Interview with Shangkai Kevin Yu

by Claire Cushman (MFA 2015)

“I usually paint the painting in my head first, to give myself time to decide whether it’s actually worth painting,” says Shangkai Kevin Yu, (who goes by Kevin), of his process. “If it is, then I take photos, either in the place where I initially encountered the objects, or by arranging the objects and people to mimic the narrative I saw. But even in this phase, the painting still runs the risk of being abandoned.”
Kevin uses multiple painting techniques to capture fleeting sensory experiences from his everyday life, and the narrative associations he sees between objects and people. Yu’s fully executed, non-abandoned paintings can currently be viewed at both Mark Miller Gallery, as part of the New York Academy of Art 2015 Chubb Fellows Exhibition, and Gallery Poulsen in Copenhagen, as part of the New York Academy of Art Graduates show. Below, Yu discusses his work.

Island of the Dead
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Taiwan and mostly grew up there. I went to high school in Vancouver.

What do you draw inspiration from?
I’m inspired by the relationships between objects, and between people and objects.
Dessert Course

Name three of your favourite painters.
Holbein, Ingres, Morandi.

How do you begin a painting, and how does your practice go as you work?
I start by looking for a narrative in the relationship between objects and people from my day-to-day life. The idea and the image happen concurrently. When I finally begin painting from the photo reference, I focus on the drawing aspect. Color and value come later, and help me create or clarify the narrative.

How do you apply paint?
Paint application varies depending on the narrative of the painting, which usually requires more than one painting technique. I use both indirect and direct painting, in different places. Up until now, I have mostly painted in relatively thin layers, without impasto. If I have an image or idea that requires thick paint in parts, I’ll use it, but so far that has been rare.

What materials do you like to use?
I prime my canvas with wet-sanded acrylic gesso, transparent gesso, or a combination of the two. I use straight oil paint, and occasionally mix a dab of alkyd resin into the paint. This increases the strength of the paint film, and helps prevent surface tension. If I need a more aggressive indirect painting technique that involves a lot of wiping, then I sometimes use diluted alkyd resin as a barrier coat to protect the bottom layers from being wiped out.

                      Grandma at the Table
How do you know when a work is finished?
Usually I know the work is finished when the image has a complete idea. I have to be more lenient on the technical aspect towards the end, because it could always be improved. It will never be good enough, so it shouldn’t impede the completion of the painting – I’ve learned to accept technical flaws, and do it better next time.

If you could retake any class at the Academy, what would it be?
Long Pose. I really enjoy working on one drawing from a model for weeks on end.

What piece of advice would you give Academy students?
Have a position, a ground to stand upon. Listen, talk, argue, and grow from that ground.

Name two quirky things we can find in your studio.
A violin that is regularly played to produce horrendous sound, and a dartboard.

What are you reading these days?
I have the habit of starting a new book without finishing the previous one, so I am reading several books at once – Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Mythologies, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, etc. The one book I managed to finish recently was Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper.
Science Fiction

What do you listen to while you’re painting?
I like TV shows that I’ve already seen, so I can just listen to them. Music affects my mood too much – it’s not a good work companion for me. For example, I don’t want to find myself painting faster because the music has a faster tempo.

How did your work change over the course of your time at the Academy – especially during your post-graduate year?
The Academy armed me with enough knowledge on the why, when, and how of different painting techniques. I’ve been able to experiment with paint application in a narrative sense. During my fellowship year, I wanted to create a narrative context that spanned over five paintings, which was something I had wanted to do for a while.

What was the relationship among those five paintings?
The pattern of the wallpaper in these five paintings ties them together, and suggests a domestic environment, without explicitly describing the particular function of the room, (i.e. bathroom, bedroom, living room). The Island of the Dead is the most important piece in setting up the environment that spans the four other paintings. This painting shows pork chops stacked together on a table. They reminded me of Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead V at the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig. 
Arnold Böcklin's Island of the Dead V
The light fixture in Science Fiction looks like an extra-terrestrial structure, a sentinel of another planet. For the electrical socket in “Dessert Course,” I smoothed the sharp edges so that the object would appear organic, dessert-like. I depicted my grandparents in poses and compositions reminiscent of German Renaissance portraiture. The knives imply that the figures are facing the pork chop on the table.

