Yuri Yuan Norwegian Wood, 2020 oil on canvas 62 x 72 1/2 in. (157.5 x 184.2 cm.)

Yuri Yuan
Norwegian Wood, 2020
oil on canvas
62 x 72 1/2 in. (157.5 x 184.2 cm.)

Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You

July 21-August 31, 2021

Alexander Berggruen is pleased to present Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You. This exhibition will open Wednesday, July 21, 2021 with a reception from 5-7 pm at the gallery (1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3).

In speaking about her paintings, Yuri Yuan stated: “The interiority or landscape represents the psychology of the figure (or the artist), giving the audience space to contemplate and explore their own emotions.” Yuan’s paintings, rendered from memory and direct observation, contain a calming flood of feeling. In considering the song “River Flows in You” by South Korean pianist Yiruma, Yuan has noted that her paintings may also be considered “sad but graceful.” Listening to this song while painting, Yuan felt a kinship with Yiruma’s expression of melancholy and nostalgia. In the artist’s paintings, bodies of water, windows, and light often simultaneously connect and divide.

Installation view of Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021) at Alexander Berggruen, NY.

Faces in Yuan’s paintings are routinely obscured via water, distance, or orientation. In her 2021 Puddle, most of the composition consists of a serene reflection of a bare tree-covered environment, distorted through the still water. In the lower-center register, a form reminiscent of a figure’s head and shoulders darkens the silver-grey water. Below this shadow is the toe of an inconspicuous shoe. The ambiguities within Yuan’s paintings function as a guiding mirror for viewers to project their own perceptions.

In other cases, Yuan suggests the presence of an elusive figure, as in her 2021 painting A Train. A plain grey bag rests on the leftmost subway seat, implying another passenger in the subway car, sitting just beyond the canvas’s edge. This inaccessible stranger and the figure reflected in the subway window appear to be alienated from one another. When creating this work, Yuan was reading writer and cultural critic Olivia Liang’s book The Lonely City, which explores and seeks to redeem loneliness as a social condition within the context of work by artists like Edward Hopper. In speaking about why Hopper’s work is often associated with loneliness, Liang cites the ability of “blank walls and open windows,” features of “paranoid architecture, […] to simultaneously entrap and expose.” (1) Here in Yuan’s A Train, the darkened subway window concurrently confines and reveals the reflected passenger. On the yellow center of the subway pole is a plastered chewed mound of gum. Yuan recalls relating to this gum in her loneliness within New York City: “I felt chewed up and spit out.”

Installation view of Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021) at Alexander Berggruen, NY.

Inspired by painters Lois Dodd and Alex Katz, Yuan streamlines her economy of shapes to employ abstract elements for metaphorical exposition. In her 2020 See You on the Other Side, a figure in a raincoat with its hood up faces away from a viewer, appearing to gaze out a window. A smaller figure, likely in the distance, stands far enough away that their features are also ambiguous. Absent discernable characteristics, the relationship between the figures remains open to interpretation. In the foreground, the figure is encompassed by a minimal, bold, black rectangle on the window. This pictorial frame acts as the gateway to the exterior rainy space. Although the transparent quality of the windows appears to be consistent, a pale yellow light enters the interior space only through the portal to the outside world, casting a trapezoidal shape around the figure’s shadow. The surreal light source implies that this environment may exist within a distant memory or a dream. In combination with the inclement weather, the seemingly impenetrable entryway may also represent a fear of stepping out into the unknown. Indeed, the figure is armed with a sky blue umbrella in the process of opening or closing, as “a metaphor for protection” in the artist’s words.

Installation view of Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021) at Alexander Berggruen, NY.

Similar to the Impressionists, Yuan is enchanted by recording the ways in which light and color fluctuate in relation to time and weather. The artist captures the ephemeral blue hour at twilight in her 2021 Blue Series. In speaking about this series, Yuan stated that these paintings operate within the constraint of “a very limited palette with a dominant cerulean blue pigment, mimicking the light at dusk. The continuity of subject matter and coherent palette make the images look like different shots in a film and therefore implies a narrative.” In these paintings, a figure, closed doorways, windows, and propagating plants are silhouetted in dark blues, contrasted by pale yellow sources of light. In Blue Series: Door, Yuan situates a viewer in a dark room in which light leaks through the edges of a scarcely open door. Likely in the same quarters, the contour of a cloaked figure stands unnervingly straight on in Blue Series: Figure. Two warped pale yellow rectangles in the upper-left register of the painting seem to reveal light from a neighbor’s window seeping into the public sphere. The figure is positioned between the young avocado plant—also seen in Yuan’s eponymously titled painting—and a single Pothos vine in a glass jar. In order for an avocado seed and a Pothos vine to form new roots, they must be severed from the original plant. Similarly, perhaps the figure’s removal from others presents an opportunity for development catalyzed by loneliness.

Yuan’s paintings capture fleeting illuminations of loneliness, rendered in enigmatic abstracted elements and environments of disconnect. Despite the discomfort of seclusion, Yuan meditates on the torrent of its emotion to contemplate the evolutions that may occur in reclusion.

Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You will run at Alexander Berggruen (1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3) from July 21–August 31, 2021. The exhibition’s preview is available upon request. For all inquiries, please contact the gallery at info@alexanderberggruen.com.

(1) Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Picador, 2016, p. 29-30.

About the Artist

Yuri Yuan (b. 1996, Harbin, China) is a current Visual Arts MFA candidate at Columbia University, New York, NY. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL in 2019. Yuan was a recipient of the Helen Frankenthaler Scholarship at Columbia University in 2020, and Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant in 2019. She has exhibited work at Make Room Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; The ROOM Contemporary Art Space, Venice, Italy; Lenfest Center for the Arts, New York, NY; Sullivan Galleries, Chicago, IL; Siragusa Gallery, Chicago, IL; International Center for the Arts, Umbria, Italy. Her work will be included in a forthcoming exhibition at the Wallach Gallery at Lenfest Center for the Arts, New York, NY. Yuan lives and works in New York, NY.


Yuri Yuan Blue Series: Figure, 2021 oil on board 14 x 11 in. (35.6 x 27.9 cm.)

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.”

Yuri Yuan See You on the Other Side, 2020 oil on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm.)
Yuri Yuan Blue Series: Door, 2021 oil on board 14 x 11 in. (35.6 x 27.9 cm.)

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.

Installation view of Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021) at Alexander Berggruen, NY.

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.

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