Paintings that honor the intimacy of mourning

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I first wrote to Crys Yin in June 2020, shortly after New York went into lockdown due to COVID-19, to learn about his upcoming exhibition at AIR Gallery in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. I was hesitant to travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn and learned from Yin that the show had been postponed. Although the exhibit eventually opened, I ultimately didn’t see it. Months later, after vaccines became widely available and people started to feel noticeably safer, I invited Yin to work in the exhibit. Cooking at home, for LaiSun Keane Gallery in Boston (October 23 – December 5, 2021). She was the only artist in the show whose work I had yet to see in person, and when I finally saw her, I was happy with the two works she sent.

One thing I love about Yin art is that I never know what to expect. If I had to characterize her, all I could say is that I consider her a painter of still lifes who does not align herself with a Western perspective on the subject, nor is she interested in chinoiserie. I never detected any irony in what she does, and she continues to find ways to turn her subjectivity and personal cultural experiences into something seemingly objective and even cool. His current exhibition, Crys Yin: Nothing to exclaim at Deanna Evans Projects (January 7-February 19, 2022), confirmed my sense that Yin defines a territory of its own.

The exhibition consists of 20 untitled numbered paintings of burning incense sticks and three largely white paintings collectively titled “Offering” and numbered. Traditionally, white is the color of mourning in Chinese culture. The common subject of both groups of paintings is mourning, which for anything that happens in public is largely a private matter. In the untitled paintings, all of which measure 14 inches by 11 inches and are done in acrylic on wood, Yin depicts burning incense sticks placed in ceramic vases and pots. Incense sticks are a type of incense that is burned in front of Asian religious objects, statues, shrines, and pictures of loved ones at their funerals. It symbolizes the ascension of his prayers.

Crys Yin, Untitled series (2021), acrylic on wood panel, each 14 x 11 inches

Instead of displaying these paintings individually, they were arranged in a tight grid measuring five paintings wide and four high. In doing so, Yin was able to exhibit a large number of works from this series in the intimately sized gallery. The patterns of many of these paintings are dull gray or dark blue. All ceramic bowls and pots are made in earthy and understated monochromes: celadon, blue, brown and grey. In their color palette and lighting, they convey a dark mood. Like paintings, they serve as offerings placed in front of the viewer, subtly reminding us that we too will be absent one day.

Without ever spelling it out, Yin’s untitled series encapsulates much of our lives over the past year and a half as we lived through a pandemic. Death is everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before someone we know becomes a statistic. This is one of the strengths of his work. Regardless of the source, I never felt that the specific details of the works were used to supersede all of our feelings. His paintings are not anecdotal. They are meant to spark a kind of visual empathy, an awareness that privacy and loss need not be flaunted or exploited in public, as well as inviting us to reflect on how we let’s deal with grief.

In the three “Offering” paintings, Yin explores a less ritualized way of dealing with grief and saying prayers. The paintings all measure 30 by 24 inches. Although mostly white, the artist uses other subdued tones to distinguish one area or thing from another. In “Offering No. 3” (2021), she depicts a simple, open, tabernacle-like wooden structure with a pointed roof. The structure rests on two front legs, the rear being attached to a tree. Inside the structure is a vase with a single flower rising into the air.

Crys Yin, “Offering No. 1” (2021), acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 24 inches

Given the title, it is difficult to think that this painting represents anything other than a memorial. At the same time, Yin tells us nothing about the individual whose memory is honored. She is not appropriating this individual’s story for her own ends. She uses the structure to memorialize her own feelings of grief without making the deceased the center of attention, prompting this rejigging of a well-known aphorism from Ad Reinhardt: grief is grief and everything else is everything. the rest.

The way a particular sight can open the doors to your feelings is crucial to the “Offering” paintings. It hit home in the other two paintings. “Offering No. 2” (2021) is an overhead view of a table with half an orange and a crumpled napkin on it. The view is consistent with someone looking at what remains, evoking an absence. This is also true of “Offrir no. 1” (2021), where a parquet floor is barely visible in the corner of a room, where part of a framed work is visible on the wall. The view is unusual and the association, though private, is not impossible to guess, due to Yin’s use of white. It seems to me that Yin knows this. The view frames a spot on the floor where a cat or dog could spread out, watched by someone sitting in a chair. This is a place that would mean a lot to the pet’s owner, especially if he died recently. By touching these places and remembering where the emotions might bubble, Yin is able to be both public and private, and to honor those realms, which is rare in a world where public tributes all seem to be made from the same pool of worn-out words.

Crys Yin: Nothing to exclaim continues at Deanna Evans Projects (373 Broadway, E15, 5th Floor, Manhattan) through February 19.

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