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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|He calls himself the "Barry White of Post-Conceptual Painting." The 31-year-old artist Yek, a Singapore native who now lives in Las Vegas, is tall and pale with an impertinent shock of black hair. Although his navy shirt and slacks may be paint-splattered and rumpled, his manners are impeccable and his paintings are immaculate.
The Barry White of Post-Conceptual Painting? The artist cringes slightly as if he rues his catchy remark. Then he says, "I like to make love paintings the way Barry White sings love songs. These are paintings you want in the bedroom where you make love."
Yek's sultry abstract paintings vary in size from two and a half feet square to five and a half feet square, and bow out from the wall like miniature cinerama screens. The larger paintings can take up to six months to complete -- building the thick curved panels and adding multiple applications of airbrushed paint that is sanded to a luscious smoothness.
"My paintings have a quality of holding a larger space than the actual painting has. They have an aura that makes them expand," says the artist, whose exhibition, "Smooth," will be on view at the Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica from July 15 to August 26 (the works were priced between $1,800 and $7,000, and selling fast). His work is included in "Glee: Painting Now," a group show at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Ct., Sept. 24 to Jan. 7, 2001, that subsequently appears at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Florida from Feb. 3 to April 15.
In one large painting, radiant lemon yellow gradually turns into palest green at the top, while along the edges are inset wedges outlined in sharp orange. In another, a searing tangerine fades to yellow and aqua lines dance around the margins. From palest pinks to deep turquoise, Yek's works at Mark Moore Gallery recall both the luminosity of Caspar David Friedrich's Romantic landscapes and the western skies used as backgrounds by Ed Ruscha. In short, distinctive.
Yek is among a promising coterie of young artists who studied with the art critic Dave Hickey at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. In 1998, Hickey included many of his former students in "Ultralounge: The Return of Social Space (with Cocktails)," at Diverse Works Artspace in Houston. "Yek makes the most exquisitely synthetic art I've seen in a long time," Hickey says. "It's just steadiness and commitment. It's not conceptual. It's intellectual."
Others must agree, for Yek has been showing consistently since completing his masters degree in 1997 and his bibliography already features numerous positive reviews. Discussing his atmospheric esthetic, Julie Joyce wrote in Art Issues that Yek's "intellectual endeavor argues that color constitutes a complex and knowable language -- that through its use one may be able to comprehend the nature of how we take in and process visual information. What could be a better platform for this discussion than the sky itself?"
Yek was born Yek Wong. His father, a Singapore businessman, and his mother, a homemaker, are both Chinese and sent their three sons abroad for a cosmopolitan education. After high school in Melbourne, Australia, Yek returned to Singapore and married fellow native Emily Woo. Ten years ago, the couple immigrated to the U.S., where Yek attended college in Fresno. After one year, he transferred to the art department at the University of Texas. "It was a very traditional, narrative school," he recalls. After finishing his undergraduate degree in fine art, Yek was ready for a change of scene. "I really wanted to be in a grown up town. And you can't get any more grown up than Vegas."
He did not, however, know that he would be studying with Hickey and considers it "great good luck."
Hickey gave him the courage to move beyond "narrative" and into the abstract art that interested him. "Dave tried to help us know that what we were making was most relevant to us, not to the world," he says.
Part of that realization led to the amputation of his last name. "I wanted my ethnicity to be removed from my work," he explains. "My first name is so unusual, you can't pin down what it is. So I dropped my last name. It was successful because people stopped reading my background into the work."
Although his neon paintings with their curling arcs of contrary color recall pin striped cars and pop culture, Yek disdains such sources. "To me, my paintings are like landscapes with the distinct background gradation and the foreground line. It is more like deep space, about 15 degrees up into the sky where you can't see the horizon line."
The calligraphic quality of the lines around the edges of his paintings have led reviewers to recall Chinese script, but Yek insists, "They are simply to separate the foreground from the background. The paintings look good but they don't really come alive until I put in the lines. That's when, for me, they begin to speak."
How did he come to discover something fresh along the well-worn path of abstract painting? "I wanted to make something non-traditional. Everybody was making paintings on rectangular panels. Shaped panels were not good enough because it had been done before by Ellsworth Kelly and others. Then, I thought of making the painting surface occupy three-dimensional space to break away from tradition. In the beginning, I think I wanted the viewer to admire the structure as much as the image itself."
"I've always been a good carpenter. I make some of my own furniture and I'm good with a saw, chisel and hammer, he adds dryly. "I'm a minimal guy, so the obvious choice is to not have too much happening in the painting so it doesn't detract from my beautiful carpentry skills."
Despite his identification with the Minimalist esthetic, Yek says, "My heroes have always been the Renaissance and Baroque painters, never really anybody contemporary."
"I want my paintings to have magic so that romance can happen, so people will feel good," he says. "The last thing I want is for someone to look at my paintings and be angry or crazy."
Yek's work is on view July 15 to Aug. 26 at Mark Moore Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3031.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.