If you’re in Berlin, don’t miss Shangkai Kevin Yu’s new show. On view through April 13th, Hot Tub Reflections is the artist’s second solo presentation at Future Gallery, and in it, he presents a series of new works where mundane objects like toothbrushes, chairs, pulverisers, and coatracks reflect on reality, identity, memory, and more. Creating a meta narrative within the paintings, Kevin comments that the effect at the end “is about becoming more self-aware and perhaps reminding ourselves to never stop considering those other perspectives that might not be immediately apparent to our individual selves.” Today, we speak with him about AI, his favourite objects, nostalgia, and more.
Hi Kevin, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? What’s a ‘normal’ day in your life like?
A normal day for me is just that, pretty normal to anyone I think. I would make some coffee and just sit in the studio until my head is actually awake, using the time to figure out which parts of which painting to work on for the day before actually getting to work –x as I plan very little on how to paint my paintings at the outset. Perhaps what’s slightly different about my normal day is that I regularly try to look at the things around me from a slightly skewed perspective for inspirations. In terms of an overall well-balanced routine, which I had for a few years and need to get back to, is going bouldering in the morning three times a week before starting work in the studio. I’ll try to start that back up next month.
The mastery in your paintings tells me you started very early, or that at least you’ve put in a lot of hours into honing your craft. When did this passion for painting start?
I am not entirely sure when I decided I wanted to paint. I do remember insisting on sticking with painting in college when people told me my sculptures were better than my paintings, and that I should stop painting. Being an artist though, I had that idea in my head since my teenage years, even though I never had that great of a natural talent in technical abilities compared to most of my peers along the years – from grade school all the way through grad school. I’ve learned to develop what I need for my work, and hide what I’m just not that good at.
You’re currently exhibiting Hot Tub Reflections at Berlin’s Future Gallery. Congratulations! But as Emily Davis Adams notes in the exhibition text, there is only one painting featuring a human figure, which seems a bit ironic. Could you tell us more about that?
Yes, of course. The title of the show is also the title of the painting with the only human figure in the show. And the figure is not really a figure in the painting, instead, it is a portrait of a figure in the painting. The two toothbrushes are suggested to be the ones with real agency in the world of my work. Emily’s comment of the irony of there being only one instance of human presence in the show came from our conversation surrounding the reasons I used objects instead of figures to touch on human experiences – the feelings of loss, death, love, sex, violence, etc.
For this new body of work, you first rendered some images on Blender, created them virtually, and later translated those into the canvases. Could you share a bit about how this creative process came to be?
What you’re describing sounds like a new form of Photorealism but with 3D rendered images, where the painting’s goal is to precisely replicate the rendered image. I wouldn’t say that’s what I’m doing.  It would be more accurate to say I render images as guides and references for my paintings just as I used photos as references in the past. There are things paintings can do that 3D renders just can’t.
In the past, I used to take photos of the objects and stitch them together as references, and I would change the materials and colors of the objects and invent the space they were in when I painted. I had known about 3D programs for a while, but never quite saw a use for them with my paintings at the time. By chance, I was introduced to Blender a couple of years ago when I paid a studio visit to an artist I was interested in, and found out that the program was free. After playing with it out of curiosity, I quickly realized that I could use it to model the objects that had already been regularly appearing in my paintings, and have a digital version of them with precise real-life measurements. Once I had the catalogue of my objects, I could set up scenes and cycle through compositions and ideas a lot faster than I could with setting up real objects.
Oh, I see.
The images rendered as references for my paintings were usually quite incomplete, especially in terms of texturing of materials, since a painting isn’t just an image but also what I think of as a very low relief sculpture which can only be experienced in person – our eyes could see the ‘touch’ of the materiality of paint, and the ‘feel’ of the layers of paint with different opaqueness, translucency and transparency. Naturally then, many decisions on the paintings would have to be decided when I am actually painting, because those are unique to painting as a medium, and not what 3D programs or photography possess.
The prints as a separate and auxiliary practice, besides their narrative ties to the paintings, were a specific exploration on what a 3D program like Blender could do that is unique to itself. I am still not entirely sure how to evaluate the medium of a 3D-modeled and textured scene in print form. To me, it feels like it’s somewhere between photography and painting,  and on its own island at the same time.
As you say, virtually-generated imagery lacks “the incidentals.” As more and more digital art and softwares develop, do you think there’ll be a counter movement praising the human touch somehow?
I am not sure what my answer is if we’re talking about the culture at large, but in the context of the art world, for there to be a counter movement I think the human touch has to have lost its place in the art world in the first place. And I don’t believe the human touch has lost its significance in the art world. Specifically about painting, the discussion surrounding the handmade because of the rise of AI isn’t exactly an entirely new one to me.
Why not?
The art world had already discussed photography’s effect and threat on painting, and I think painters and photographers nowadays are well past that particular line of discourse and have accepted their mutual influences. AI’s impact on painting has most likely already started, and it will reveal itself more clearly with time, and eventually be folded into the practice of painting in some form – just like photography was.
The incidentals relate not just to the handmade, but anything that takes physical form. Even factory-produced things will have some unintended artifacts. We will never have total control of the physical reality, but that’s also where interesting and unexpected things arise – in the actual wrestling with the material, gravity, humidity, temperature, etc.
