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Yuri Yuan

Art history has had an immense influence on my creative process. I was born in China in a town called Harbin and my mother did business in Russia. Whenever she would return from her trips she would bring back museum catalogs. Those catalogs were my earliest memories of oil paintings. 

My undergraduate experience honed my passion for art history. I attended the Art Institute of Chicago and we had our own museum next to the school. When I needed inspiration, I could always go into the museum and look at how artists before me perfected their craft. My earliest influences were Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, and Cézanne. Cézanne still has a profound impact on my work because of his emphasis on the act of looking. We’re so used to seeing the world through a lens or a camera that sometimes we forget about the phenomenology of looking with our eyes. In my work, I place the viewer in my perspective, presenting the gaze of the artist. 


My paintings usually start with a story or an image in my head. I’m inspired by writing, film, and philosophy. I like short stories by Haruki Murakami because his stories share a similar sentiment to what I’m trying to express in my work. However, I don’t want my paintings to be an illustration of a written story. My paintings are influenced by writing and film, but I want them to be experienced as visual images. I think of my paintings as the transitional shot between different points in a story, as the build-up rather than the action. You rarely see action in my paintings; instead, you will see people waiting or looking at something.

When I make works, I start with basic sketches in pencil, then I will work on color studies before I move on to larger-scale painting. Sometimes, I use my iPad in between processes just to see how it would look if I tweak a color, but I mainly stick to sketches and oils. When I’m making a painting I will ask: Where is this? What time of day is it? Where is the light shining from? Is this a strong or soft light? What does light mean metaphorically and how does it change the narrative?

I’m currently going through a color evolution. Recently, I’ve been using a limited palette of bluish-purple tones. Many of my paintings are set at dawn or dusk, which are characterized by a particular quality of light reflecting from the sky. Attention to quality of light and its association with color shape my decisions when I paint. 

I’ve lived in so many different places–Harbin, Singapore, Chicago, and now New York. Each city is not just different culturally but also has a different aesthetic and color palette. For example, Singapore is a lush, bright city, whereas Chicago and New York are more gray. I think a lot about light, and in some paintings, I might even think about how humid that environment would be. Humidity would create haziness, so I would incorporate more gray, creating a veil over the painting. 

The two colors I’m interested in for my current piece are nickel yellow and cobalt teal bluish. I discovered these two colors while I was making a painting about Vermeer and researching the pigments he used. I tried to find the exact pigments and nickel yellow was one of them. It’s much cooler than cadmium yellow and captures the cold light of the Northern Hemisphere. The blue that I chose is a turquoise, teal, greenish color. It gives the painting a sense of uneasiness and is less welcoming than ultramarine or baby blue, which provide a sense of innocence. I have a whole chart of different pigments, including their drying rate, lightfastness, and opacity. It’s very important to me. 

Home for me is constantly shifting, so my paintings often hold a sense of yearning and longing. In my last series, A Thousand Ships, I was thinking through the theme of yearning, using ships and the sea as a metaphor for home. Home for me is always shifting, but I still can establish a nest for myself in that movement. Some other diasporic artists might imagine themselves as a bridge between cultures, but I like to think of myself as a ship, alone, drifting in the waters. 

I enjoy creating my own world in painting because, in reality, there are not many places where I feel comfortable just existing. By painting, I’m digging out a cave that I can just exist in, like a fortress you built when you were a kid. I love my personal space. This concept underpins my new series, where I’m painting musicians, dancers, and artists in their element, enjoying their solitude in their craft. 
Eight Thousand Layers, 2023
Sketchbook, 2023
Umbrella, 2023
Wrecker, 2023

Images courtesy of the artist, Make Room Gallery, and Shuyao Chen.
Yuri Yuan (b. 1996) is an artist based in New York. She received a BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University.

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