Dossier | Dark Thoughts: Jinny Yu Starts Where Painting Ends | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Dark Thoughts: Jinny Yu Starts Where Painting Ends

  • Jinny Yu, Painting, Wiped, on Wall, 2011. Photo : permission de l'artiste | courtesy of the artist

Dark Thoughts: Jinny Yu Starts Where Painting Ends
By Jakub Zdebik

“Painters,” philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes, “recapitulate the history of painting in their own way.” (1) Jinny Yu sums up a particular history of painting. Her work references the multiple times in the twentieth century when painters questioned the boundaries of their medium by limiting their palettes to black. Yu is part of this artistic lineage bent on formalistic self-reflexive scrutiny but also challenges modern orthodoxies by re-thinking the use of material and space in the practice of painting. When re-conceptualizing the limits of art, following the example of theorist Jean-François Lyotard, a painter is in the position of a philosopher. (2)

Yu’s 2011 exhibition at the Patrick Mikhail Gallery, titled Latest from New York, constitutes a painting environment. The black paintings hang on, stand against, or tilt away from the white walls, illuminated by a large window. The space of the gallery is intricately linked to the articulation of the paintings’ surfaces.

Bent, a black painting folded diagonally with the superior corner jutting out into the space in front of the picture plane is like a three-dimensional sketch of a geometric abstract painting, and at the same time a study in shadow and light relations. It is a tangible manifestation of abstract principles in actual space as it reaches out to the viewer. Precarious is a real-space articulation of the physical force of the painter. Not simply an action painting with expressive manipulation of paint, here the support, the aluminum sheet, has been crushed and made to stand up against the wall, discreetly working through its injuries. Crumpled Up is a cautionary tale about what might happen to paintings that leave the safety of their perch on the wall and venture into uncertain grounds.

Black paintings seem wilfully silent and hostile to discourse, and yet the resilience of the motif in twentieth-century art communicates the various registers of the medium of painting. (3) The black smeared aluminum surfaces made by the artist function like tarnished tabulae rasae: modernist and postmodernist references are visible but blurred together. Connections to painters who wrestled with black abound but they are deliberately ambiguous. Since the title of the exhibition makes explicit reference to New York, we can immediately strike Pierre Soulages and his ultrablack paintings from the list of dark muses. Variations in the textured surfaces of the French artist’s paint-heavy canvases absorb or refuse light. (4) In Yu’s case, it is the metallic surfaces that interact with light. The shining surface below the paint draws the viewer’s gaze while replacing a resistant surface on which the eyes would usually focus and rest. The mirroring aluminum oscillates between its functions of background and surface. (5) The background loses its function of support and instead becomes a materialization of the principle of self-reflexivity. Yu’s aluminum fascinates the viewer with a constant perspectival oscillation.

But even if we follow the constraints prescribed by the title of the exhibition and compare Yu only to New York artists, the references at play in her lush and darkly undulating paintings still remain elusive. Questions abound. Are Yu’s works more like Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate paintings, where precise, matte black variations on stretched out canvases negate the actual space of painting? (6) Yu goes one step further, for example, with Painting, Wiped, on Wall (2011). Like most works in the exhibition, this painting hangs without a support, directly on the wall, spilling its colour out of the limits of the aluminum surface, with dark matter taking over the white space surrounding the work. Are Yu’s black paintings a joyful eradication of the history of painting, as Robert Rauschenberg proposed with his early-career textured, viscous experiments? (7) If anything, they are closer to Rauschenberg’s Combines — combinations of sculpture and painting — in the way Yu forgoes the traditional canvas in favour of a material more typically suited to sculpture. Her paintings wrest themselves away from flatness; they bend, fold, jut out of the wall, fit into corners, and engage with the gallery space. Like Rauschenberg, Frank Stella also had an affinity for industrial material and readily available hardware store paint with which he created his minimalist objects. Does Yu’s use of construction grade aluminum put her on Stella’s anti-aesthetic wavelength? Yu does not obscure the metallic surfaces with her brushstrokes. Instead, the metal she employs supports the paint and illuminates the brushstrokes from all angles. Instead of driving painting to a space of material sterility, the artist reveals the sensuousness of the brushstroke.

Even as the black paintings of this New York trifecta somehow resonate on the metallic surfaces of Yu’s works, she hints at more diverse sources. The straightforward New York connection fritters away when, by her own admission, she adds to the list of influences Kazimir Malevich’s inarticulable spiritual paintings, as well as a formal artistic activity that breaks away from a clearly defined Western avant-garde progression — traditional Korean calligraphy, a craft once practised by the artist herself. It is easy to see in Yu’s multiple brushstrokes a calligraphic impetus that reins in action painting in favour of flowing black traits that articulate an abstract, visual language.

Yu’s rich façades are thatched with earthy black brushstrokes that seem to float above the reflective surface. These floating black traits are the minimal unit of Yu’s abstract paintings as well as her figurative compositions. Yu’s painting, Sequence (2009), for example, consists of aluminum panels painted in black and white to represent film stills. The stills illustrate a sequence in which the pages of a book manuscript have been scattered in the wind in a parking lot by the edge of a river. The panels that make up the sequence are placed high above the floor of the gallery space so as to be better observed from the second floor mezzanine. Vertical lines painted on the wall connect the lower edge of the painting to the gallery floor. These lines underscore the connection of the work with the gallery space and originate in a specific architectural source: the fenestration patterns in Le Corbusier’s Dominican Monastery of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette. (8) The black traits are the minimal unit of the painting: the aluminum surface dissolves the landscape in the scene by reflecting light between brushstrokes, and the architectural space articulates the whole.