Pick a piece by another artist and tell me about it.
I want to talk about Morandi, but it’s hard to pick a single piece. Most of his paintings have simple compositions and drawings. The objective is the vibrations of values and colors… Or maybe I’m wrong, because I can’t take my eyes off the trembling lines that defined the objects. 

What’s your favourite paint color?
I don’t have one. Colors are worth something in painting because they’re never alone. Different contexts bring out different aspects of a color, so I gravitate towards certain color relationships – turquoise with burnt umber, yellow with purple, orange with turquoise, etc. 

Grandpa at the Table

If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
I have no clue.

Finally, what are your plans for this year?
I’m working towards a group show with Art Bastion, my gallery in Miami. Starting and finishing paintings, as usual.


Interview with Stephen Vollo, NYAA 2015 Fellow

“I chose to paint a bed because of its inherent content,” says Stephen Vollo, of his painting of a rather ordinary looking bed. “It’s a place where people have sex, dream, and possibly die. But it’s also a part of our everyday routine. So it has many, often contradictory associations. I wanted to make a painting that allowed this content to come forth, rather than construct a specific narrative around this potent, universal symbol.”


If you find yourself in Copenhagen between now and Halloween, you can see the bed painting up close at Gallery Poulsen, where Stephen’s work hangs alongside paintings by Shangkai Kevin Yu and Abigail Schmidt, as part of the New York Academy of Art Graduates show. If, like most of us, you’re not in Denmark, don’t worry – you can see more of Vollo’s sparsely composed paintings on the Lower East Side, at Mark Miller Gallery, for the 2015 Fellows Show. The show also features the works of Alonsa Guevara Aliaga and Shangkai Kevin Yu, and marks the beginning of these three artists’ exciting careers. The show runs until September 30th.

Below, Stephen discusses his work.

DogWhat major themes do you pursue in your work?
What major themes do you pursue in your work?
The subject matter is mundane. I paint the objects, spaces, people and materials that I am most familiar with. The themes vary from painting to painting and are meant to be open ended.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up upstate in the town of Webster. It's a suburb of Rochester.

What inspires you?
Mostly, it's reflecting on my own experiences in a broader context. Other artists inspire me as well. Not only visual artists, but musicians and writers whose work I admire.

Name three of your favourite painters.
Manet, Rembrandt, Chardin... 


Tell us about your practice – how do you start? With an image, an idea, a story?
It depends. There is not a set order, but I might start by thinking very loosely about a subject.  This eventually becomes sketches and even sometimes writing. Then I'll take photographs or use 3D modelling if I need to. I'll use any references that can help.  But I do a lot of the work by looking at the painting, and not much else.

Talk about your process – how do you apply paint?
I try to apply paint so it has a physicality. That doesn't always mean thick. I like the look of semi-opaque to opaque paint.  If I glaze, I usually rub in a transparent pigment with little to no medium.

What materials do you like to use and how do you know when your work is finished?
I use oil paints, sometimes with a little bit of alkyd medium.  I paint on canvas stretched over panel, so the thick paint has less of a chance of cracking off.  Ideally, I know a painting is finished because it seems like it will continue to be interesting once I walk away. Longevity for me has a lot to do with a feeling that the painting continually opens up new meanings, rather than a feeling of closing down. Paintings should also feel relevant and meaningful to my own life.  If they don't, it can be arbitrary. Sometimes I might have a deadline, and be exhausted from trying to make a painting work. In this case, hopefully nothing in the painting embarrasses me too much, and I just let it go. Reluctantly.

If you could retake any class at the Academy what would it be and why?
I don't think I could retake any. Twenty years of school is more than enough.

How did your work change over the course of your time at the Academy – especially during your post-graduate year?
When I first came to New York, I was using humor, irony, and contradiction within images. Although I don't think those things have left my work entirely, at a certain point I really stripped things down. I tried to see what kind of narrative was possible if I let the painting be just the viewer’s presence in dialogue with the subject’s presence. I began to find the dynamic of the mobile viewer and the immobile fiction of the painting really compelling. The Fellowship year was tough, because I stripped things back even further, and tried to see how far I could push aspects of the paintings technically. I found some limits for myself.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as an artist?
I don't know if it's the best, but I remember it.  "This looks like you know to draw, but you don't know how to do anything else."

