Kyung Youl Yoon
Kyung Youl Yoon at the New York Hall of Science (Queens)
Kyung Youl Yoon, born in Korea, and educated in art at Madrid, at the University of Bellas Artes there. He has shown his art in museums internationally, including the Shanghai Li Haisu Museum, the Seoul Arts Center Museum, and the Madrid National University of Spain. Currently, he lives in the environs of New York City, where, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, he is exhibiting two series: a group of earlier abstract expressionist paintings and examples taken from the “Cubic Inception Series 2.” The latter group of works are large, low relief sculptures made of used aluminum, consisting of small rectangles which, when assembled in a group, might easily be seen as buildings arranged on a city street. Or they might be understood as pure abstractions. Yoon’s work is profoundly influenced by his many years in the West. Yet he remains very much Korean in his manner and thinking.
This show is located at the New York Hall of Science, a well-regarded science museum located in Queens, near the former 1964-65 site of the New York World’s fair. Yoon’s sophisticated treatment of the abstract expressionist tradition and his more exploratory sculptures made with recycled aluminum are fully international in scope, supporting the recognition that Queens is home to many communities from all over the world. Its diversity, echoed in the allusiveness of Yoon’s paintings and reliefs, and in the person of Yoon himself, makes it clear that New York City continues to function as a home for artists from foreign places. The Korean community has a particularly strong group of artists who contribute to the art milieu in New York City. Their technical skill and open-mindedness to different ways of thinking, evident at once in the styles of art Yoon has been working with, indicate a deep interest in the way new art is made in the West. Because of the Internet, its ability to put up any image from any time and culture in a moment, influence is now ubiquitously eclectic. It can be argued whether eclecticism is helpful or destructive regarding creativity, in the sense that the appropriation of art from outside one’s own culture today is often seen as more than borrowing; indeed, it is many times regarded as theft.
Yet the reality is art from everywhere, from any time, is being used by artists whose point is at least partially directed toward a commonplace creativity, in which image-making, no matter where it comes from, is understood as available as material for anyone in the field. This is, perhaps, particularly true of the New York City artworld, in which thousands of artists from all over the world participate in a creativity indicative of broad choice. Yoon’s education in Madrid surely directed him toward a Western reading of painting, evident in the highly skilled, very beautiful expressionist paintings, which betray no trace of Asian origin. In the same way, his aluminum relief series on show, evidences a full familiarity with Western sculptural ideas, even current notions of recycling, which might be included in ecological art, in modern life. The later works often feel like the placing of buildings, seen from above; they might also be arrangements of geographical forms. The point is that art as we know it has become a miscellany of effects whose validity primarily exists within current artistic thinking. Thus, the image or artifact is treated not so much as evidence of its origins, but rather as a bridge spanning mental and formal ties between the art now being made and that constructed even millennia ago.
Reading Yoon’s several artist statements, one becomes aware of his poetic, philosophical view of art and life. In his two bodies of work now on show, Yoon has found a way of communicating a deep-seated intelligence that is as much a reflection on life as it is a demonstration of his remarkable skills. Almost always, the metaphorical, metaphysical nature of the image is spelled out in the same way we might read a poem–as embodying a state of transcendence. But it is certain that an artist’s attitude toward existing circumstances, his feeling for the depth of things, comes alive in silent ways in his choice of form, line, color, composition. Classical Asian art concentrated on nature; today, we tend to make art that reflects the feeling and thought of the artist at least as much as the theme he chooses for his art. Yoon’s statements indicate a predilection for musing, in which spirituality is one of the consequences of the image. Additionally, and importantly, often the goal of the Asian artist concerns the erasure, and not the expansion, of self. Indeed, one of the challenges facing a Korean artist such as Yoon, whose early practice found expression in the very strong abstract expressionist works on show, is the development of a style completely associated with an overt ego. We can discuss forever whether self-effacement or self-promotion in art is to be preferred as a working method. But it is fair to say that, traditionally, fine art in Asia has tended toward a curtailed expression of self–at least in the classical periods. In contrast, the Western vision has mostly been taken over by personal assertion, which emphasizes egoistic manufacture as much as the final result.
These are generalizations of course, which can be found too broad to be effective. Yet there is some truth to the insights. Today, though, in an art culture of international idioms, questions of specific influence lack the force they may have had even two or three generations ago. Broad influence is commonly accepted. Yoon’s abstract work, beautifully conceived and painted, most likely stemmed from his education in Madrid. Abstract expressionism, while having originated in New York, was in fact practiced at the same time in cultures distant from the city: think of Pierre Soulages in France, Han Hartung in Germany, Jean Riopelle in Canada. Yoon then belongs to a tradition that was, from the beginning, much more widespread than the assertion this style belonged to Americans alone. I have suggested that internationalism in art is a topic for debate; we cannot be sure that a broad inclusion of stylistic effects strengthen the contemporary imagination rather than throwing it into a maelstrom of confusion. Certainly, Yoon’s visual intelligence is occurring on a very high level, but his abstractions beg the question whether his language, derived outside of Asia, exists only tangentially in regard to his origins.