These three elements — black traits, aluminum surfaces, and architectural connections — are also present in other instances of Yu’s recent oeuvre. Her Tiepolo Project (2011) also has far-reaching and multilayered formal references. It is a black-toned reappraisal of the work of eighteenth-century master Giovanni Batista Tiepolo and his flowing sense of figural drama and perspectival virtuosity. However, Yu’s attention is focused on the striations on the surface of the mural painting, the outcome of careless conservation. (9) These lines provide another occasion to enact a perspectival oscillation between surface and background. Yu brings attention to these accidental patterns by scratching seemingly haphazard geometric configurations into the black paint, recreating the oscillation of perspectives between figures rendered in black and bright aluminum lines wrenched from the depth, which in turn transform Tiepolo’s composition into an abstract painting built atop mimicry. Even the architectural element was dramatically conveyed when the Tiepolo Project was exhibited at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton. The work, over thirteen metres in length, broke through a wall in one room of the gallery only to emerge in another room on the other side. The installation gave the impression that the gallery space could not contain the work.

This architectural trangression resonates in Painting (2011), the largest piece in the Latest from New York exhibition. Here, it would not be amiss to compare the work to Barnett Newman’s close-quarter conjugations of the sublime. After all, Yu is searching for some kind of spiritual excitation through her meditative painterly field. Installed at an angle between two walls, Painting is, in effect, an architectural environment. In the past, Yu clearly referenced architecture in her work through abstract representations: grids and levels which resembled cityscapes and apartment buildings. (10) This black painting is part of the wall, part of the architecture it seems to uphold. Painting articulates the duality between painting and architecture vis-à-vis the viewer according to the formula devised by Walter Benjamin: Painting is absorbed through concentration as the viewer deciphers the abstract traits and enters into the space of the work intellectually, and architecture is appropriated by the sense of touch, or use, and sight, as the façade filled with brushstrokes draws in and enfolds the viewer. (11) Painting simultaneously upholds and breaks away from modernist structures.

The imposing modernist façades Yu seems to be systematically erecting are teeming with a postmodernist playfulness delivered with elegance and subtlety. Her reflective surfaces, seen as a self-critical device, comment on the relationship between the modernist and postmodernist struggle with, and reversal of, themes such as visibility, purity, materiality, and dehierarchization of traditional relationships between subject and form. She seems to visually articulate Lyotard’s statement that “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern.” (12) By making the postmodern and the modern oscillate in her work, the artist takes on the position of the philosopher. (13) Yu’s paintings comment on the boundaries dictating the rules of art history and its time-sensitive directionality.

Another philosopher that can be brought into the fold of Yu’s mute but tumultuous surfaces is Deleuze, who stated that each painter recapitulates the history of painting in his or her own way. (14) Just as, according to Deleuze, a painter never starts with an empty canvas but a canvas full of clichés that must be erased, Yu confronts the history of art by disposing of the canvas altogether and marking the empty space with a multiplicity of traits. These traits, Yu’s constant vocabulary, flock and disperse on each sheet of aluminum, reconstituting a critique of painting at varying degrees. References to modernist and postmodernist modes of painting materialize and dematerialize on different registers — homage, criticism, or both? If modernism is about the grand narrative and postmodernism about fragmentary multiplicities, Yu’s work tells a story in which all these different forces are on equal footing and have been given a stage on which they can work together.

NOTES
(1) Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 99.
(2) Jean-François Lyotard, “What is Postmodernism?” [originally published 1979] reproduced in Art in Theory: 1900 – 1990, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell: Oxford, 1996), 1014-5.
(3) I have adapted the vocabulary from Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer 1979), 50.
(4) Ananda Shankar Chakrabarty, “Pierre Soulages’s Ultrablack Paintings: The Matter of Presence,” in RACAR 36, no. 1 (2011), 8.
(5) Édith-Anne Pageot, Story of a Global Nomad: Occurrences du Motif. Jinny Yu. (Montréal: Éditions Art Mûr and Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2008), 27 – 8.
(6) Yve-Alain Bois, The Limit of Almost: Ad Reinhardt (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 13.
(7) Helen Molesworth, “Before Bed,” October 63 (Winter 1993), 71.
(8) Petra Halkes, Construction Work, Construction Work: Josée Dubeau/Lorraine Gilbert/Jinny Yu (Ottawa: Carleton University Art Gallery, 2010), 44.
(9) Virgil Hammock, Jinny Yu, Montréal, Vie des Arts, no. 220, (Fall 2010), 18.
(10) Amber Berson, Jinny Yu: About Painting: Invitation Galerie Art Mûr 6, no. 1 (2010), 10.
(11) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 238 – 9.
(12) Lyotard, "What is Postmodernism?", 1014.
(13) Ibid., 1014 – 15.
(14) Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 99.

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