The Somnambulist: Charles Yuen’s Painterly Waking Dreams
Charles Yuen: Crypto-Somatic Incantation at Studio 10
February 5th to 28th, 2016
56 Bogart Street, between Harrison and Grattan streets,
Brooklyn, NY, (718) 852-4396
After sleepwalking through an afternoon of painting exhibitions stocked with retreads of Emil Nolde and Edvard Munch, I was awakened, ironically, by a show entitled Crypto–Somatic Incantation. If painting is a form of dreaming in an active state, Charles Yuen has achieved it.
Yuen’s antennae are unusually sensitive. As long as thirty years ago, he was a progenitor of the expressionist painting aesthetic influenced by late-Guston that has since gained currency. Today, one branch of this style often mixes self-deprecating, deskilled technique with cloyingly decorative color. This faux-naive painting style is often described as quirky and charming. Yuen choose a different path. Though he occasionally injects humor into his work, it is of the existential variety. Yuen’s paintings provide evidence that there is unfinished business regarding the spiritual in art, and he negotiates the territory with the wisdom of a seeker’s experience.
There are many fine paintings on display. In Umpf, a familiar Boschian Everyman, burdened by his own ungainly limbs, traverses a landscape. We feel pity and apprehension on his behalf as he drags the specter of death (a skull), along with the sustenance of life (fruit). The figure moves, embodied in an energetic cloud, as Yuen weaves a transparent envelope out of scratched curved lines that intersect and frame the event. At the edge of the image, Yuen has deftly slashed out a few gestural strokes, staging a deep space that appears suddenly to come into focus.
Almost every painting in the show is embedded with a version of repeating, freehand, curved lines that ripple across the field, (sometimes intersecting with another such group of lines). Somehow Yuen avoids the usual pitfalls of cheap op-effect or puerile affect.
Scarlet Prayer resonates even from across the room. The gently waving vertical pattern imbues the field with increasing depth, though it sits emphatically on the surface. Flickers of cobalt blue skip across the image, vibrating from the red field and adding another level of tactility. Five small ovoids containing praying hands float, randomly scattered. An outline of a proto-archaic figure stands facing the viewer in acknowledgement. A small pile of rubble appears on the lower right, perhaps symbolizing the eternal cycle of life, a recurring theme in Yuen’s work. It’s a difficult challenge to make a large red painting and have it meet expectation. Matisse did it with Red Studio, and Yuen does it here. This painting beckons, stares the viewer down, then opens up and becomes a place of contemplation.
In Man With Tubers, Yuen continues the theme of connectedness and renewal. The composition echoes the romantic landscape tradition. Two stacked horizontal blocks dominate, each comprising approximately half of the field, with a intermediate band of soft blur wedged between. Man With Tubers bears a striking similarity to Marine of 1907 by Ryder, currently on view at the National Academy Museum. Rothko, of course, used similar proportions in organizing his color forms. Both Ryder and Rothko set a high bar, but Yuen adds an extra and decisive element here: an evenly looping green line, slowly and loosely coiled,that floats over the proceedings from bottom to top, creating a kind of circuit. On the blur of the horizon, the green line assumes the shape of a figure in corpse pose. The figure embodies and stretches the full length of the horizon in this strikingly wide format. The supine figure mediates the symbolic transition between the upper realm of the composition, a steely blue-grey sky, and the lower realm, a dark, subterranean area, where tubers attach to the figure. Echoing the shape of the body, Yuen incorporates an elongated white cloud within one of the looping green coils in the upper half of the composition. The fresh, direct, and seemingly unmediated painting process displayed here leaves one marveling at just how tapped into the intuitive Yuen is. He is not just adopting style or referencing sources, as many do when Ryder or Guston come to mind, but instead seems, convincingly, to be sharing similar sources of inspiration and experience. Yuen’s paintings have wings not because he is symbolically mapping space, but because he can locate and imbed consciousness in the image and surface. Visages and persona show up, colors move, and the floor shifts: a rare feat indeed.