AI-generated images have those unexpected consequences too. Maybe I haven’t looked at enough of them closely, but those unintentional artifacts seem pretty uniform and consistent across the different images to me. There are some very similar looking ‘accidents’ with AI-generated images.
That also makes me wonder, how are you around AI, Midjourney, Blender, Photoshop, and other softwares/programmes?
The two programs that are part of my practice would be Blender and Photoshop: Blender for cataloguing objects I employ and sketching and putting together scenes for paintings based on the needs of each painting, and Photoshop for post-processing the Blender renders that are eventually in print form. I’ve used AI once in this show to generate a generalized baroque pattern that I then manually cleaned up in Photoshop to be used as wallpaper in one of the prints. Other than that, it’s not really part of my practice at the moment with my work.
I think it’s more useful for artists whose practices have more of a conceptual art bend, but for someone who’s focusing on the working of physical materials while trying to avoid creating images that feel ‘crowd sourced’ and are average looking – even the oddities AI generates are pretty common oddities – it’s got its limits.
There is a very meta element in the works of Hot Tub Reflections; it’s art within art – for example, your own paintings featuring in the digital prints. I truly love meta stuff, especially in film, for example. It’s kind of cerebral and it messes the audience up. How do you feel about it?
I love meta stuff too. It makes me reconsider what I accept as reality inside the narrative I am experiencing, and this creates a more proactive participation of my minds. I think the effect of the meta at the end is about becoming more self-aware and perhaps reminding ourselves to never stop considering those other perspectives that might not be immediately apparent to our individual selves.
There is a common element in some of the paintings: a chair you found on the streets of Brooklyn. What first attracted you to that object, and what made you save it from being discarded?
If you’re referring to the ‘baby chair’ (since there are a couple of chairs I’ve found on the streets of Brooklyn that found their way into my paintings), I was taking a night stroll in my neighborhood and saw it on top of a mountain-shaped pile of trash bags outside the local baby store. The way it was placed on top of the trash bags instead of being in one made me believe the people who worked at the store didn’t really want to throw it out, or they felt a little guilty for throwing it out. It was a handmade chair probably for store display, and it just looked as if it had so much history and stories when I encountered it that I had to take it home. It’s a little like encountering someone whose face strikes you in a way where you feel compelled to photograph or paint them.
Originally from Taiwan, you moved to New York City. How’s this radical change influenced and affected you both personally and artistically?
I left home and went to Vancouver for high school on my own when I was sixteen before my move to New York. It is definitely a special place to me with endless sources of cultural activities. Since I naturally am not that linear of a thinker, I felt quite at home as soon as I got to the city. I really enjoy making random connections that are seemingly unrelated, and New York feels to me like a buffet of visuals and cultures. I like buffets.
One of the reasons you placed that chair in the artworks, as I understand, is that it’s a way to access the things you left behind in your native country. Are you a nostalgic person? Are you experiencing a new sort of nostalgia now that you’re far away from ‘home’?
All the chairs in my work are actually with me in New York. Do you mean the coatracks and the pulverizers? They are objects that I grew up with in Taiwan, and I only see them when I go back home. And yes, I guess I would have to admit I am a nostalgic person… However, I would say my nostalgia only extends to physical things and people -– my family and friends, plants, objects like chairs and sometimes maybe just some rocks –, but it doesn’t really include the abstract concepts of a culture or country.
The concept of home is very present in this new body of work – through objects, spaces, personal belongings… What does ‘home’ mean to you, and how is it reflected in your paintings?
In life, I would say my home is either wherever most of my family are, which happens to be Taiwan, or wherever I’ve set up camp to work, which has been New York so far. Besides the people in my life, I also place a lot of value on the objects I have spent time with. Some of them I’ve known since my childhood, and they’re still in Taiwan, and many of them are currently with me in my studio, living room, and bathrooms. I like using familiar spaces and objects that people encounter daily in their own homes for my work.
I’ve learned a lot of things from just observing my immediate surroundings after I shed the assumptions that I know them well enough and exactly what they’re there for. Hopefully my paintings and prints could make people who appreciate them look at their own … chairs or toothbrushes from a slightly different angle.
I have been building out a house in my mind that reveals itself in bits and pieces through my paintings and prints – it’s my conceptual art home where each room has its own cultural and artistic influences and concerns. Other than the objects, I have started to reuse spaces that have appeared in previous work. I think that’ll happen more in the future.
To finish, and since objects are so important in this show, what are the most valuable/remarkable objects you have, either in NYC or Taiwan? Or that you’d like to own, for example?
That is such a mean question to ask! I honestly like all the objects that have appeared in my paintings equally, and they are all special in their own ways. Well, if I am forced to pick, the favored objects are probably the pulverizers and coatracks that I grew up with, and the baby chair I found on the street. With the help of Blender, I have started to construct objects that I have only spent brief moments with – only enough time to take reference photos and measurements. The fire hydrant is one example of that. I am currently modeling something based on an object that I have never touched in real life to be used in a new painting. This is a new thing for me, and I won’t say what it is for now, other than that it’s in the Met’s collection.
Let It Take 15, 2023
Tucked in Lilac, 2023Seeing Pools, 2022
Falling from Grace, 2023
NSFW, 2023
Seeing Pools, 2022
Another Life, 2024
Patrons of 'Adoration of Pulverisers', 2022
The Other Room of Observances, 2022