As an inaugural presentation at and Milk, a newly opened, smaller project space within Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, the gallery is currently introducing a new suite of paintings by Mark Yang. As one of the artists using the human body as an endless source of inspiration and inexhaustible reference, the Korean-born and Brooklyn-based artist is particularly interested in the male body with an emphasis on male intimacy.

While the common approach to the depiction of the body often includes its actual complexion, Yang's paintings are somewhat transforming it into an alphabet of his visual language or still life-like bouquets of body parts and limbs, often male legs. Referencing nude Asian men wrestling, the work is conceptually addressing his identity as a Korean male immigrant in the US by using male nudity or intimacy as the diversifying element. "I don’t necessarily think about narratives or try to find narratives in my work, but the subject I’ve been mainly dealing with is the male nude," the artist told Juxtapoz about the way that his densely composed visuals are transformed into metaphorical comparisons of the two cultures. "I am interested in fiction rather than depicting specific people or things, so it was natural to draw the figures based on my gender and features." 

Such focus came from a realization that when searching for images of "nude", the majority of results are images of women and this discrepancy prompted him to focus his work around the nude male body. "The male figure was considered superior and idealized throughout the history of Western Art until Manet to Picasso to Matisse went hell with the female figure. This has been the cornerstone and the genesis for my paintings I've been making these past years," the artist said, adding that it was his "consciousness to somehow slip in the maleness without the actual genitals." Within such restrictions, the artist developed new, original aspects through which emotion and even sexuality can be referenced. "Some of the recent paintings dedicated to the lower torso have been about zooming in, like Serpent's Flame. It’s a relish drawing of the feet and I thought it was unique to be able to pull out various expressions with them, which alluded me to make a painting solely with the lower torso like Arctic. Toes are a weird-looking form that many people fetishize with, which Freud claimed it’s because they resemble penises."

Mark Yang VSF 06

On a technical level, the paintings are putting a lot of focus on formal concerns relating to color, line, and composition. In order to emphasize the grand appearance of his muses, Yang is often compressing them inside the format of his support, bending, intertwining, and interconnecting them together. Such convoluted compositions are clearly depicted through the use of solid lines that depict each segment of the body. Further on, the complexity is kept intelligible with restricted use of color and light play, which barely allows the artist to capture the volume of the body. This, in the end, regularly includes often surprising color choices, strongly informing the ambiance and relationships within the portrayed scene. "I did tons of life drawing and life painting during college to better understand the law of light and how to use them to convey a specific mood, atmosphere, and temperature we can feel with lines, shapes, colors, and forms. But many times, it is pure experimentation with colors or color relationships I haven’t used before," the artist told us how these unusual decisions happen. "It’s like what Picasso said - if I don’t have red, I use blue.”

And through such a technical approach, Yang is constructing visuals in which different types of surfaces represent and accentuate different elements or their different appearance in the context of perspective and light. While creating a clear distinction between the sections of the work, this aspect animates the overall image, imbuing it with an exciting dynamic. "I love using washed-out paint contradicting a densely painted surface since it gives air and breath, like Matisse's painting. They also help me achieve visual navigation for the viewer’s eyes to travel and flow to keep them entertained inside the rectilinear surface," Yang told us, explaining the matte-like veneer that adds the timeless and established appearance to his work. —Sasha Bogojev

All photos courtesy of the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul