Brighter than the sun: Yooyun Yang’s Afterglow in between at Primary Practice
Sep 21, 2023
Light and shadow cannot exist without the other. Such is the tenuous line that artist Yooyun Yang treads with her paintings, reflecting the existential anxieties of an overly connected yet increasingly fractured world. Yang’s exhibition at Seoul’s Primary Practice, titled Afterglow in between (Aug 11 - Sep 23, 2023), highlights the limits of radical dichotomies and disembodied existence. The inception of this exhibition actually began about two years ago, but Primary Practice’s curator Kim Sung woo was already a fan after his first encounter with Yang’s work at Amado Art Space in 2017, where Kim held the position of a curator from 2015 to 2019. While the stars and schedules did not align at first, timing finally fell into place this year for an exhibition.
“I first saw Yooyun Yang’s work at Amado Art Space in Seoul. Beyond the medium of painting itself, I found the ideas and concepts of Yang’s works to be very compelling. Her self-described age of anxiety or anxiety of age can be seen as a heavy topic, but it is extremely prevalent in contemporary times. Her works contain many personal references that also feel deeply universal.”
- Kim Sung woo, curator of Primary Practice
Her work captures the dual universality and personal specificity inherent in great works of art, all with an existential touch. Much could also be said about the treatment of light in her paintings. Light becomes the main character, fraught in an eternal dance with darkness and shadow – never meeting, yet brushing paths in an uneasy coexistence. Light dances upon the subjects’ faces, by which these spectral shadows are formed. It is this associative process of presence and absence that forms the subtle and atmospheric vignettes that comprise Yang’s work.
Yang created seven of the eight paintings that adorn the walls of the exhibition space this year in close proximity to the opening of the show. The only painting created outside of this period is Heat Wave (2022), the centerpoint of the exhibition. This work appears to be seemingly torn asunder into a composite of two: the first depicting eyes and nose, the second an open mouth that remains forever locked in silence. The two separate Jangji (Korean paper) segments occupy a right-side wall upon entering the space, aligned in opposite directions. The severed expression reflects the viewer, caught in a deer-in-headlights staring contest that inevitably ends with the viewer moving to the next painting with discomfort. There is no peaceful resolution to be found in Yang’s work.
“I’ve always been drawn to dark and uncomfortable things, as opposed to bright and joyful. Ever since I was young, dread and anxiety were ever present, and so I naturally came to express these sentiments through my work. I want my work to stay with the viewer like an unsettling thought, something to turn over and over in the mind for a long time.”
- Yooyun Yang
The artist begins her painting process by first taking photographs, mainly of her familiars, which she then translates into acrylic paintings on traditional jangji. Photography itself is the art of capturing light and shadow, and so it is only fitting that Yang relies on this initial medium for inspiration. Yang routinely sifts through her robust camera roll in search of a canvas, saying that even photos from a decade ago can be suddenly imbued with a new light. Through this transformation from digital to analog does Yang’s artistic vision come to fruition.
As opposed to lifelike resemblances, Yang eschews the defining characteristics of her subjects so that their identities are rendered unrecognizable and irrelevant. Their faces are caught in a hazy mixture of terror and wonder, tenderness and rage, as they gaze at something just out of the frame. This creates a sense of an intimate, secret world that these figures inhabit, which viewers can only glimpse vicariously through enraptured eyes.
Horror and awe are both said to be caused by schema incongruence, which are divergences from one’s normal experience or frame of reference. Imagine a distant galaxy, the heights of Everest, or the Mariana Trench for a taste of the sublime. Yang’s world, in contrast, is minute and quotidian: faces, quite ordinary ones at that, almost suspended in endless darkness. Yang’s paintings capture the intrinsic horrors lurking in daily life, in even the simplest and most mundane of moments. Gap and In Between (2023) captures both the malaise and emptiness of modern existence – the lone figure’s expression feels almost like that of a grim reaper, formless and forlorn, fading into the night air. The eyes reflect the Sisyphean struggle of contemporary life, barely holding on as morning comes.
Within these specific yet vague emotions, the amorphous boundaries of light and shadow reflect the inner worlds, seen and unseen, of those captured in fleeting vulnerability. The extremely close up angles feel almost accidental, reminiscent of the shaky aesthetic of raw found footage. There are no highly curated angles and lighting within these paintings – in fact, Yang’s compositions can be seen as the exact opposite. These moments seem almost invasive, as if the viewer is witnessing something that should not be seen, like a wraith disguised as a human that finally lets down its mask. These are the vulnerable and invisible of society, the ghosts that lurk in the shadows.
The eponymous Afterglow in between (2023) reveals the dark silhouette of a folding chair in front of a dash of light. The primary subject of the painting exists only by the indirect acknowledgment of presence by means of absence. In a similar vein, Reflector (2023) shows the artist’s silhouette as she takes a photo of the mirror reflection of an empty alleyway at night. The alleyway appears as a ripped corner of a photograph, the blurred edges of three lights blending into the underlying glow illuminating the artist’s shadow, which is only vaguely human. The superimposed images perfectly touch on isolation and disembodiment, the reflection itself replacing the artist’s body as an almost all-consuming infinity mirror.
Nocturnal (2023) offers the clearest view of a face amongst the eight works, seemingly peering down upon an unknown. The shadow in question could be a phone, as the figure doom scrolls through a sleepless night, or another person. The face’s expression is muddled, tentative and unabashed, contemplative and dissociated. There seems to be not a thought at all in their mind, yet the world-weariness upon their brow speaks of untold burdens. This is an insurmountable gap, by all means – the figure could even very well be asleep with eyes open, a waking ghost, and this is merely the death of a gaze.
“We wanted the viewing experience to be sequential while naturally flowing from one work to the next. For example, the first work that you see upon entering is Heat Wave. We purposefully constructed the temporary wall about 8 cm (3.15 in) out so that your gaze naturally continues along the wall to the artwork Gap and In Between at the innermost part of the exhibition space. In doing so, it not only guides the direction of the viewers' gaze and movement but also the wall into the center of the exhibition space, creating a contrast in illuminance between inner and outer parts. This was intended to allow a deeper experiential understanding of the tension between light and darkness that the artist sought to convey through the artworks.”
- Kim Sung woo and Yooyun Yang
While circling around the space, steeping in Yang’s world, the beauty and anxiety of twilight comes to mind: when day blurs into night, and vice versa. Dubbed the blue hour, photographers consider this time of day to be universally flattering due to the profusion of soft light. This type of lighting creates hazy silhouettes, as opposed to the high contrast shadows rendered by an afternoon sun. Twilight gives way to dawn or dusk, a tenebrae made palindrome. It is during this time of day that light and dark, for the briefest of moments, become one.
Like twilight, Yang’s paintings diffuse the lines between what is and what is not, whatever the light touches and what it illuminates – whether by creation or erasure as a result. Perhaps the afterglow, then, is an eclipse – seen yet unseen, neither here nor there, the simplest reprieve in Yang’s age of anxiety. Darkness is brighter than the sun.
Yang Yooyun's solo exhibition, Afterglow in between, at Primary Practice in Seoul was on view from Aug 11 - Sep 23, 2023. The archived exhibition can be found here.
Based in Seoul, Primary Practice is a non-profit curatorial space that focuses on contemporary art with extended praxis.