In the Studio with Yuan Fang.

Words by

Alex Leav

In the Studio with Yuan Fang.

Overheard at the private opening of Yuan Fang’s recent exhibition at Prince & Wooster in New York is a conversation between the artist and a guest. The two of them stand before a sprawling, 83 x 134 canvas composed of energetic and colorful overlapping, intertwining swirls and gestures. The guest, looking intently at the painting while sipping a glass of tequila on the rocks, asks the artist sweetly: “can you explain this to me?” Yuan, politely and seriously, responds: “well, it’s a painting.” 
This answer is perfectly indicative of who Yuan Fang is. She’s confident, unapologetic, a bit sarcastic, cognizant of art history and respectful of tradition ... and her work is the same. Yuan’s paintings – and her embrace of Greenberg-ian modernism in a time (or, an art world) that feels beset by figuration and narrative – is refreshing and important. 
Yuan Fang, Installation view. Prince & Wooster, New York. Image courtesy Prince & Wooster.

Since we're currently in your studio in Brooklyn, I think an appropriate place to start would be to talk about the space itself. When did you move into this studio, and how do you think having this large space has affected your practice?

I just graduated from my MFA program at the School of Visual Arts this spring, and (sadly) the school kicks us out one month after our program ends. It was unbelievably stressful to find my first studio after school, but in the end, I got pretty lucky - one of my professors at SVA, James Siena, gave me the contact information for his studio building, and the location is a 20-minute commute from my apartment. So, I put down the deposit even before they finished renovating the space and moved in at the end of May. 

I would say getting a fairly large studio is one of the best decisions I have ever made! First of all, I always want to go bigger - I sometimes joke about it as my way of “manspreading” as a petite Asian girl. Besides that, I guess how I get involved with the canvas is highly dependent upon the relationship between me and my surroundings when I am working. Painting in a big space definitely helps me to actually see what is going on within the painting and makes the brushstrokes looser. Additionally, I like to place a few paintings side by side all together in the studio to look at them as a group to figure out how to edit some details of each one, and having this studio definitely gives me the chance to do that.

I love your phrase “getting involved with the canvas.” It pegs painting as a collaborative process between artist and material.  How do you begin to “get involved” with a canvas? What does your process look like? 

The process for me feels more like a battle between the canvas and myself. The key is to stay present and be fully aware of what is happening in every corner of the canvas.

I would say that my process changes from time to time. Recently, I tend to start with little studies/sketches with pen and crayon to initiate a brief composition and color palette of each painting, and use it as reference to begin the first layer of paintings. I mainly work with acrylic and sometimes add a little bit spray paint. Then, I just build up more and more layers until I call it an end. 

When I’m lucky, finishing one painting takes only a few days. Mostly, though, I start working on one painting this week and then feel not so great about it, put it aside, and rework it next week, etc. Sometimes I will just stare at an old painting (by old, I mean a few months old) in my studio for a while and cover some parts of it or add more details. Sometimes I just paint over paintings I don’t feel confident about - there are no rules. 

Yuan Fang, "Marching 03," 2022. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 72x60 inches. Image courtesy Prince & Wooster.

What constitutes a “finished” painting for you? 

The hardest question! I’m actually the type of painter who will keep working on paintings until the art handlers come into the studio. I see my paintings as my own children. When I am surrounded by them in the studio, I can sense that they are growing and nurturing from each other. If you have kids, will there be a moment when you think you are done raising them? No.

Hence, to me, there is no “finished” painting. When I saw works from last year hanging in a collector’s space, although one year ago when I let them leave my studio, I double-checked that I felt assured about them, when I saw them physically again, I just couldn’t help but thinking about what changes I should make if I could work on them again. It is complicated.

But if I must “finalize” a painting (because we all have to, right?) I would define it as when I figure out the overall situations of each painting and make sure that even if I am going to edit it later, it will be only minor moderations. This definitely sounds cliche, but my own instincts are the only judge of that. For each studio day, after a few hours of working I will have a sense that whether today is the day to finish a painting, and if it is, I won’t leave until I am satisfied enough to call it an end. Painting is hard!

What do you mean by “figure out the overall situation of each painting?” What exactly are you trying to figure out through painting? Or, more broadly, what do you feel like your work is about? 

In my early adulthood, I went through a period of depression, and during that time I started to draw in my sketchbooks or any paper I could find to escape from the reality I was living in. Making paintings is the continuation of that motive. It didn’t take me that long to figure out that I am an abstract painter, because I have no intention of depicting any exact objects that you can find in real life. 

To me, the lines and shapes in my painting are distorted and abstracted human bodies, and I let them interact with each other, creating a chaotic relationship within them as a metaphor for the tumultuous living condition of human beings. Those depictions of speed and clutter in my paintings are also imprints of anxiety and disorder from my earlier life.

My process is mostly improvisational. I spent a lot of time in the studio just simply looking at the canvas in process and waiting for it to get back to me for the next step. It feels like there is an intangible conversation between me and the painting. For me, painting functions as a sanctuary, a venture through which I find relief and know I can always count on. 

Yuan Fang, Installation view. Prince & Wooster, New York. Image courtesy Prince & Wooster.

Who are your biggest influences?

I feel that when I first started painting, which is around four years ago, it was quite easy for me to “have a crush” on other artists. Anyways, I would say Pollock and Krasner are my painting parents. Without them, I won’t commit myself to paintings. I was fortunate enough to go to college in the city, and I learned more from museums and galleries there than classes in school. I saw Lee Krasner’s Umber Painting series at Kasmin Gallery 5 years ago and was mind blown. Lots of Pollock from different periods in museums also inspire me. When I just moved to New York City as a 18 years old having barely any knowledge of modern art history, I was shocked to see that giant Pollock’s drip painting hanging at MoMA and it informed me of the possibility of what defines a painting. Francis Bacon and Cecily Brown also have been in my mind forever. I guess people will be shocked if I don’t bring up those names, haha.

Recently, I have been trying to not let too many influences overcrowd my practice and focus on my own path. Now it is more like every time I see anything interesting, I will disassemble it in my mind asking myself why I like it. And if I have an answer, I will remember what it is and maybe bring it into my works in the future, cautiously.

Yuan Fang, "Marching 01," 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Image courtesy Prince & Wooster.

If you could ask Lee Krasner or Jackson Pollock anything, what would you ask? 

I would ask Lee Krasner what it felt like to be overshadowed by her husband, and how she focused on her own practice while being with another painter. I feel really fortunate to be a female artist at the time we are living in and want to thank all our predecessors for being hardworking and keeping making strong works no matter if that would be recognized when they were alive. 

Along the lines of influence, what is the best advice about painting that you’ve received? 

I was in Marilyn Minter’s critique class last year and she told me: 1. Don’t overwork; 2. Instead of making the canvas evenly distributed, have one or more focal points in each painting so that the viewers know where to enter. Those are the best pieces of advice I was given.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

I think I am still too young to give a “younger” version of myself any advice, since I am still figuring out my new life after school. But if I could, I would tell a young, confused Yuan to just embrace who you are and care less about what others think of you.

Yuan Fang, "Feast 01," 2022. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 83 x 134 inches. Image courtesy Prince & Wooster.
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