Shifty, Never Still: Sung Jik Yang with Samuele Visentin

Review / September 2022

Shifty, Never Still: Sung Jik Yang with Samuele Visentin
By Oisin Byrne

       Sung Jik Yang’s gallerist Micki Meng writes of Yang’s work: “My first thought upon seeing the work of young portraitist Sung Jik was that he must like soup.” She went on to explain how in some cultures, a fondness for  soup denotes having a sensitive soul. While I can’t comment on Yang’s proclivity for soup (Jews believe anything other than an ardent passion for soup to be pathological), using analogous indexes of Yang’s evident sensitivity, I could safely assume that he calls his mom every Sunday, helps his mates move in exchange for a couple of beers, and makes sure his friends get home safely after a night out.

There are a lot of portraitists in the world, and an even greater number of artists who make figuration their bread and butter—many of whom exploit the body’s capacity for emotional affect as a cheap proxy for emotional and painterly sensitivity. So why is Sung Jik Yang different? How does Yang turn the everyday into something that hits you in your soft spots, reminding you of how rare it is to be granted the compassion and generosity that comes with something as simple as really being seen? Like all good painting, there is an element of ineffable alchemy, but my money is on Yang’s ambivalence; his willingness to paint people as they are, not as they appear to be.

Take, for example, the works currently on display as part of Yang’s current solo show Angelenos, on until the 2nd of October, with Samuele Visentin at 3 Fournier St. in London’s Spitalfields. Despite—or perhaps aided by—the surrounds of a Georgian townhouse, Yang’s pieces exude an uncertain youthfulness. As Visentin expressed during my visit, he sees a likeness to a “mall culture” in many of the works: teenagers wading through the throes of adolescence, equal parts cocksure and terrified. The Paseo Kids (2021) is a testament to this: six highschoolers pose laxly for the artist, self-manifested caricatures of the gaggles of skate park- or movie theater-bound kids many of us were once members of. But Sung Jik Yang refuses the temptation to reduce his subjects to mere cultural metonyms; sufficient stand-ins for the undefinable “American Teen.” Instead, we get a sense of each sitter as an individual: the middle boy in his Stussy t-shirt feels equal parts unsure and charismatic, the boy to his left a “cheeky devil,” as my mother might put it. Most importantly, they remain discrete people, defined from a nuance-scrubbing mass.

En masse, the effect is at once coherent and unified, in that it broadly articulates a slice of American culture as it presents itself, while drawing attention to the deep-seated alienation endemic to much of contemporary life. Yang’s brand of painterly empathy begets an easy vulnerability from his subjects; one which allows for an uneasy sadness to creep into the frame. When viewing–communing–with them in an otherwise empty home, the artist’s capacity to distill a melancholy loneliness as part and parcel of his depiction becomes a common theme across works. As one slinks from piece to piece, the individuality of each subject necessarily negates the possibility of any sense of collectivity: the viewer remains alone with the subject in a room otherwise crowded with people.

Walking through the exhibition, Sung Jik Yang’s tact applies to more than just highschool students: Man on Sofa (2020) and Ken (2021) are both masterclasses in the close-up study, while Peter (2021), depicting a withdrawn young man sitting cross-legged on a dining chair, makes a case for being the most moving work in the show. In this latter example, the efficacy of Yang’s painting style is due mention: somewhere between Shirley Villavicencio Pizango and Karyn Lyons, a profound respect for paint’s capacity to not only communicate but embellish meaning separates Sung Jik Yang from the others. A ruggedness in application belied by an immense attunement to light cuts to a heart of a “realness” more real than life itself. he subject is afforded a freneticism in their image that feels true to the way people are: shifty, never still.

But maybe Sung Jik Yang hates soup and never calls his mother. Frankly, to suggest the sensitivity of the artist needs some kind of affirmation does what Yang has given us a disservice: the ability to not only make one of these works, but an entire body of them, is indication enough of the artist’s otherworldly sensitivity. Taken together, the works themselves attune us to the delicacy of Yang’s empathy, and the apparent nonchalance with which he’s able to exercise it. Through the canvas, the viewer is given license to sit with the subject, even if that means a reckoning with how rarely we are afforded the luxury of being taken on such undemanding terms. Indeed, if the dissonant truism that “none of us are perfect, but all of us deserved to be taken as we are” ever had a patron saint, it’s Yang. Fortunately, unlike many patron saints, he’s no martyr; at thirty-three, he’s only getting started.

Image Credits:
1-4. Courtesy of Samuele Visentin