Godfre Leung

Jinny Yu: why does its lock fit my key?
Galerie Art Mûr, November 3 to December 20, 2018

One’s first experience of Jinny Yu’s current exhibition is a dangerous one. The exhibition’s title, why does its lock fit my key?, appears on the gallery window in black vinyl letters. Behind it, the title reappears in the same size and font in white letters against a black text box, hand painted by the artist on a wall in shallow relief of the window. The perfect eclipse of white letters by black can’t be seen from the sidewalk; the viewer must stand in the street. As the viewer calibrates her physical location—and, as I did, dodge traffic—to find this sweet spot, she comes to realize the tightness of this single position to be extremely limiting in the many other possible positions that it occludes.

Why does its lock fit my key? continues Yu’s recent exploration of the subjectivities of contemporary political discourse through deceptively economical means. Her most visible work, Don’t They Ever Stop Migrating?, originally presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, features simple black ink brushstrokes densely covering a small canvas enclosure, accompanied by a similarly dense montage of audio clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. The exasperation expressed by the film’s heroines, in concert with the claustrophobia-inducing audio-visual installation, affectively places the viewer in the subject position of the self-styled “defenders” of Europe’s borders in our current age of refugee crises. In why does its lock fit my key?, Yu devotes her formal intelligence as a painter to a related end, punning on the term “perspective.” The exhibition is dominated by representations of corners executed in oil on standard-sized square or rectangular aluminum supports. These picture planes feature configurations of triangles and trapezoids in various intensities of black to produce the optical illusion known as axonometry, in which depicted space can be viewed as alternately receding from and advancing toward the viewer. In this endeavour, Yu invokes a history of axonometric painting that runs from Filippo Brunelleschi to Georges Braque to El Lissitzky to Terence Gower. The reversibility of these picture planes also speaks to the positive/negative logic expressed by the exhibition’s titular question, and its rendering in the gallery window. Can we, Yu asks, view the world from a different perspective than our own?

The viewer enters the exhibition through an open hallway that connects three distinct gallery spaces, on the far wall of which rests a rectangular aluminum painting. Its picture plane is divided into six triangles whose acutest angles each meet at a single point on the painting’s top edge, that point installed to coincide with the exact centre of the part of the wall visible from the hallway. This conscripts the gallery’s tiled floor as orthogonal lines toward a vanishing point. However, the same painted triangles that hypostatize a perfectly placed vanishing point also look more than anything else like a paper fortune teller. The painting’s monochromatic color scheme is ambiguous in its relating of volume, similar to Braque’s 1908 paintings of l’Estaque, and, like all but two works in the exhibition, it hangs askew. In Yu’s hands, the Renaissance’s spatial certainty playfully disintegrates into the flux of forwards and backwards, and positive and negative space, of a children’s game.

The other paintings successively train the viewer how to view these picture planes from multiple perspectives—a mental task that is more difficult than it might sound like. The seemingly haphazardly placed edges of the paintings relative to the picture planes’ axonometric axes occlude the certainty of a Raphael fresco or the systematic logic of composing from braccia and orthogonals, as laid out in Leon Battista Alberti’s famous tract on painting, preventing the viewer from simply oscillating between perceiving the picture plane as advancing toward and receding from her. A nearly infinite spectrum of perspectives unfolds between the polarities of positive and negative. At the same time, although the irregular placement of the paintings is motivated by one line in each being exactly parallel or perpendicular to the gallery floor, the volatility of their internal compositions and outer edges makes this almost impossible to perceive and furthermore extends outward to also destabilize the viewer’s perception of the physical gallery space.

To attempt to work through contemporary geopolitics using the formal language of the Western painting canon is to set a very high bar for what painting can do, even in the modest and highly provisional manner of Yu’s practice. But in the age of so-called Zombie Formalism, we might also find it refreshing in its utopianism as it channels the political ambitions of early twentieth-century avant-gardists such as El Lissitzky. If we unpack the presumed universality of the Western canon—and the competing objectivities and mathematical rigours of Brunelleschi’s and Lissitzky’s spatial logics—Yu’s destabilized, but nonetheless resolutely formal, painterly ways of seeing might in fact tell us something about how we see the world, and moreover how we locate ourselves within it.

In Antonio Manetti’s biography of Brunelleschi, the Renaissance master is said to have made a hole in the vanishing point of a painted panel and instructed viewers to look, with one eye, through the back of the painting at its reflection in a mirror. Linear perspective, this experiment demonstrated, is reversible, as orthogonal lines, carefully composed from the edge of the rectangular support, triangulate outwards from the picture plane to place the painting’s true subject, the viewer, in a single, stable sweet spot—a proto-Enlightenment I see, therefore I am. In Yu’s paintings, which, one notes, are on reflective aluminum supports, this reversibility invokes Brunelleschi’s mirror logic and seems to gesture toward the political polarization that increasingly imperils our world. But if Don’t They Ever Stop Migrating? asks us to view Europe’s immigration debates from the perspective opposite to Angela Merkel’s humanitarian concern, the salient point of why does its lock fit my key? is that a centrist position between two extremes is itself a fiction. The existential logic of a painting’s physical surface as the axonometric fulcrum of linear perspective simply doesn’t exist in Yu’s paintings, as much as their invocations of good form make us want it to.

As I write this, Hillary Clinton has just called on Europe’s leaders to “get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame” of far-right populism. An alternate hypothesis about the cause of the global conservative tide might be that the expectation in contemporary journalism that every position must be “fairly balanced” by an equal and opposite position, calibrated against an imaginary centre, in fact pushes the so-called moderate position farther and farther to the right. In the age of reactionary political discourse and its mediatization, why does its lock fit my key? asks, “How did we get here?”