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Exhibition Review

A pictorial ode to loneliness: reflecting on Yuri Yuan’s solo exhibition at Make Room, Los Angeles

Valentina Buzzi

Jan 29, 2024

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.”

 

– Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2017) 

 

 

Installation view of Yuri Yuan’s A Thousand Ships at Make Room, Los Angeles, 2023-2024
Courtesy of Make Room, Los Angeles
Photo: Nice Day Photo

 

 

I remember the first time I moved to Seoul, almost four years ago, and the strange feeling I got while crossing the long bridge that unfolds along the Han River, the city skyline on my right, and big hopes, dreams, and fears in my heart. In that precise moment, there was an overarching feeling of loneliness that engulfed me as I reached my destination in one of the biggest metropolitan cities in Asia. 

 

Loneliness is a tricky sentiment as much as it is ambivalent. It accompanies us throughout life in one way or another, caressing our thoughts as we inhabit urban landscapes that are built to develop beyond our scale. Chinese-born and US-based painter Yuri Yuan has accepted such sentiment while hopping from one metropolis to another since an early age. Yet, nothing could prepare her for the feeling of moving to The Big Apple, where people exist at an erratic pace, and the art world moves even faster. 

 

 

Wrecker, 2023
Oil on linen
91.4 x 121.9 cm (36 x 48 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Make Room, Los Angeles
Photo: Nice Day Photo

 

 

In her second solo show at Make Room in Los Angeles, Yuan embraces the feelings of loneliness and melancholia to narrate a series of stories whose characters are lost in the in-betweenness of experiencing distance – a distance in time, in space, at times physical, other times psychological, often metaphorical. 

 

Across the two adjacent spaces of the gallery, a series of recently-painted works invite viewers into a universe composed of shades of blue. “I think that from a very raw and primary visual part,” says Yuan, “we all respond to blue. It feels safe because it is the color of the sky and the sea, yet for the same reason it makes us feel small for how expansive it is.” Among her sources of inspiration, the artist counts the book A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006), a fictional exploration of loss through a combination of memoir, history, and philosophy, in which Rebecca Solnit dedicates an entire chapter to the color blue. The author describes it as “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

 

Interestingly, the title of the exhibition, A Thousand Ships is inspired by Natalie Haynes’ take on Homer’s Iliad (1598), where she reimagines the infamous epic poem from the standpoint of the women whose life were torn apart by the Trojan war: the distance between those women and what they longed for informs not only the exhibition, but also reconnects with Yuan’s cosmology as a painter. In her work titled Wrecker (2023), a woman holding a lantern is facing the sea, where a boat is illuminated by a ray of light breaching the cloudy sky. Alluding to the 19th-century myth of the wrecker, the painting depicts a person who tempts ships to the coast, intending to pilfer their crews. At the same time, it pays homage to J.M.W. Turner’s Wreckers -- Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore (c. 1834). Turner's work inspired Yuan's study of light and color as much as Vermeer influenced her use of specific yellow pigments. 

 

The color of light, and light itself, are often used as a metaphorical base for hope in Yuan’s paintings, symbolizing various degrees of the sentiment that cautiously dances with the wistful allure of the contrasting blues. This can be seen in works such as Closer (2023) or The Phantom of Memories (2023), where the underlying reference to solitude lingers despite the warmer tones. The geometries of the compositions accompany the painted characters, inspiring a subtle melancholic tone that is never too personal – instead, the viewer is invited to imagine the possible stories Yuan is depicting as she draws from universal tropes and feelings.

 

 

Too Slow to Catch Too Fast to Keep, 2023
Oil on linen
91.4 x 101.6 cm (36 x 40 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Make Room, Los Angeles
Photo: Nice Day Photo

 

 

Art history is another dear vocabulary that Yuan uses consciously and consistently. Thanks to a travel scholarship obtained during her college days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist was able to travel to Europe and visit all major museums, learning about various techniques and pigments she now uses in her work. Chicago holds a special place in the artist’s heart for its institutions, which Yuan would visit daily to learn from famous Masters’ works exhibited in the renowned collections. Among them, Edward Hopper’s notorious Nighthawks (1942) has inspired Yuan’s compositions deeply. Her painting Too slow to catch, too fast to keep (2023) offers a glimpse into the American painter’s influence on her oeuvre: two trains are crossing at sunset, connecting late commuters from New York to New Jersey, where the artist’s studio is located. Living in New York herself, Yuan empathizes with her subjects, who, like her, seemingly work harder and harder every day to make it in an impossible city. The sentiment is reminiscent of the Beaudelairian flâneur, the endless wanderer of the modern city of the 19th century, marked by the ever-transforming landscape of the second Industrial Revolution. A century later, Walter Benjamin would identify the roots of this alienating wandering in the spirit of modern capitalism, one that still defines the identity of major global cities, including the one inhabited by the characters of Yuan’s New York.

 

Like many artists, Yuan sees herself as a voyeur, someone that has the ability to look from a distance at the life of others, to search for their deepest secrets, transforming them into the future characters of her paintings. There is an underlying romanticism in everything we see at Make Room – a sweet aftertaste of being able to enter into the stories of nameless others, so particular that they are able to connect with each of us.

 

 

Nothing New Under the Sun, 2023
Oil on linen
Triptych
Panel A: 182.8 x 91.4 cm (72 x 36 in.) 
Panel B: 182.8 x 172.7 cm (72 x 68 in.)
Panel C: 182.8 x 91.4 cm (72 x 36 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Make Room, Los Angeles
Photo: Nice Day Photo

 

 

Thinking back once again about my time in Seoul, I look at Yuan’s stand out piece Nothing New Under the Sun (2023), a triptych where warmer yellow tones and colder, deeper blues meet in the middle. At one extreme, a woman sits on the sand with a notebook, perhaps writing or drawing, surrounded by a beautiful sunset. On the other side, a melancholic figure looks at the iconic skylight of New York City, the only light being from the bulb of a lamppost. In the middle stands the sea, bathed in warmer blue. Between the viewer and the sea stands a field of spider lilies, flowers that, in Japan, symbolize the door to an encounter with the ones we have lost. 

 

In contemporary times, we have all become wanderers living across different places and temporalities. While staying in Seoul, my temporality was entirely different from that of my family living in a small town on the coast of Italy. When Odysseus was navigating back to Ithaca, his conception of time became somewhat circular and endless, very different from the eternal recurrence of his wife Penelope waiting for him. There are infinite ways of depicting distance, and yet, that distance becomes somewhat universal when we realize that everyone experiences a feeling of being lost in translation, separating us from the ones who live in other times and spaces. Longing is, once again, an intrinsically human feeling. At Make Room, Yuri Yuan unfolds this trope, painting after painting, and the non-linear stories presented before us welcome a universal empathy that is endlessly poetic. 

 


 

Yuri Yuan’s A Thousand Ships at Make Room in Los Angeles is on view until Feb 2, 2024. For more information, please click here.

 

Edited by Kaajal Parmanand