Chinese artist Yuri Yuan's new show casts our mental health demons in an eerie and disturbing light. Born in China and raised in Singapore, she is today based in New York City, causing quite a stir with her inventive, narrative-driven work.
Her new solo show, entitled Dark Dreams, is typically provocative as she progresses her exploration of dreamlike allegories navigating psychology, the outside, and the unknown.
Previously, we've seen the narrative features in her paintings carried along through a unified place or moment. Her latest pieces, in contrast, depict idiosyncratic scenes directly inspired by her own distinct dreams and the moments immediately after waking from them, in which the boundaries between reality and dreamscape are blurred.
The result is perceptible and peculiar, tinged with the uncanny and the eerie, and characterised by open narratives, abstract elements, and symbolic references.
Mental health demons
Most strikingly, Yuri's new work openly approaches the demons of mental health at the personal, occupational, and societal levels. Key to this is her 2022 painting, The Storm In Me. Here, Yuri herself acts as both the realistically-rendered therapist and the implied patient. In her own words, this duality represents the act of "suppressing the dark side of me with rationality".
Speaking about the shift in how anxiety is perceived today, Yuri says: "In the contemporary age, we no longer fear dragons. The fears we have are much more abstract: the fear of catching Covid, the fear of losing someone we love, the fear of an economic recession or war, things that we have absolutely no control over."
Throughout this new series, Yuri delves deep into the human psyche, considering not just the border between the waking and the sleeping but also between the living and the dead.
In her work Will You Remember Me, for example, she hides 'memento mori' (literally, 'remember that you die') under the moonlight in a ﬁeld of ﬂowers by a mysterious body of water. Yuri says this painting was inspired by thoughts of how she would be remembered – or not – when she's gone. Between being remembered or forgotten, she wonders: "Which one is more desirable?"
Driven by this uncertainty, Yuri intentionally references multiple open narratives of Greek mythology. As a recurring motif in her work, a ﬁgure's presence ferrying a boat is revealed only through their reﬂection on water.
This ferryman references Charon of Hades, who carries the souls of the deceased to the underworld across the river Acheron. Yuri imagines that the river could also be another infernal river: Lethe, the river of forgetfulness; drinking from Lethe allows the spirits of the dead to forget their earthly lives, enabling them to be reincarnated.
Numerous narrative and visual references inform the conceptual framework of Yuri's work. These include painters such as Bernat Martorell, Henry Fuseli, Xu Beihong, and Edward Hopper; collections at The Met; cinematography; and even Bojack Horseman.
Yuri's painting Metamorphosis, for example, repurposes imagery from ﬁlms ranging from Dr Strangelove (1964), The Truman Show (1998), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Vertigo (1958), Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), and Paprika (2006).
This cinematic inﬂuence is also evidenced in her canvases, as she deliberately scales her paintings to the proportions of a ﬁlm screen and builds windows within her compositions to resemble the ratios of the cinema screen.
Dark Dreams is at Alexander Berggruen, 1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3, New York. This exhibition will open Wednesday 7 September, with a 5-7 pm reception at the gallery. It continues until 12 October, from Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-6pm.