News coverage for Present Tense Biennial by San Francisco Chronicle

A new Nike basketball shoe launched last weekend at a storefront in Chinatown. In the window display is an ad campaign and Yelp reviews featuring the shoe’s endorser, a street ball phenom named K. Lo, known as “Yellow Fever,” who taught Lakers star Kobe Bryant his best moves.


Artist Ken Lo outside the Chinatown storefront that’s home to his “Lucky Feet, Happy Shoes” pseudo-shop, part of the Present Tense Biennial. (Lacy Atkins / The Chronicle)

The name of the store, on the awning and on T-shirts in both English and Chinese, is “Lucky Feet, Happy Shoes,” but good luck trying to shop there. The storefront is just a front and the shoe exists in the mind of its creator Ken Lo. So does “Yellow Fever,” and so does his relationship with Kobe.

“If I can pull this off, people will walk past this shoe store and never think of it as art,” says Lo, creator of the installation. “They’ll think of it as a store featuring some shoe from a guy they’ve never heard of.”

That guy would be Lo, who is 5 feet 7 inches and never got past playground hoops. “I can hold my own against sixth-graders,” he says. But that didn’t stop him from creating a fantasy life as K. Lo.

“What artists do, primarily, is they manifest what they most want to see in the world,” says Lo, “and something I did want, I did dream about, is that Kobe Bryant was my best friend. But the piece is not about Kobe. It’s just a good entry point.”

The installation is among eight vacant shops taken over by artists participating in “Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character,” a group show of 31 artists presented by the Chinese Cultural Center in collaboration with Kearny Street Workshop. The main exhibition is in the concrete Hilton, where two commercials, one 30 seconds, the other two minutes, will entice viewers to “Lucky Feet” at 704 Kearny St., across from Portsmouth Square.

Lo, who works full time managing an architectural signage firm in the Bayview district, did not get any funding support for his artwork. He paid for it out of pocket. He has a point to make, and the point is “you don’t matter unless you have a name,” he says. “And you’re not a name that means anything unless you have a shoe.”

Lo is perhaps more basketball-obsessed than most artists. When working on his projects at his apartment uphill from the Tenderloin, he has the NBA playoffs on with the sound off. This is how his grandparents introduced him to the Los Angeles Lakers. They didn’t need the sound because they came from Hong Kong and didn’t understand English.

Like any kid will, he became infatuated with his favorite player. But in his case, the player, Bryant, was a few months younger than Lo, who is now 30. Lo’s devotion to Kobe followed him from West Covina (Los Angeles County), where he grew up, to San Francisco, where he entered art school. For his master’s of fine arts final project at UC Berkeley, he dimmed the lights and premiered a 12-minute video in which the character K. Lo is a tattooed rapper, whose dunks in Kobe’s face attract the attention of two slinky chanteuses, shaking booty to the thumping. Asked where he got the models for that, Lo calmly admits that he played those parts himself, and also the character of his mother.

“Cross-dressing and dancing like a fool makes me a bit queasy,” he says, “but I think it was emotionally sincere.”

So is he a video artist? Painter? Collage artist? Actor? Female impersonator? Lo ponders the question. “There are a lot of people who paint because they are really good at painting,” he says. “I just happen to be good at self-deprecation. So I will call myself a ‘dilettante at different medias.’ ”

Fashion designer would be another. “If I had more time, I’d find a shoemaker in China and commission them to make a shoe,” he says. So what happens if somebody sees the display model and has to have the Asian Invasion?

“If that happened,” he says, “maybe I’ll make them a shoe and sneak it over to them.”

Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character: Runs through Aug. 23 at the Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St. Maps to storefront installations are at the gallery and online at www.c-c-c.org. (415) 986-1822.