“The history of painting goes way back—everything has been painted, everything has been shown,” artist Yooyun Yang told me in her Seoul studio, “but I hope, and I believe, that out there in the world there are some corners, some gaps, that have been missed.” For more than a decade, Yang has been on the hunt for those neglected crevices. Her pictures approach their scenes, be they figures, cityscapes, or still lifes, at oblique angles or from peculiar distances. She has a gimlet eye, a rare sense for how minute details—a sudden shift in light or a bold crop—can invoke charged moods or allude to fragmentary narratives. Shattered glass glows within a strange blue halo in Glass fragments (2017). Barefoot, holding an umbrella overhead, the person in Flash (2021) stands by an empty road in the dead of night, face obscured by the bursting light from a camera aimed at the viewer. Such works are enigmatic and foreboding, but also strangely tender. They stay with you.
Yang, 36, explained via an interpreter that her paintings often begin as offhand photographs. She has shot abandoned buildings in the fast-changing metropolis, domestic interiors, mannequins, friends. She prints the images, perhaps marks out a section, reworks the picture in her head, and finally picks up her brush. She earned degrees in traditional East Asian painting (BFA 2008, MFA 2010) at Sungshin Women’s University in the capital, and typically works with diluted acrylic on a type of hanji, paper made from mulberry tree bark that she pulls taut around stretcher bars or affixes directly to the wall. This highly absorptive material allows her to build many layers of color, controlling its intensity. Carefully mediated through paper and paint (blues, grays, browns), her subjects take on an otherworldly quality. Familiar moments feel ever so slightly off, filtered into a hazy and alluring cinematic ambience.
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Dread and possibility commingle in this universe. People are alone: in pain, in contemplation, or gazing silently. Sometimes all that is visible is a single hand. The modest-size paintings in Yang’s solo show at Chapter II in Seoul earlier this year depicted various figures: a person’s face with tears streaming down, another apparently gazing through a grate (the shadows across the eyes offered the only clue), and a menacing individual, presented in three-quarter profile from below, slightly out of focus. In the bewitching Untitled 2 (2021), two people—a man and a woman, probably—kiss deeply as their faces blur into one another. Yang said that she is interested in “the thing that exists between what is in reality and what is seen or captured in a photograph,” and so she makes a point of rendering blurs and glitches in her work.
Yang’s paintings probe both the limits and power of photography—its sinister and seductive concision, its partiality. Intriguingly, over the past few years, she has been working on pieces of hanji whose tall, narrow proportions roughly match those of a smartphone. Ten examples are slated to be installed in a long row for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, marking the first appearance of Yang’s work outside South Korea or Japan. One of them, Memory (2021), shows a white blouse held awkwardly, even uncomfortably, on a wire hanger. An earlier work in her studio, Curtain (2019), suggests a hotel room glimpsed on a first morning waking there, as one tries to apprehend the scene. The painting exemplifies, for me, what Yang meant when she said, “I want my works to be like a thorn in your mind that pricks from time to time, or like a very gentle fever.” A sliver of sunlight, represented by raw paper, is breaking through the fabric covering the window. The air is unsettled and anxious. There are clearly things here that we cannot quite see yet.