Cling to the Earth, Reach for the Sky

Paintings by Kyung Youl Yoon

Robert C. Morgan

The Korean-born painter Kyung Youl Yoon has being living in the New York area for twenty years. Since 1995, the artist continues to work and maintain his studio across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey (where his work is represented at the Riverside Gallery). In addition, Mr. Yoon regularly shows his paintings in Korea and else in the United States. His manner or style of painting is expressionist in origin, essentially abstract, but often includes recognizable objects from the external visual world, and, of course, in reference to nature. There are several works painted by Yoon that directly reflect these concerns. One of the most recent is the highly inventive and evocative Recycle series, in which the artist makes use of discarded aluminum containers, transforming them into a subtle and resonant ground on which he paints. The second, more typically Korean, group of paintings is Yoon’s Moon series, which was the primary subject in his paintings four years earlier.

Yoon’s brilliant group of paintings, titled Recycle 2015) virtually encapsulates the premise of maintaining the beauty of planet Earth by re-using material that many would assume has only one use. Yoon’s visionary point of view is to suggest that the function of the object is different from how we understand the raw material from which it is manufactured. The Recycle paintings clarify this distinction. Each painting in this series involves recycled aluminum, taken from common disposable objects, such as soda cans, and meticulously soldering them together, before they are adhered to canvas. In some works, the aluminum exists a purely abstract expressionist surface. In others works, he has painted recognizable objects and figures with references to nature over the recycled aluminum surface. These paintings engage viewers not with the transformed impact of the aluminum ground, but also with the symbolic narrative with the natural environment.

The artist’s ultimate point is to reveal that all things, regardless of their immediate function, return to nature over time. The Recycle paintings are compressions of time. We read Yoon’s luminous surfaces in a variety of ways. They are both abstract and representational. While spiritual in content, they are symbolic of the artist’s optimism. They express an extended duration of time. In Buddhism, this extended duration belongs to nature, of which all human beings are a part. To understand this principle in nature is to realize who we are. We are integral forms of illumination.

Even amid the chaos of our fragmented world, resources taken from the Earth need to be understood in terms of art and their recycled and highly symbolic potential. They reveal figures dancing in a circle together, a blue horse rearing up on its hind legs, a nude woman in the act of bathing, the aura of falling rain, tree saplings, crescent moons, and the effervescent sun, the illumination, that guides our actions in the everyday world, our connections with animal and plant life, and finally, the resilience of human beings to come into themselves and discover a peaceful coexistence. The concept of recycling as represented in these paintings speaks of the inevitable recurrence of life on Earth.

In general, Yoon’s paintings, such as his two and four paneled Wind (2014-15) suggest the world is not so fragmented as it may appear. On an alternative spiritual level, the Wind paintings have a colorful, diagonal movement that runs from one side to the other. They are porous paintings in the sense that we can easily grasp their poetic structure. They offer another way of seeing the world. The intensity of these interwoven colors is an illuminated guidepost and the basis for our sense of wholeness. They offer a sense of contemplation and understanding about time. In Yoon’s Wind paintings, as with other earlier abstract works by the artist, viewers may get inside of time as they contemplate the persistence of light reflecting through the effervescent color.

The variety and comprehension of form in Yoon’s paintings are remarkable. Through a carefully attuned sensory momentum, his paintings move from one striated expression to another. They are less about categories than encapsulations of the truth. They are striking moments of illumination, of the inevitable yearning that we strive to possess knowledge of the forms instilled within our human consciousness.

While language is used to elucidate the meaning in Yoon’s paintings, the sound of the words may fall short. It is often difficult to talk about the art of painting because it is a visual form of expression. In a sense, his paintings are about representing form through a variety of gestural marks, spaces, colors, shapes and lines moving in all directions. These occur on the surface of the artist’s paintings, but first (one might say) they originate through feeling. Here I am thinking of Yoon’s Moon and Journey series.

Moon came first in 2011, following by Journey in 2014. In either case the circular form of the moon appears omnipresent. Just as the porcelain moon jars from the Chosun Dynasty give energy (qi) to the space in which they are placed, the forms in Yoon’s paintings are never hidden. Occasionally the moon appears to fade in and out, but this is contingent on the light and the water that creates transparency in color and the sensitive brushwork that allows the lunar specter to hide and then suddenly reappear.

In contrast to the subtle, water-based atmosphere seen in Moon series, Journey (2014) asserts a more heightened expressive feeling. In Journey, the bright layering of the oil pigments is held between a double layering of Plexiglas where the omnipresent moon appears. While sharing a related lunar form, the contrasting differences in how the two series appear is remarkably poignant. The earlier paintings are more quiet, the later ones are stronger, louder, and more aggressive.

The use of pigment on Plexiglas in Journey would eventually incite the artist to work with similar materials in another series, Elegy of April 2 (2012), referring to the date of a tragic shipping accident that occurred in the waters off the Korean peninsula where several school children were drowned after a collision. For Yoon, the emotional content upon hearing of this accident gave way to anger, reflection, and finally to a series of “action paintings.” In these paintings, the artist sought to transmit the feeling of what so many Korean people found difficult to express in terms of their own. The result was one of the more significant and masterful works in Yoon’s mid-career.

In some ways, expressionist painting is a medium close to the Korean temperament. Given a thorough understanding of the techniques and formal mastery of painting, expressionism offers a style and a method whereby contemporary painters are able to realize and distill emotional content directly through painting. It is a means to reveal the precision of indigenous Korean brushwork within the context of Western color and form. Expressionism is a manner of painting in which the familiar paradox of earth and sky come together. This elegant unity is what we find in the paintings of Kyung Youl Yoon.

Robert C. Morgan is an art historian and a painter. He received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts in 1975 and his Ph.D. from New York University in 1978. Author of several books in several languages, he is the New York Editor of Asian Art News and currently teaches in the Graduate Department of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute. In 2005, he became a Fulbright Senior Scholar and lectured throughout the Republic of Korea.