Yongsun Yoo’s Artworks: Standing between How to ‘Read’ Paintings and ‘Look’ at Their Stories
Are paintings to look at or to read?
The answer to this question is that painting—a genre of visual art—is obviously for someone to look at. However, are paintings today merely to be looked at? Is it enough that all we have to do is look at them? Today, contemporary art insists on being read. Using a single painting as a means, we discuss global issues and talk about history. Dwarf junior artists standing on the shoulders of giant senior artists agonize in their studios, overwhelmed not only by the act of painting but by the pressure of discourse.
Indeed, discourse itself matters. However, the creative activities of every artist do not have to be driven by a certain discourse. We need paintings that give us comfort as well and those that are just for pleasure also do have a cause to exist. Is it right to say that such paintings are irrelevant to complicated societies of our time or that they disregard the social role of art? I do not think so. Art is connected to the world in any way, and artists are also humans that live with us on this planet.
Nevertheless, contemporary art today requires a lot from artists. They have many things to handle other than their creative work. They need to make portfolios, write statements to explain their works, fill out applications for funding, and make presentations on their works before juries for awards and grants. Today, living as an artist is not easy.
Yongsun Yoo’s paintings are painting to look at.
When I saw Yoo’s paintings for the first time, I felt good because all I had to do was just look at them: vivid colors, attractive food ingredients, and delicious dishes. They resembled cartoon images or some visually entertaining pop art that could be easily enjoyed. When I first saw the logos of luxury brands and recognizable patterns in his paintings, I asked him whether he was making a critical commentary on contemporary consumer society. I got the impression that he couldn’t be bothered embellishing his works with such noble and serious intent. Rather, with his particular shy smile, he seemed to want to change the topic of our conversation since he did not intend to talk about such a subject matter. Upon hearing that he had simply drawn the images, I was embarrassed to display a symptom of occupational disease, one which forces me to read into paintings while tearing them apart. As it happened, he made a painting that is just to be looked at.
Yongsun Yoo’s paintings are Yongsun Yoo himself
Yoo brings himself wholly into his painting, revealing his true self through the canvas. In his exhibition “Organic Ingredients” into which the artist, who likes food and cooking, fully projects pictures of food ingredients, dishes, the food itself was on display. He wrote in his artist statement that he woke up late one morning, went to the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator to make a meal that he’d thought of the night before, only to find that the ingredients had gone stale. He recalled the British chef Jamie Oliver, who wittily went into his backyard to pick some vegetables in a similar situation. At the beginning of his artist statement, Yoo talks about the pleasures of cooking and confesses he likes Saruega Mart, a grocery store located in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul. In his statement, there is no apparent ideology, art history, nor art. There, the artist seems like a young man wandering around in any neighborhood in the late afternoon. For this reason, his paintings belie familiarity more than difficulty. He draws Nike shoes as he is a big fan of the global sportwear company Nike. Although logos and patterns from some major luxury brands such as Chanel, Hermès, and Gucci frequently appear as major motifs, the use of such logos and patterns is not intended to criticize the contemporary consumer society. They are the expression of Yoo’s interests, and he uses them because he can easily access them. Some may interpret his works as critical of consumer society, materialism, and an era of overabundance. Although the artist’s intent is not as such, it can be placed in any number of interpretative contexts after a work is completed and leaves the artist’s hands. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to deny such criticism. Despite that, this article faithfully follows the artist’s intention. In that respect, Yongsun Yoo’s pictures are of the artist himself. In other words, they are the artist’s portrait. They are a portrait of an artist who was born in 1988 when South Korea’s capital city of Seoul hosted the summer Olympic Games; introduced to painting through the help of anime rather than fine art; loves pistols and automobiles still; has interest in Nike and luxury brands; likes delicious food and cooking.
Yongsun Yoo’s paintings are ones in which stories can be seen.
Although the artist’s paintings are intended to be looked at, they can also be read. This does not necessarily mean that viewers need to read hidden meanings or symbols that appear in his works or interpret art history or the works’ relevance to modern society. Yoo’s paintings allow viewers to read stories connected by linked images. Since the artist doesn’t provide a clear explanation of the stories in his paintings, the act of reading is not indispensable, yet when the viewers make an effort to read these paintings as stories, they will appreciate the works even more.
In his latest solo exhibition “Welcome to 5 Stars Hotel,” Yongsun Yoo aggressively took advantage of a narrative structure. This exhibition began with a neon sign reading “Welcome to 5 Stars Hotel,” a phrase also found in his work, inviting viewers to feel as if they’re reading a mystery or detective novel. “5 Stars Hotel Viwe Map” is the beginning of a exhibition and a story. A motel with a name “five stars hotel” is something that one might see in a road movie. A shape of a gun is present on the neon sign, and a room on the third floor of the container box is closed off. Blood-stained bedclothes hang from the railing on the second floor and a mark on the ground suggests that there was a certain incident. As my eyes moved along the entrance to the hotel, a tiger leisurely emerged. Other works on display were episodes from the “5 Stars Hotel View Map.” The protagonist, who has stolen a Rolls Royce and is driving away, finds a sign of “Welcome to 5 Stars Hotel” and decides to enter the hotel. The hotel offers a service in which the head chef visits a guest staying in the suite and recommends a dish tailored to a story the guest tells to the chef. The man with a bullet wound, who is running away, asks for the best room and checks into the suite. At the reception desk, the key to the suite is made of chocolate, and the “blue thoughts” that follow the artist like they are the artist’s other self, staring with wide eyes as if they were witnessing a scene (“Still Life with Suite Room Key and ID”). In the hotel kitchen, the staff move about like busy bees (“Five Stars Restaurant Kitchen”) and a Louis Vuitton cart with a bottle of Dom Pérignon placed on top of it is awaiting in front of the door (“Please Do Not Disturb”). This is how these paintings are connected to a narrative—sometimes separately and sometimes together. Therefore, simply looking at the images makes for an enjoyable and pleasant experience. And yet, each work creates the possibility for viewers to imagine a story or speculate on the artist’s intent—a new experience that only Yongsun Yoo’s art can provide.