In Jin Young Yu’s doll-like sculptures, her characters have style and a spectral beauty, yet one has the sense, when considering the competing emotions that can be seen passing through their facial expressions that these characters would rather not be looked at. Often grouped into open-ended vignettes, and bearing acute emotional subtlety, they seem to be hiding something deeper, as though the viewer has just caught them in an unguarded moment. Yu’s nearly invisible or transparent renderings belie the complex richness below their surface.
Their transparency should be revealing: how could they hide anything when you can see right through them? But this is misdirection. The artist is dramatizing the pressures in contemporary life between how we are expected to behave versus how we really feel; what we are expected to show versus the real opinion that we can never share. The transparency of these figures alludes to the desire to disappear, or the attempt to always blend in, even at a high cost.
These societal pressures to conform are certainly true all over, but the artist, born, trained and based in South Korea, feels them especially strong in her own culture. Korea is known for being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, perhaps the most “wired.” Yet this profound connectivity is full of contradictions: video game addiction is widespread, detachment and ennui are prevalent, cyber bullying is an ever-present threat. On top of this, the culture maintains an incredibly traditional, old-world mentality of formality and reserve in social interactions.
With critical awareness, Yu registers these contractions through her emotionally complex individuals, and for the last 10 years, has been exploring this tension in evolving ways. From the series “Me & Myself,” inspired by her own life, she explores individuals who wish to be invisible but are trapped in a society that demands constant public sharing, to the series “Me & Them,” where she explores an individual’s inner struggle with voices from her past. She is foremost in Korea at satirizing this pretension and pressure to act nice and polite.
Made using clear plastic, her figures from the “Me & Myself” series nearly disappear, only the face, hands, feet and accessories float visibly. The transparent bodies fulfill the wish of these characters to either vanish, or else, to finally find the way to fit into their surroundings. Her sculptures’ modeled faces, made from Fiberglas-reinforced plastic and paint, essay subtle facial expressions and layered emotions of resilience and hurt.
Yu achieves the invisibility of these sculpted figures through highly transparent plastic, a material that she prefers because it does not bend light the way glass and other choices would. Using a labor-intensive process done entirely by hand, Yu is able to create eerie ethereal effects for her sculptures. The transparent bodies are produced in halves divided vertically, and attached to one another by stitches, a process that reinforces the hand-made quality of the work and testify to the artist’s mastery.
The most recent body of work finds Yu moving away from transparency toward translucency, and away from the tension between an individual and society, and toward the personal internal struggle of individuals. Works from the “Me & Them” series place the artist’s poignant characters in dialog with voices from their own past. These figures appear surrounded by faces and voices that hover hauntingly around their heads.
With the current exhibition, Yu assembles her sculptures into installations that incorporate smaller two-dimensional acrylic works that complement the nearly life-sized sculpture. The acrylic works were made specifically for this exhibition and have never been shown before. By bringing her figures together in a mise-en-scene, the exhibition makes full use of the raw and expansive popup gallery space.
Many Korean social critics consider Korea to be over-conformist and homogeneous. Human interactions are governed by a severe level of “formality.” This age-old social mentality has been clashing with the growing influence of Western individualism. Yu is one of the most potent commentators in Korea on this state of affairs, yet her highly personal, sympathetic character studies give her work universal resonance. Her works are emotion-packed, anxiety-ridden artifacts of contemporary struggles that many people in the world go through to meet social expectations and find their own voice. Her renderings of doll and animation-like figures and her finger-on-the-pulse subject matter truly represent Korean contemporary art.