Yuri Yuan (b. 1996, Harbin, China) paints surrealist scenes featuring ambiguous and physically impossible figure-landscape relationships to explore existentialist themes of longing and loss. Through visual symbolism, metaphors, and magical realism, the artist explores the ways in which exterior landscapes become projections of her and her audience’s interior psychological states.
Yuan holds a Visual Arts MFA from Columbia University, New York, NY and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Yuan was a recipient of the Helen Frankenthaler Scholarship at Columbia University in 2020, and Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant in 2019 and 2022. The artist’s work has been exhibited at Alexander Berggruen, NY; Make Room Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Simon Lee Gallery, London, UK; Moss Arts Center, Blacksburg, VA; Lenfest Center for the Arts, New York, NY; Sullivan Galleries, Chicago, IL; and International Center for the Arts, Umbria, Italy, among others. Her work is represented in the public collections of Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH and The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, CA. Yuan lives and works in New York, NY.
Yuri Yuan in the studio, New York, NY, 2022. Photo: Johnny Le. All Rights Reserved.
From an Argus-like room with multiple eyes to a knight on horseback wielding a saber, Yuri Yuan seeps her canvases with personal references that she uses to understand the psychology behind fear. Layered with intimate moments of self-discovery, the artist grants the viewer leeway for voyeurism into her private dream state, capturing them as fleeting moments. Yuan grapples with the uneasiness of memory recollection and portrays various instances of invisibility where the protagonist is alone, an outsider, or perhaps a superpower.
Through her new work, Yuri Yuan subverts the art world’s and society’s misconceptions about mental health — which threads back to her mother’s early concerns. And as part of a flourishing cohort of Asian-American female artists, Yuan hopes to be an inspiration to young aspiring creatives — who now have a growing list of names to give as examples to anyone who challenges their dreams.
Painted while Yuan listened to “River Flows in You” by South Korean pianist Yiruma, the work in this exhibition is similarly “sad but graceful,” in the words of Yuri Yuan. The paintings are often peopled by figures with their backs turned, or with their faces reflected in water or obscured by twilight, so that the overall impression is one of isolation and melancholy. Nevertheless, the artist’s overall theme is one of connection, and the growth that might occur even in seclusion.
Critic John Yau’s review of Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You for Hyperallergic explores the artist’s paintings in relation to “solitude exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed on New Yorkers, not to mention the implicit and explicit racism that became a big part of every Asian’s daily life in America, and the consequent apprehension that accompanied each excursion into the city.”
“Yuri Yuan’s sense of isolation is an inescapable feature of her daily life, which she simultaneously examines and holds at bay through the act of painting. In [Yuan’s] best pieces, the merging of subject, paint, color, and light snaps into place; then the painting begins singing a sweetly mournful tune.”
I draw inspiration from many different things, like Murakami’s short stories, Bojack Horseman the animation, and existentialist philosophy, especially Camus. “Aloneness” is a common theme in my work. Rather than dwelling in the sad emotion of “loneliness,” I think of the protagonist in my work as someone who constantly reflects on their experience and their connection in this world. Many people asked if the back-facing figure is me and if these paintings are self-portraits. The answer is no, they look like me as they are made in the image of me, but they are more like a signpost, or a witness to an event, for the viewer to project their own emotion onto the narratives of the paintings. Over the past year, I have been thinking about personal loss and how they translate to global tragedy, the private grieving process juxtaposed with the bombarding and politicized news of the pandemic. I certainly do not hope to provide an answer, but to give space for the audience to process complicated emotions.
I will have my debut solo show in New York in July at Alexander Berggruen, which I am really excited about.
Yuri Yuan’s paintings capture fleeting illuminations of loneliness, rendered in enigmatic abstracted elements and environments of disconnect. On the occasion of our exhibition Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021), we spoke with New York-based artist Yuri Yuan about her work.