While the question can be asked, I don’t think it can be answered by querying his intentions. We are now living in a time when Westerners regularly take from Asian art–look at the work of Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, and Brice Marden–and by the same token, Asians are making use of Western methodologies for their own purposes. Yoon’s exquisite abstractions offer a mastery of the style, but they also present the wonderful conundrum of a painting manner associated with a culture at a long distance from Yoon’s own. Yet Yoon has internalized his broad experiences in art to completely achieved effect. As a result, the abstract expressionist manner becomes culturally neutral: a space in which anyone from anywhere can size up the vernacular and make use of it. Of course, it helps if the artist is talented enough to internalize the style and employ it in an original fashion. (Today, too often in New York City, we see approximations of expressionist abstraction that are moribund after more than half a century of repetition.) It turns out that Yoon is so effective an artist that his approach is not the reworking of painting into a historical pastiche, but a genuinely original reading of a tradition whose length and breadth have made it available to everyone.
You can see this in Yoon’s work itself. In 08 Eve (2014), a rough figure of a woman, constructed via fairly thick strokes of black, stands before us. Behind the form are a number of gray lines, which seem to follow the black outline on the surface. Two abstract masses, lacking form, occur as well: on the lower left, the splotch is black, and on the upper right it is brown. The background is gray. Surely, the arrangement of black lines resembles a figure, but it is also evident that these lines demonstrate a connection with Asian calligraphy. For someone in the West, unfamiliar with the Eastern calligraphic tradition, this description, while accurate, may not easy to fully understand, based as it is on limited knowledge. It is hard to say. For most Westerners, the Eve painting looks like a freehand version of a body, aligned closely with non-objective effects. The painting is entirely reasonable within the abstract tradition, so we are forced to speculate about Asian influences. Yet they are there. The kind of jump Yoon makes in these paintings poses a problem for writers critiquing work different from the usual traditions associated with him. But Yoon’s piece here does away with the assumption that he is inevitably linked to practices from our originating culture. The painting is beautifully done and attracts attention without identifying his Asian background.
“14 Untitled” (2015) is dominated by a large, dark blue sheet on the right, on top of which we find several red splotches, made more complex by streaks and splats of black and white. To the left and bottom of the dark blue mass is a light-colored gray, with a mass of mixed colors, yellow being predominant. On the top and lower part of the left a gray strip occurs; a blue blotch extends from this mass to the very lower end of the painting. On the bottom right we see a red, rounded form. Like all of Yoon’s expressionist art, the abstraction is highly achieved, with the sheet of blue taking. The smaller abstract elements add intricacies hard to describe, but they too seem to be about the role of color in painting.
The work “13 Untitled” (2014) consists, at its lower center, of a squared mass–its top left quadrant is yellow; its lower right quadrant is black; and its right half is dark blue. Behind the mass is a background divided into two halves–tan on the left and gray on the right. On the left, we see, on the higher register of the painting, a group of amorphous colors: black, yellow, brown, gray, with some linear effects to their right. On the bottom left, we find two straight-edge stone-like forms, while a dark brown mass occurs on the upper right. This painting, with its array of forms and colors, handles our expectations of strong abstract art with ease. It embodies an outlook that we can ascribe to a very open point of view and stands as an achievement no matter where the painter has come from.
Yoon’s recent art is very different from his paintings, but equally interesting or more. In a 2022 example taken from the “Cubic Inception Series,” a large (forty by sixty inches) work made of aluminum and gold on canvas, the viewer’s impression is of a highly abstract work of art. Small rectangles silver and gold in color are massed together on the lower two-thirds of the canvas. The work is one of low relief as the rectangles rise off the front of the surface. The gold pieces are mostly centered in the middle, with some on the lower left and along the top right of the composition. Above these forms, which seem to rise upward as a group, scattered dots of white occur. The general experience of the work is that of small ingots set side-by-side in ways that suggest small ingots of valuable metals. At the same time, the word “cubic” in the series title points to the three-dimensional nature of the shapes that cover the field they are placed on. The very long and wide mural (192 by 48 inches) extending along a wall of the science museum is also taken from the “Cubic Inception” series and was created in 2018. A diptych, the piece consists of larger blocks of aluminum on the far left, moving into a pointillist gold field. A column of silver follows before ending the left half with a gold area. The left part of the right half of the painting combines gold and silver rectangles, which move into a gold center with a gray square at the bottom. This leads to a sliver column further on the right, which ends with a gold area.
