'River Flows in You,' Debut Solo Exhibition by Alumna Yuri Yuan, at Alexander Berggruen Gallery

Nicole Saldarriaga
August 04, 2021

River Flows in You, a debut solo exhibition of work by alumna Yuri Yuan '21, is available for viewing at Alexander Berggruen Gallery in New York City until August 31, 2021. 

Painted while Yuan listened to "River Flows in You" by South Korean pianist Yiruma, the work in this exhibition is similarly "sad but graceful," in the words of Yuan. The paintings are often peopled by figures with their backs turned, or with their faces reflected in water or obscured by twilight, so that the overall impression is one of isolation and melancholy. Nevertheless, the artist's overall theme is one of connection, and the growth that might occur even in seclusion.

According to Yuan, "Aloneness is a common theme in my work. Rather than dwelling in the sad emotion of 'loneliness,' I think of the protagonist in my work as someone who constantly reflects on their experience and their connection in this world." 

In creating paintings where the protagonist's back is turned to the viewer, Yuan hopes to provide a contemplative space for the audience to explore their own emotions. "Many people asked if the back-facing figure is me," said Yuan in an interview with Project Gallery V, "and if these paintings are self-portraits. The answer is no, they look like me as they are made in the image of me, but they are more like a signpost, or a witness to an event, for the viewer to project their own emotion onto the narratives of the paintings. Over the past year, I have been thinking about personal loss and how [it translates] to global tragedy, the private grieving process juxtaposed with the bombarding and politicized news of the pandemic. I certainly do not hope to provide an answer, but to give space for the audience to process complicated emotions." 

In "A Train" (121.9 x 76.2cm, oil on canvas, 2021), Yuan gives her audience a familiar landscape to sink into: a first-person view of a subway car. A gray bag lies just in view on the leftmost subway seat, implying the presence of a stranger, and a masked figure is reflected in the subway window. According to the exhibition's press release, Yuan was reading cultural critic Olivia Liang's book The Lonely City while working on this painting, and the wad of chewing gum plastered to the subway pole is reflective of Yuan's own feelings while living in the loneliness of New York City. "I felt chewed up and spit out," she said. 

Renowned art critic John Yua reviewed River Flows in You for Hyperallergic and pointed to the "solitude exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic...not to mention the implicit and explicit racism that became a big part of every Asian's daily life in America, and the consequent apprehension that accompanied each excursion into the city. Yuan's "A Train" is emblematic of the sense of necessary seclusion that permeated everyday life during the past year.

A piece of artwork, subway seats

"Yuri Yuan's sense of isolation is an inescapable feature of her daily life," Yua continued, "which she simultaneously examines and holds at bay through the act of painting. In [Yuan's] best pieces, the merging of subject, paint, color, and light snaps into place; then the painting begins singing a sweetly mournful tune." 

Yuri Yuan (b. 1996, Harbin, China) is a Visual Arts MFA candidate at Columbia University, New York, NY. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL in 2019. Yuan was a recipient of the Helen Frankenthaler Scholarship at Columbia University in 2020, and Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant in 2019. She has exhibited work at Make Room Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; The ROOM Contemporary Art Space, Venice, Italy; Lenfest Center for the Arts, New York, NY; Sullivan Galleries, Chicago, IL; Siragusa Gallery, Chicago, IL; International Center for the Arts, Umbria, Italy. Her work will be included in a forthcoming exhibition at the Wallach Gallery at Lenfest Center for the Arts, New York, NY. Yuan lives and works in New York, NY.