Yuri Yuan is a current Visual Arts MFA candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts. She was born in China, grew up in Singapore, and gained a BFA degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 2019. Yuan was recently featured in New American Paintings magazine #147. Yuan’s works have been shown at ArtForum International (online); Sullivan Galleries, Chicago and Siragusa Gallery at SAIC, Chicago. Yuan was awarded many distinguished awards: Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Institutional Scholarship, Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant, and SAIC Travel Scholarship. Upcoming exhibitions include: Solo presentation at Make Room Gallery LA, First-Year MFA Exhibition at Columbia University Lenfest Center for the Arts, Group show at Project Gallery V.
L.V. Hi Yuri, thanks for doing this! Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?
Y.Y. I was born in China, lived in Singapore during my teenage years, then moved to Chicago for undergrad. Currently, I am finishing my MFA in Visual Art at Columbia. I have always wanted to be an artist since I was a kid, never really considered any other career options. I make paintings mostly, sometimes a little bit of writing and printmaking. My paintings are inspired by my memories and dreams, exploring existentialist themes such as loneliness and longing. In the past year, I have been thinking about personal loss in a global tragedy. Grief is a very private emotion yet mortality is a universal human experience. I am not sure how much healing can paintings actually do, but for me, they provide a space to contemplate and process ineffable emotions, and I hope the audience will resonate with that feeling, even without knowing the exact narrative behind the paintings.
L.V. Sea of Dreams is somehow both terrifying and heavenly, domineering and calm. I can’t tell if this is a drowning, or a rapture –– I can’t tell if we’re saying goodbye, or hello. The figure farthest away looks to be waving their arms in the air, the way one might when pleading, or when in a state of quasi-euphoria. There is an individual with their hands over their head. Another running towards us. Most of the emotion seems reserved to the painting’s color and the figures facing us. While the woman in the foreground looks on with an almost relaxed and cool indifference. What is that to the left of the foreground figure? A rock? The front of a boat? Are those clouds, or plumes of smoke? Everything seems so well balanced in this painting I can't decide what I should be feeling! What's going on here?
Y.Y. You are very spot-on in terms of the conflicting narratives and emotions generated by this painting. I had a dream where there was an explosion and people were running away from it. But the explosion was simply too big that I know there is no way I can escape. So I sat there watched the apocalypse unfold. I guess in many ways it is about how I felt about everything that had happened in 2020. I watched the world burned down in flames but could not do anything to help. Human lives are so hopelessly vulnerable in front of nature’s sublimity. I choose to paint the dramatic scene with a pinkish purple color palette so that the painting is both terrifying and calm. I do not want to paint an actual explosion, I want the large yellow shape to be a metaphor for an end. Some people believe death is an end, some believe that it is only a beginning. People react to tragedy in different ways, they are represented by the running figures in the painting. For me, the seated figure represents my helplessness, or passive acceptance, of 2020. The shape next to the figure is simply a shape, you can interpret it as a fallen plane or sinking ship. When I was finishing up this painting I already have an idea to paint a sinking ship (Starfall), so I added a little hint.
L.V. I’m struck with a sense of melancholy. In almost all of these paintings, there is only one figure, and that figure is generally facing away from us. What is the impetus for this? When there are two or more people, those people seem to take on the characteristics of a reflection –– of someone or something that isn’t really there. I’m thinking, of course, of Norwegian Wood. But also of Starfall, and the spots of black paint, which are people, and ghosts. Would you mind speaking to this melancholy? Do you disagree or agree with that characteristic? Tell me a little about those paintings?
Y.Y. Yes, melancholy is a key theme for my paintings. The sense of melancholy and longing comes very naturally to me, perhaps because I have been living alone in a foreign country far away from my family and friends. I like to paint solitary figures facing away from the viewer. They look like me because I am using myself as a source, but they are just witnesses to different events. These figures allow the viewer to project their own emotions and narratives as if they are inside the painting. I was inspired by Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa in terms of the use of composition. Starfall is based on a dream where I was drowning and watching a ship sinking into the ocean. Unable to help, I could only watch the pretty lights slowly go down. I did not paint the actual figures and used brushmarks to represent a sense of movement instead because I don’t want to make it about an actual ship. It is not the Titanic, it is a metaphor of a sinking ship, much like Sea of Dreams is not about an actual explosion but a metaphor for an apocalypse. In Norwegian Wood, I was thinking of a magical place where one could break away from reality and see the people they long to see. In this magical pond, a snow blizzard will turn into a sunny forest. This is one of the more hopeful images I made last year. I was thinking of books I read as a kid, like Narnia and Harry Potter.
L.V. I’m not sure how to put this. But there is, throughout, a kind of soft, gentle flatness in the expanse. I’m thinking of Doldrums –– where that expanse is quite literal. Endless water and shoreline spread out before one lone figure. This creates a sense of isolation, no? And in Time Again, there is a similar expanse and isolation, though this time it is much more meditative and psychological. Yes, the vertical orientation of the canvas and the nearness of the light and figure makes us feel boxed in and closer to one another, but the figure is still alone, and looks to be staring into the fire, detached almost from the actual world?
Y.Y. In these works, I am playing with scale. In Doldrums, the water is vast because the dog is tiny. I wanted to keep this painting simple. The lighthouse is just a dot of paint. I had a dream where I was drowning in a sea and no one was around to save me. The dog saw me but it can not do anything. I have been suffering from PTSD which is why I have nightmares regularly, but it is also a great source of painting inspiration. Time and Again is based on a personal memory. I removed other people in the memory because I wanted to be alone. I didn’t have the personal space then but I wanted to create a contemplative space for both myself and the audience. Despite spending the entire past year by myself, I still think alone time is important for me. It allows me to wander freely in my memory and imagination and inspires me to paint about things I feel the most strongly about.
L.V. What am I missing? What do you want to tell me?
Y.Y. My first solo show is happening from March 18th - April 10th at Make Room Gallery Los Angeles’ online viewing room. I am very excited about it and honored to have this opportunity, especially because so many exhibitions have been canceled and postponed due to the pandemic. I have 9 works in this show, a good mix of small and large works. My class’s First-year MFA Exhibition will open in-person March 27- April 11 at Columbia Lenfest Center for the Arts. I will also be in a group show at Project Gallery V in May, and our Open Studio is scheduled to happen in June (fingers crossed).
L.V. We generally end these with a light question. Tell me about the last time you were overwhelmingly happy.
Y.Y. I went to my mentor Susanna Coffey’s house with my classmate last fall. It was my first time leaving New York City since the pandemic started. It was very nice to enjoy some nature and be away from zoom meetings. I canoed on the lake and saw a deer.