While Julie Insun Youn may declare that her art “interrogates the banality of everyday life,” the paintings featured in her most recent exhibition are, themselves, far from ordinary.
The subjectivity of evaluating art makes reviewing such work a difficult task. But Youn’s exhibition, titled “Torture of Meaningless,” featured in the Theater Gallery of the Memorial Union, makes this undertaking effortless. Youn’s collection is an exceptional exploration of texture and light, which are both features at play throughout the exhibition.
Youn has accomplished much more than just a simple evaluation of the routine of daily life. Steering her work away from the generic label of “still life,” Youn succeeds in giving the viewer a taste of her subjects without necessarily revealing them with total clarity. Her affinity for choosing to paint only bits and pieces of full forms – such as the neck of a bottle, but not the base – leaves the viewer to consider this work as just the tip of the iceberg, pushing him or her to look beyond the canvas, to the true tediousness of everyday life, as Youn portrays it.
Comparing them to photographic snapshots, as Youn has done explicitly through her gallery descriptions, the paintings as a collection constitute a cohesive whole, making a statement about the observed monotony of day-to-day activity. Youn’s use of muted colors, blurred lines and oil paint all contribute to the subdued tone of the collection and help to convey her theme.
Looking at Youn’s work through the mindset of photographic art, her paintings are just realistic enough to be approachable by the average gallery-goer, but abstract enough to draw the well-trained eye, as more than copycats of photographs.
As Youn states in her gallery description, “each body of work is intended to evoke the inevitability of loss associated with the binary concept of ‘past presence/present absence.’”
This sense of loss and nostalgia is especially clear in her short series displayed in a separate glass case, titled “Living Room.” Bluntly labeled, the title is appropriate to the similar images generated in the two paintings. Both paintings focus mostly on the blank wall of a room, yet indistinct details are visible as well. All elements of both paintings evoke the exact sentiment that Youn is trying to extract from her viewer – what she calls “a sense of home lost.”
With written descriptions that give almost too much away, the exhibition is framed by Youn’s articulate writing about her own work. The descriptions are helpful in guiding the viewer to understand her artistic goals, but do not leave much room for individual interpretation on the part of the audience.
Youn’s various series connect well with each other, in terms of theme and style. Citing a type of imagery that Youn herself calls “blur,” one painting after another demonstrates this unfocused visual style, highlighting the obscurity of the past being conveyed.
Most spectacularly, a three-painting series called “Riverside” stands out among the works. Its play with vague reflections, and its poignancy of display located within the Union so close to the lake, serve to amplify the series’ artistic impact and real life transcendence.
However, the beauty of these paintings is partially obscured when viewed in the daytime, because of the intrusive reflection of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s windows on the glass display cases containing much of Youn’s artwork. For such an understated exhibit, the bright reflection distracts from the subtlety of the paintings. But the Theater Gallery itself is a nostalgic space, so peace can be made with the retro windows’ reflection onto these paintings meant to evoke a sense of the past, and all is not lost.
Youn’s “Torture of Meaningless” isn’t torture in the least, and examines the blurry and indistinct qualities of the material world, in everyday life. With subjects that run the gamut from greenhouses to lamps to bananas, Youn’s exhibition is a true collection of observational art.
“Torture of Meaningless” will be on display in the Theater Gallery in the Memorial Union until March 22.