What piece of advice would you give incoming Academy students?
You're paying a lot of money to improve your work, not to prove how good you are.

Name two quirky things we can find in your studio.
Carpet samples. I used to have a studio rabbit that loved classical music and would lie on his back by my feet as I painted.

Tell us about your NYAA thesis paper.
I wrote about the role of touch in the experience of a painting.  In art history and art theory it's referred to as haptics. 

What are you reading these days?
I just finished Art and Illusion by Gombrich, and David to Delacroix by Walter Friedlander. Right now, I'm reading a couple of art history books and a collection of essays called Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam.

Do you paint to music, or in silence? If music (or other audio), what?
I sometimes listen to music. Audio books and lectures are great, too.  Silence is probably what I'd prefer most, but it's not always possible for one reason or another. It’s necessary for parts of the process, though.

Saint Acisclus

Discuss one of your own pieces.
The bed started off as a comical, absurd painting. When I took the obvious humor out, I saw something very subtle, that was more interesting. I must have repainted every part of that painting a dozen times, some more.

Discuss a piece by another artist.
I love polychrome sculptures. There's one at the Hispanic Society of a Saint Acisclus, a martyr with his throat slit - it's so strange and present. I especially like walking around it, getting a look at the back of his head from the hallway, and then moving around to see his face.  I circle around it almost like a minimalist sculpture.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
If I didn't paint, I'd probably want to work in some other art form. Sometimes I'm curious how my paintings would translate into short stories, poems or novels.

Do you have a favorite paint color?
I don't have a favorite, but I do like subtle temperature shifts and muted color combinations.

Finally, what are your plans for this year?
I have a job working for an artist in Dumbo.  I'll do that for money, and at night and my days off I'll continue to work on my paintings.  I have some compositions I'm excited to start. I've also been wanting to do some ink drawings lately.


Fellows Interviews - Alonsa Guevara

Interview with 2015 Fellow Alonsa Guevara Aliaga
On Tuesday, September 8th, Mark Miller gallery and the New York Academy of Art will unveil the works of the 2015 NYAA Postgraduate Chubb Fellows – Alonsa Guevara, Stephen Vollo, and Shangkai Kevin Yu. This show marks the culmination of these artists’ yearlong fellowships, and the beginning of their promising careers. The opening reception will take place on September 8th from 6-8 pm, and the show will run until September 30th. Each artist has received a Master of Fine Arts in Painting from the Academy, and has developed a unique aesthetic and body of work.

Alonsa Guevera was recently named one of Time Out New York’s five most important new artists. Her lush, vivid paintings explore concepts of beauty, abundance and desire. She uses familiar items such as fruit, flowers and insects in fantastical still lifes that leave viewers with their mouths watering. Below, Alonsa discusses her work.

What major themes do you pursue in your work? 
Desire, still life, nature, fruits, trompe l'oeil, magical worlds, female archetypes, eroticism/death.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Chile and moved to Ecuador when I was five years old. My family and I spent years living on a ranch in the jungle, surrounded by farmland and wild animals. 

What inspires you?  I am fascinated by the complexity of nature. Every day I find new inspiration, especially now with the Fruit Portraits I’m making. I walk around different neighborhoods in the city and find new fruits from the markets of all different cultures. My dreams, my family, and memories from my childhood in Chile and Ecuador, where I was always connected to nature, also inspire me. Finally, I am inspired by the work of other artists.

As a child in the jungle
Name three of your favorite painters. 
It’s impossible to choose a favorite. Lately I’ve been looking a lot at Christian Rex Van Minnen, Julie Heffernan, Luis Meléndez, Frans Snyders and John Singer Sargent. I also love Paula Rego, Ingres, Dalí…

How do you start your paintings – with an idea, an image, or a story?
I try to find an image with something desirable in it. Often, I start painting, and then halfway through, I look at the painting and it reminds me of something I hadn’t expected, or tells me a story. The story comes at the end.

Talk about your process – how do you apply paint?
I like to have a way to draw easily without using any drawing materials on my canvas. Sometimes I block in the painting with acrylic first – this way the local colors and value structure are set in the painting from the start. Then I go in with oil and develop the temperature of the image. With bigger paintings, I like to cover the whole canvas with one colour in oil and then wipe away with a rag –– oil allows me to move things around and have it looser at the beginning.

