Yuri Yuan: Dark Dreams
On ViewAlexander Berggruen Gallery
September 7–October 12, 2022
City lights filter dimly through barely-open window blinds. In the dark, blue-black bedroom of Yuri Yuan’s Nightmare, a figure sits on a bed; it is unclear whether she faces the window or the viewer, a specter or a spectator. An inconspicuous medicine bottle rests on the foregrounded nightstand, almost out of frame. “Melatonin gives me crazy dreams,” muses Yuan. But the artist is not simply a transcriber of her dreams, nor does she fall into the trap of quasi-psychologising her work, a constant danger of such preoccupations.
While Yuan’s figurative compositions are tinged with a touch of the uncanny, they are also characterized by an ostensible banality that challenges the very distinction between dream and reality. The eleven oil paintings (all 2022) that comprise Dark Dreams at Alexander Berggruen Gallery, the artist’s second solo exhibition in New York, depart from the accepted conventions of Surrealism and forge ahead, past the threshold of dream and sleep. We see this, for example, in Nightmare and its counterpart of sorts, The Blue of Distance, both works that are difficult to capture on camera—defiantly so—and necessitate close-looking, in-person. The window-blinds in both works were painted free-hand, without the aid of tape, and their low-lit rooms ask viewers to adjust their eyes, underscoring the stubborn, human yearning to see in the dark. In Yuan’s deeply affective scenes, solitary figures, often self-portraits that threaten to disappear, insistently question the nature of subjectivity and sensory perception.
In Tales of NYC: Small Talk, the red-haired protagonist of Edward Hopper’s famed diner-scene, Nighthawks (1942), stares intently at an iPhone, while conversing figures behind her pack into the canvas frame, a nine-by-sixteen aspect ratio well suited to smartphone videos. Flipping the standard dimensions of film and television, Yuan slyly suggests that perhaps the figures at the far left are an artist and a collector, the artist sharing her Instagram page while the collector exhibits more interest in her than her work. Yuan modeled the figures after herself, but they are not all meant to be her. By contrast, the windows demarcate a lone, blue figure dissipating in the background, a self-portrait in danger of blending into the blue street, highlighting another level of alienation. In The Storm in Me, the artist is doubly-rendered as both therapist and patient; a tumultuous seascape hangs on the office wall. Painfully aware of the anxieties of art-making in the age of social media, Yuan’s work hints at the burden of the art historical canon and the tense demands of commercialization.
The artist’s references extend well beyond Hopper to Enlightenment-era painter Henry Fuseli, Bernat Martorell, Mark Rothko, Vincent van Gogh, Peter Doig, and Xu Beihong, to name a few. “I like art history,” she notes, stressing her belief in the importance of experimentation as a young, developing artist. The lingua franca that ties together the exhibition’s seemingly disparate works is a sense of the Kafkaesque alienation of modernity. In Wanderlust, a wet-on-wet painting completed with one big flag brush in a single three-hour sitting, the artist adds two small cows to a moving landscape as seen from a train window, “because one cow is too alone.” In the aptly-titled Metamorphosis, Yuan inverts the panopticon, as peering eyes from three walls look in while an easel at the center stands upright. Never shying away from the influence that contemporary media has on her work—Take Me Down Easy, for example, is titled after a song featured on the television show Bojack Horseman (2014–2020)—Yuan chose each eye with care, drawing them from various films including Dr. Strangelove (1964), Paprika (2006), and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). Initially titled “Voyeur,” Metamorphosis was to feature a figure standing by the easel. Inspired by van Gogh’s Prisoners' Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), Yuan’s figure transformed into the present butterfly on the wall, freed from the body and made over as spirit, liberated from labor, and perhaps from the past’s art historical and filmic legacies.
Each work stems from a sketch, starting first with story, then image and color. Will You Remember Me harkens back to the moonlit hues of The Blue of Distance, and elegantly obscures a buried figure under a field of flowers. Strangely serene, a boat and a figure’s shadow appear on the river behind Hades’s liminal waters, while far in the background a lighthouse shines, a faint focal point, another human attempt to see in the dark. As John Ruskin speculated, “It doesn’t matter how much light you have if you don’t know how to use it. It may very possibly put out your eyes, instead of helping them. Besides, we want, in this world of ours, very often to be able to see in the dark—that’s the great gift of all…”1 By pushing into the membrane between sleep and dream, and by presenting dreams as inseparable from reality, Yuan ferries viewers across and inducts them into new modes of seeing. With titles like Farewell, Will You Remember Me, Metamorphosis, and Resurgence, Dark Dreams contends, too, with death—the deepest of all slumbers, not a finite end, but simply another kind of experience.
- Ruskin, John, “Inaugural Address Delivered at Cambridge,” Time & Tide: Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds; Lecture to the Cambridge School of Art &C. J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1910, p. 144.