July 2021

Yuri Yuan’s paintings capture fleeting illuminations of loneliness, rendered in enigmatic abstracted elements and environments of disconnect. On the occasion of our current exhibition Yuri Yuan: River Flows in You (July 21–August 31, 2021), we spoke with New York-based artist Yuri Yuan about her work.

Yuri Yuan Puddle, 2021 oil on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm.)

Yuri Yuan, Puddle, 2021, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm.).

Q: When looking at your paintings, the composition is often obscured by weather, light, water, and/or windows. In speaking about these aspects, you mentioned that it’s almost as though your paintings have a “filter” on them. What draws you to these filter-like elements of ambiguity? How do you determine which “filter” to paint?

A: I paint filters to put a buffer between myself (and the viewer) and reality. Often times, real tragedy or loss are simply too ugly, too raw to face. I remember attending a funeral and thinking, “This is why we need poetry.” I much prefer to express feelings through metaphors than direct actions. I want my paintings to provide a space for myself and the viewers to process difficult emotions. These filters give the audience space to navigate the image without forcing an opinion or predetermined narrative. The ambiguity protects a romantic and vulnerable person like me from facing the harsh reality. As to which filter, it is determined by the actual memory the painting is based on.

Yuri Yuan City of Trauma, 2021 oil on canvas 30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.)

Yuri Yuan, City of Trauma, 2021, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.).

Q: In your 2021 City of Trauma, thick blue-grey lines imply shut blinds covering a bright exterior landscape outside the window. What is in the scene beyond the blinds? What inspired you to paint the blinds closed?

A: The scene is based on the view from my dorm in Chicago. Beyond the windows (from left to right) are State Street, a mall called Block 37, and the red neon sign of the Oriental Theatre. The streets were so bright that I always had my window blinds down. The objects in the painting are souvenirs I got from my close friends and a family photograph; they represent the things I hold dearest in my life. This image is the last thing remembered before passing out from a severe medical condition. At that time, I had lost the ability to eat and walk. All I could do was to call an ambulance for myself. I saw the red-blue lights of the ambulance shining through the blinds. The blinds separated me from the vibrant life outside, leaving tiny rays of light. 

Yuri Yuan Night Lily, 2021 oil on board, diptych 28 x 11 in. (71.1 x 27.9 cm.)

Yuri Yuan, Night Lily, 2021, oil on board, diptych, 28 x 11 in. (71.1 x 27.9 cm.).

Q: The brushstrokes in your 2021 Night Lily appear more gesturally textured than other works in this exhibition. In the top panel, purple lilies obstruct the window’s view; yet, the moon and yellow lines on the street peek through. Meanwhile, in the bottom panel, the vase in which the lilies are held is revealed to be resting on top of art books titled Klimt and Doig. Could you describe your process in painting this diptych and determining the importance of each separate panel?

A: This painting was very fun to paint as I painted it in the dark. I turned off the lights in my studio and used the street light from my window. It is entirely based on observation. The brushstrokes are very rough because I couldn’t see my palette and the painting surface very well. It started off as one panel but the verticality of the subject required an additional panel. I like to paint night scenes as the colors are more subtle, and pose a challenge to the painter to differentiate various hues within the same value. The books were there because I needed something to elevate the flowers. I grabbed the biggest books I could find, which happened to be Klimt and Doig’s catalogs.

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

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

Q: In speaking about your Blue Series, you stated: “The continuity of subject matter and coherent palette make the images look like different shots in a film and therefore implies a narrative.” Could you share more background about the narrative and how these distinct scenes relate?

A: By “narrative”, I do not mean a fixed or linear narrative. The repeated motifs in the painting—such as the avocado plant appearing as the main subject in the Avocado panel, and again in a much smaller size in the Figure panel—give the paintings a sense of scale and perspective, even though they are of the same size. This continuity of motifs constructs a mysterious story of a lone artist in her studio. Lately, I have been thinking about the composition of still shots in films, how these shots, without dramatic actions, establish a context for what is going to happen next. Like many of my other works, Blue Series explores the themes of loneliness and anticipation.

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

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

Photos: Bryan Toro

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