“Cubic Inception I” (2017) is also large, being 144 by 48 inches. Its topography looks very much like a city neighborhood seen from above. The entirely silver hue tends to emphasize the industrial orientation of the relief, which is taken over by the single color. We remember that Yoon, living in the New York City area for a long time, would have internalized the gridded network the city is composed of. Of course, the work is also every bit an abstraction; there are no particular features making it certain that we are looking at an urban landscape. Yet the suggestion is there, in the sense that the masses of straight-line forms may well reflect a city’s organization, its blocks of housing and storefronts. It feels accurate to comment that Yoon is primarily an abstract artist, as his paintings surely suggest, and his sculptures are not always easily read as a figurative arrangement. But Yoon’s suggestion of an urban world cannot be denied. One thinks for a moment of the late paintings of Mondrian, with their colored squares suggesting both city streets and non-objective patterns. This would make sense as Yoon is an artist who has spent most of his life working in cities, where abstract inspiration started. Yoon is remarkably good at creating a double vision, occurring simultaneously, in which his life as an urban dweller in Seoul, Madrid, and New York City is remembered, even as he employs an abstract tradition all contemporary artists are now heir to.
Key to our understanding of Yoon’s project is his leap from one tradition to the next. The jump is effortless so far as we can see; it builds upon an increasingly international understanding that all styles are becoming culturally neutral. The Internet, its ability to call up all styles in a moment, has created myriad possibilities for image use. The intention of Yoon, private in the sense that he knows–and we don’t–the bias of his enthusiasm, nonetheless is available for readings tying him to traditions we can recognize. We may not be able to determine exactly the inner workings of his imagination even as we discern the public implications of his style. In both his abstract paintings and aluminum reliefs, it is clear that Yoon is turning toward the imageries of what he has been taught and seen in the West. But this is hardly a surprise–ever since the birth of modernism, with Picasso’s borrowing of African masks to hide the faces of the prostitutes in “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), the great painting introducing the movement, cultural theft is part of art’s strategy. “Theft” may be a strong word, but what other term do we have for the use of an image or style that does not belong to our culture of origin? In art, anything and everything is possible for use, and Yoon is simply reflecting his experience as a student in Spain and inhabitant of New York. Thus, the visible influences of the West in his art can be seen as imageries belonging to him in the same way they belong to the Westerner. Moreover, borrowing acknowledges the seamless manner in which an image can travel, enabling Westerners to rework Asian calligraphy, for example, and allowing Asians to incorporate, say, pop images that come from America.
There is no doubt that Yoon’s work, no matter the intricacies of its background, is technically professional and self-evidently beautiful. His art moves into a place notable for its open stance in regard to style. The abstract expressionist works cannot be seen as copies or appropriations; instead, they must be regarded in their own right, as examples of a genre now available to all of us. There is still justifiable concern about the use of imagery from a colonized country by artists from a greater power, but in Yoon’s case the circumstances are unprejudiced: the manner of working really can, in his hands, be brought into achieved fruition in a fully objective manner without emphasizing differing cultural legacies. Thus, the insistence of a cultural slant is often secondary. It may be hard for some Westerners to accept the employment of styles developed in the West when the artist using them comes from another tradition, but the truth is anyone can work in any way now that art has lost its particular geographical emphasis. In fact, the discussion of influence readily becomes moot in today’s circumstances. And as I have noted, it can be debated whether the creation of a worldwide monoculture truly supports creativity. We are living in a time when boundaries are disappearing, and art is being shared. This is a far cry from the art in the 19th century, when French painting could be distinguished from Spanish painting via the handling of brushwork alone.
Yoon’s aluminum, an easily accessible and much used contemporary industrial material, is the result of recycled materials, including used food containers. So part of the contemporaneity of his series, whose materials origins are overtly evident, has to do with the practice of reusing things–recycling them. Thus, the material’s life is no longer linear. Instead, it becomes circular in its ongoing transformation–a circumstance that likely supports Yoon’s understanding of life. His reliefs can seem both abstract and figurative; in the latter orientation, his aluminum rectangles describe an urban reality, one currently central to most people’s lives. At the same time, his non-objective imagery points to a tradition begun in the West but now taken on by artists from far away. It is a style that no longer belongs to anyone in particular. Yoon’s appropriation is not even an appropriation; it simply is a choice among many visual choices. Because Yoon is an artist of considerable gifts; his manner of working indicates his own experience, neither more nor less. There is little need to debate the virtue of his practice because he has made his influences his own–in a time that emphasizes individual achievement.
Yoon’s art works wonderfully well in the breadth of its borrowings, but for some there may be the nagging wish to isolate artistic practice within the culture and the geography it came from. Even so, the truth is that good art can be appreciated on its own terms, without underscoring the background of the artist. Today, in work in which the artist moves outside the background he belongs to, his origins are of little matter. It is true that, in America, identity art currently emphasizes the personal attributes of the artist making the work, but this does not apply to Yoon and other artists determined to distance their sense of self from the creation of an image. This can be described as a self-effacing position. Given the way art works, Yoon’s abstract paintings can be taken for what they are: highly sophisticated visuals that must be understood on formally independent terms, as efforts that do not reflect identity. The same is true for the aluminum reliefs, which embody an esthetic following modernism in light of their materials, their imagery, and their overall conception. Only when we see Yoon as independent in mind will we be able to comprehend him for what he is: an artist of remarkable resolve, someone unafraid to work according to his own vision, taken as he is by the imagistic repositories that inform his manner of working.
Jonathan Goodman , December 21, 2022