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.


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