Kyung Eun You: where are we now

October 1, 2019 by

Written by Julia Friedman

Using a unique visual language of black-and-white graphic repetition that hovers between figuration and abstraction, artist Kyung Eun You (Korean, born 1988) tells a moving story of immigration and loss in where are we now, a book You produced during her artist’s book residency at Women’s Studio Workshop from January to May, 2019. You studied cartoons and comics at Korea Animation High School, in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. She then moved to the United States and received her Associate of Arts in Studio Art at El Camino College in Torrance, California. Since 2012, You has focused on printmaking, but her style retains elements of the comic-strip aesthetic, including externalizing a figure’s internal reality and using language pointedly and sparingly. 

The artist’s engagement with the book medium in where are we now pushes past its initial graphic sensibility to demonstrate a deep understanding of the tangible qualities of printed matter and the emotional engagement with a story that unfolds with hand-turned pages. You started the project with a series of linoleum cuts, which she often conceived in groups of four. “There was a consistency in the content,” she explained, “but I didn’t yet think I would tell a story in which the prints were connected to each other.” Before and during her WSW residency, You did not change her inclination to make small, detailed cuts; rather, she started using repetition to expand the scale of her work. In the book, she frequently employs a reduction linocut process in black and white to slowly create a fade-out of a repeating image. “These techniques reflect the emotional themes of the book,” says You.

When You was in her late teens, her family, including her siblings, parents, and one set of grandparents, immigrated to the United States. The transition was not an easy one. You didn’t speak English, and she watched her parents struggle with their new life. where are we now chronicles these experiences. The family dynamics are shown as shards, broken, as in a page containing four small prints that look like a smashed picture frame with the caption “family portrait.” Deathbed and funeral scenes repeat; You’s mother passed away a couple of years after the family’s move, and both grandparents died within five years of her mother’s passing. The book’s father figure is depicted as made of liquid; her father struggled with alcoholism. You explained the design of the father and the frequent use of water and melting imagery: “There’s a Korean expression, in English it would mean that someone is ‘soaked in sadness.’ The father figure that’s melting came from drawings that I made around this time of myself. It was me, and him, too.” 

The book is the first series in which You has incorporated text. Her words, used sparingly, sometimes interestingly blur the lines between thought, dialogue, and description—for example, ”You here, again” and “Take me somewhere nicer.” This leaves ample room for the reader’s interpretation. There are a few lines in Korean, which You said she added to evoke the experience of her arrival in America without knowing English: “I intentionally put Korean in because I assumed the readers of the book would be English speakers and it would be a struggle with translation.” 

Reading where are we now is an emotional experience. The book’s size, 35 cm x 48.5 cm (13 7/10 inches x 19 inches), is noticeably larger than standard coffee-table book dimensions, and the repetitive imagery, much of it clearly melancholy, serves as a repetitive gut punch. The act of turning the pages of this larger object, of becoming lost in its darkness, feels immersive. where are we now can be read in both directions, further cementing its experiential qualities and non-linear engagement with a narrative medium. You has found that the book has a therapeutic effect on readers: “I realize that at different levels, people have similar experiences. As I was showing it to friends, some shared their personal stories.” She notes that her work on this project was transformative for her as well, changing her relationship to memories of her past: “Before, I had the memories coming back in clips. But after working on the book, I remember instead the images I made. Something changed after the book. There was some sort of closure.” 

You produced where are we now in an edition of fifty. Each offers readers a unique opportunity to engage deeply with a graphically stunning object that tells a moving story of universal themes—family, sadness, empathy, and resilience.

Copies of where are we now are available for purchase in our bookstore.

Julia Friedman has an undergraduate degree from Barnard College, Columbia University and a master’s degree from New York University. She works as Senior Curatorial Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy, and is a frequent contributor to Hyperallergic, among other publications.