is at the center of the project. Something that’s been missing during long periods of isolation in lockdowns, deprived of touch for stretches of time, to be returned to sender. “Instead of being [about] one particular personal experience of mine, I wanted to illustrate a more general understanding of skinship [bonding through physical contact].” New York City, she says, has its own unique intimacy codes of honor, a more relaxed energy, with people displaying their affection freely in public, on the street, in a crowded park (“the winter has been so long, and post-pandemic people want to make the most out of it.”)

“With Affection, it was my intention to make it summery. I love summer, it’s such a different vibe, people are closer and more flirtatious. You tend to go out more, dress less, under the same sun…everything’s heating up.”