By Peter Frank

The Cubic Inception paintings – if they can be called merely “paintings” – of Kyung Youl Yoon, realized over the past several years, have dramatically advanced the practice of the veteran Korean-American painter. They translate his native style, already lyrical and forceful, into something novel, unanticipated, and powerfully riveting. Kyung’s new approach to material extends what are in essence painterly forms into low relief through the use of molded and manipulated aluminum scraps. The resulting masses of forms – profusions of protrusions, you might say – strongly suggest aerial views of industrial landscapes, articulated topographies of beautiful but implicitly hostile environments. The Cubic Inception paintings brim with both metaphorical resonance and tactile allure

There has always been poetry in Kyung’s approach to painting, and ever since his studies in Spain three decades ago he has painted with a readily articulated grace, accessing a sensibility formed in both East and West. An abstractionist at heart even when painting recognizable subject matter, Kyung has been energetic as a color painter and, at the same time, restrained as a gestural painter. Until 2015 Kyung had employed oils and other more or less traditional media in the realization of compositions that were becoming increasingly suggestive of both cartography and topography, of land masses and waterways described in a manner halfway between the linear abstraction of maps and the vivid projection of land, urban and rural, one sees from above in an airplane.

In his work previous to the Cubic Inception series Kyung adhered to traditional practice. Handsome and moving as it is, this earlier painting maintains the conventions of abstract expressionism, art informel, and other, mostly postwar styles, the dominant modes of Kyung’s youth. The Cubic Inception series achieves a new level of material richness that his earlier work, however dynamic its imagery, can only point at. The Cubic Inception works extend Kyung’s painterly practice into sculpture, into a low relief of a kind that cannot logically be derived from painting. These thick clusters of aluminum shells, thoroughly covering the surfaces of the Cubic Inception pieces or interrupted with vast, bottomless swaths of a single color (red, for instance, or a silvery gray that seems to leach from the metal), animate the Cubic Inception surfaces with both two-dimensional pattern and three-dimensional texture. Each shape takes the place of a brushstroke. Each edge takes the place of a line.

Some of the Cubic Inception works (the temptation remains to call them “paintings,” but they evade this limiting description) present themselves as if they were swaths of industrial structures, seen from above – again, the metaphor of the aerial view. This is a common enough sight in the 21st Century, considering how many of us now travel by air. But Kyung is not fashioning any kind of topographical realism; his reliefs are strange, palpable, glistening in their presentness, a dream version of what we safely see from our seats. By contrast, the less readily suggestive – arguably more “purely abstract” – Cubic Inception pieces, cascades of reflective segments teeming down their supports, are striking for their very density, and even frightening in their ceaseless cluster. But it is a delicious fright.

Over the past year or two – notably, during the pandemic – Kyung has moved away from the architectural and topographic/cartographic suggestions that predominated in the earlier Cubic Inception works. He has come to favor the non-objective language emerging in the series, emphasizing repetition of elements and a restless, often explosive sense of movement. If Kyung is still evoking topography, it is geology rather than geography he conjures, the massive movement of tectonic plates, the fury of volcanoes, and the spectacular disintegration and destruction of tropospheric phenomena. Large image-forms are built up out of so many small segments, metallic and painterly by turn; the segments seem at once to comprise the large waves, flows, and bursts and to be carried away by the erupting planetary forces. In metaphoric terms, both circumstances pertain: nature works on many scales at once, and in many contexts at once. What these latest Cubic Inception works affirm is that we humans are very small factors in the process of natural evolution; we may be having an outsize effect on our ecology, but most of nature exists beyond that ecology. Fire and ice – fundaments these new relief-paintings evoke broadly — may spell our doom, but they are integral to earth’s character

These new works, then, depict the calamity of the living and the evolution of the earth. From a certain point of view the Cubic Inception series can be read as a beautiful warning: our structures, and our planet, will outlast us – our structures not because they are more durable than we are, but because we allow them to proliferate into what should be our, and the biome’s, living space. By recycling all this aluminum into strange and monumental objects, Kyung Youl Yoon has contributed to the solution, acting in his own small way against the end of the world. But the world isn’t ending; we are. The Cubic Inception series is as much about saving ourselves as losing ourselves. Even in the losing, however, there is a cold, exquisite beauty to these new works of Kyung’s that provides grim reassurance: what humankind leaves behind will be art.