What mediums and materials do you use?
I use a lot of different mediums, and I’m always trying new materials. Sometimes I work with resins, Galkyd, stand oil, linseed oil, Turpenoid, Gamsol… and sometimes I make a medium with Damar Varnish toward the end. I use many different kinds of brushes. For surfaces, canvas is my favorite. I also really like to work on aluminum. I don’t “trust” wood as much.

How do you know when a painting is finished?
That’s a hard question. I just keep working on it until it gives me the feeling I want from it. And when I look at my painting and I’m afraid I’ll mess it up if I touch it, I know it’s done.

If you could retake any class at the Academy, what would it be?
Easy – I would retake “Painting at the Met” with Ted Schmidt. I know that if I took it again, I would learn something new. There's so much to learn from copying paintings.

"Ceremonies" triptych

How did your work change during your time at the Academy?
During my first and second year, my work really changed in a technical way. I learned so much by working from life, which I wasn’t used to doing. I started paying more attention to the whole canvas, and developing space and volume.

The message in my paintings has remained the same though – what I always want to do is create an illusion in which the viewer feels desire for the painting, but this desire ultimately cannot be fulfilled.

During my first and second years, I made the “Paper Girls” paintings, of these beautiful women from magazines. I wanted the viewer to experience this sense of unfulfilled desire -because they are paper people, you can’t have anything back from them. I painted tons of those, until I found what I needed, and then moved on.

During my fellowship year, I totally changed the kind of imagery that I made, and the way I paint also changed a lot. But the message is the same. The fruits are juicy, they have a center, some of them a hole, you want to get inside of it – but again, they are just paintings.

Detail of portrait of the artist's brother

What is the best advice someone has given to you?
During my first year of undergrad, I had a teacher tell me I should focus on printmaking, because my paintings, which I was doing mostly from my imagination, “weren’t working.” I’m very stubborn though, and his advice just made me want to paint more. During that year I took Painting 1 and started painting objects from life, and I got pretty good at it. After that year, the same teacher asked me to be his TA for Painting 2. And he told me “You can listen to other people’s advice, but more importantly, listen to yourself.” 

What advice would you give Academy students?
Really take advantage of the time you have now. If you ever feel like teachers aren’t giving you what you want from them, ask questions.

What three weird things can we find in your studio?
I paint fruit, and then I always eat them in my studio. I save the pits and seeds in a jar… These are the skeletons of my models, really! I also have lots of stickers from the fruits.

What are you reading?
"33 Artists and 3 Acts", by Sarah Thornton. I’ve also been reading a lot of books about fruits and their histories, and George Bataille’s “Eroticism and Death.” Mostly though, I’m painting!

What do you listen to while you paint?
I listen to a lot of music, and also lots of podcasts, like Ted Talks and the news. Sometimes I just play BBC news.

Tell me about one piece.
There is a triptych of me, my sister and my brother – this is the opening for a new body of work that I’m calling ceremonies. These paintings are about the love I have for my family, and the relationship between desire and death. The figures here are bodies, but you can’t tell whether they’re alive or dead –is it a funeral, an initiation ceremony? With these paintings, I’m creating another world, a different reality. Some of the fruits are real, some are from my imagination. 

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Something creative – a musician, a writer, or a filmmaker. Or maybe a therapist –  I really like psychology too. But I can’t really imagine myself not being an artist.

If you could live in another era, when would it be?
I’m not a religious person, but I would live when Jesus was alive – I think it would be an exciting, iconic time.

Pits, seeds, and stickers.

What are your favorite colors?
I have so many! I love madder lake red. Quinecridone red, magenta, transparent red oxide – a lot of the reds.

What are your plans for this year?
To keep painting, like always. I would love to travel more, and see more nature, more fruits, get more inspiration. If I go to Chile again, I will do the same thing I did last year – take a truck and buy tons of fruit for my painting set ups.

Alonsa also is part of the exhibition “Three Women” at Anna Zorina gallery, opening September 10th. This show also features the work of Patty Horing (MFA 2015) and Nadine Faraj.