I first wrote to Crys Yin in June 2020, shortly after New York went under lockdown because of COVID-19, to find out about her upcoming exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery, in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. I was hesitant to travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and learned from Yin that the show had been postponed. Although the exhibition eventually opened, I did not see it in the end. Months later, after vaccines had become widely available and people began feeling noticeably safer, I invited Yin to have work in the exhibition Home Cooking, for LaiSun Keane Gallery in Boston (October 23–December 5, 2021). She was the only artist in the exhibition whose work I had not yet seen in person, and when I finally saw it I was happy about the two works she sent.
One thing that I like about Yin’s art is that I never know what to expect. If I were to characterize her, the most I could say is that I think of her as a still-life painter who does not align herself with a Western perspective on subject matter, nor is she interested in chinoiserie. I have never detected any irony in what she does, and she keeps finding ways to transform her subjectivity and personal cultural experiences into something seemingly objective and even cool. Her current exhibition, Crys Yin: Nothing to Exclaim at Deanna Evans Projects (January 7–February 19, 2022), further confirmed my feeling that Yin is defining a territory all her own.
The exhibition consists of 20 untitled numbered paintings of burning joss sticks and three largely white paintings collectively titled “Offering” and numbered. Traditionally, white is the color of mourning in Chinese culture. The subject the two groups of paintings share is grief, which, for all that takes place in public, is largely a private matter. In the untitled paintings, all of which measure 14 by 11 inches and are done in acrylic on wood, Yin depicts burning joss sticks placed in ceramic vases and pots. Joss sticks are a type of incense that is burned before Asian religious objects, statues, shrines, and photos of beloved ones at their funeral. It symbolizes the ascension of one’s prayers.
Instead of displaying these paintings individually, they were arranged in a tight grid measuring five paintings across and four high. By doing this Yin was able to display a large number of works from this series within the intimately sized gallery. The grounds in many of these paintings are matte gray or deep blue. All of the ceramic bowls and pots are done in earthy, subdued monochromes: celadon, blue, brown, and gray. In their color palette and lighting, they convey a somber mood. As paintings, they serve as offerings placed before the viewer, subtly reminding us that we too will one day be absent.
Without ever spelling it out, Yin’s untitled series summarizes much of our lives during the past year and a half, while living in a pandemic. Death is everywhere and it is only a matter of time before someone we know has become a statistic. This is one of the strengths of her work. No matter what the source, I never felt like the specific details of the works are used to stand in for all of our feelings. Her paintings are not anecdotal. They are meant to elicit a kind of visual empathy, an awareness that private lives and losses need not be displayed or exploited in public, as well as invite us to ponder the ways we 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. While 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 peaked roof. The structure stands on two front legs, with the back end attached to a tree. Inside the structure is vase with a single flower rising into the air.
Given the title, it is hard to think that this painting depicts anything but a memorial. At the same time, Yin tells us nothing about the individual whose memory is being honored. She does not appropriate that individual’s story for her own purposes. She uses the structure to memorialize her own feelings of grief without making the deceased the center of attention, which prompted this rejiggering of a well-known Ad Reinhardt aphorism: grief is grief and everything else is everything else.
The way a particular sight can open the gates to your feelings is crucial to the “Offering” paintings. This struck home in the other two paintings. “Offering No. 2” (2021) is an aerial view of a table on which half an orange and a crumpled napkin sit. The view is consistent with someone looking down at what has been left, evoking an absence. This is also true of “Offering no. 1” (2021), in which we barely glimpse a parquet floor in the corner of a room, where part of a framed artwork is visible on the wall. The view is unusual and the association, while private, is not impossible to surmise, because of 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 might sprawl out, looked at by someone sitting in a chair. It is a spot that would mean a lot to the animal’s owner, especially if it has recently died. By touching on these places and remembering where emotions could bubble up, Yin is able to be both public and private, and to honors these realms. That is rare in a world where public tributes all seem to be made from the same pool of shopworn words.
Crys Yin: Nothing to Exclaim continues at Deanna Evans Projects (373 Broadway, E15, 5th Floor, Manhattan) through February 19.