Jason Yung — Painting in light with structure and code

When I encountered Jason Yung’s work I was drawn into a state of perceptive engagement by the patterns emerging from light. Exhibiting Unus Mundus in the HoloCeter exhibition SPACE:LIGHT and spending time with this piece I found myself asking Jason questions, but our dialogues in the gallery would be interrupted. Unable to come and see his exhibition NEW PAINTINGS, I asked Jason if he could share his approach to painting in light with structure and code.

Jason Yung, Unus Mundus (2019). Performance with Furmi Gomez November 17, 2019 during SPACE:LIGHT. Curated by Martina Mrongovius for the HoloCenter at The Plaxall Gallery, Long Island City, New York.

uring the first wave of the pandemic Jason Yung’s LED lightbox Unus Mundus was installed at VRBAR in New York for LIGHT WINDOWS a HoloCenter project to commission and connect and light art in the windows of locked down cities around the world.

Jason, thank you for participating in LIGHT WINDOWS. I’m curios how did it change Unus Mundus to have it viewed from the street through a window and with some ambient light?

It was weird because of the glare from the Deli across the street. On the other hand, the glass gave it a nice “coat” and led to its texture appearing different, most monolithic and mysterious — definitely something to explore.

Do you think your work is seen differently when multiple pieces are shown together and how was the experience of your exhibition NEW PAINTINGS affected by the pandemic?

NEW PAINTINGS at SFA Projects happened 15 August — 15 October 2020 and was my first solo show in New York. None of it would have happened (probably) without the pandemic. Without the pandemic forcing my studio building to close, it would not have led me to change my practice and do a whole new style of light art. Without covid-19 disrupting the gallery’s scheduled programming, it probably wouldn’t have happened this year. So, the pandemic has had a positive effect for my artistic development — I am very thankful for that and for other things.

I created Temple 5 in July specifically for NEW PAINTINGS. It was shown alongside Unus Mundus (2019) and Bushwick Lightbox (2017). The show was a survey of the different styles of light art I have been doing in the past years. Having them together in one room was like having several different family members in a single place for a reunion.

It was a new experience for each piece to compete for the viewer’s attention, since they have previously only been shown separately. As well, I worried the light from one piece might affect the perception of the other — which happened — although that also opens up new possibilities on how I could use the different pieces together, possibly linking them. (All topics for possible future exploration.)

In the exhibition text you say, “Painting is the creation of images through the organization of space, which happens through the differentiations of form and color.” The texture and materiality of your work however is very different to painting with paint, or digital painting. What new visual principles have you found emerging from your light art?

I’ve learned a lot from working with light in recent years, yet I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what’s possible. The only ‘principle’ of this medium that I can say for certain is that the same principles that painters use to create a feeling of vitality in a painting i.e. line, color, planes, etc — all this can be expressed in this medium of light painting. However, I’ve also found that working with real luminosity (actual light emitted by the LEDs) rather than reflected light (pigments on a canvas) completely changes the expression of these painting principles into something that is entirely new.

In terms of working with LEDs specifically, I’ve found that there is a ‘magic zone’ of using LEDs, which I think is between 0 and 50 — where the LED’s possible setting range is between 0 and 255. I feel like LEDs are more impressive and beautiful when used at lower settings, because the human eye almost has a ‘brightness budget’ built into it. As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve become more cognizant to not overtax the viewer’s eye budget. I also find that I appreciate darkness much more, like how experienced painters are more comfortable working with negative space. I’ve started to see the value of restraint and simplicity.

By not overwhelming the viewer with light I feel that the works draw you into them. There is a harmonious quality to your compositions, in particular the geometric balance and blending of Temple 5 (2020). Is this a type of energy that you are looking to create or do you feel it comes through your process of working with light?

Whenever I create a new piece, I don’t know exactly how it will look.

It usually starts with a curiosity or idea that bubbles up — “wouldn’t it look cool if I did X or Y?”. For instance, I created Temple 5 because I wondered what Temple 1 and Temple 2 (both pieces I did in June) would look like if they were placed at opposite ends with their light shining into one another to create bounded space.

Jason Yung. Studio images, 2020. Left: Temple 1, Right: Temple 1 and 2 facing each other.

The harmonious quality that you mentioned in Temple 5 — part of it is the harmony implicit in repeating line structure, and partly it’s because I made it interactive. I allowed the viewer/user/participant to physically move the light-emitting sticks in order to change the line structure and color fields composition on the wall.

Jason Yung, Temple 5, 2020

Because line and shape dictate so much, allowing the viewer to determine this element gives them significant control over the articulation of the piece. I designed Temple 5 so that the line/shape structure forms one half of the composition and the colors form the other half. The colors are chosen at random (within guidelines) by the Arduino. In this way I intended Temple 5 to be a meeting of two entities. I wanted it to be a continuous co-creation between the machine and the viewer — within the limits of the defined structure. I thought the harmony in each light combination (i.e. its meaning) could be found by the viewer through what intuitively feels right to them for each color combination.

In Temple 5, I rely on the Arduino’s ability to randomly generate unique color combinations that (theoretically) only occur once. This ability is extremely useful when combined with this classical principle in painting: how each color is perceived is dependent on the colors around it. As Delacroix wrote, “Give me the mud of the streets and if you will leave me also with the power to surround it to my taste I will make of it a women’s flesh of delicious tint.” In this way, using the Arduino’s random() function allows me to investigate color combinations that I would never have come across if I had to consciously dictate what colors I need to use. Sometimes color combinations are very harmonic and others are not — I typically only take pictures of good ones.

You describe your practice at stepping towards painting. Light painting often refers to the process of coloring with and moving light over a long photographic exposure, but your ‘paintings’ use diffuse surfaces to create present yet changing fields of light. There feels like a play between the dynamic of the composition and the duration of perception, as if the viewer is encouraged into a state of long exposure. Do you intend for viewers to spend a certain amount of time with the works?

Photographic ‘light painting’ is a colloquial name given for that photography practice, but there’s no real link to painting per se. When I use the term ‘light painting’ to describe my work, it’s more in keeping with the discipline of painting because I actually engage with the lineage of painting and draw inspiration from the theories and concepts of great painters of the past. Mark Rothko and Joseph Albers in particular have been great inspirations in my work, in addition to James Turrell, the grandmaster of light. That said, on a day-to-day basis I actually refer to my work as ‘patterns’. I use these terms interchangeably.

In terms of how I intend my viewers to interact with my works — generally, I like my pieces to accompany the viewer in whatever spatial context they’re in. I do not want my work to be intrusive or obnoxious. I want my pieces to be like a cave fire that is constantly going in the background — it provides warmth, ambience, and it’s happy to remain in the background, but it’s also there if you want to look at it. And when it is looked at, I want my work to offer the viewer endless fascination and mystery.

The Christian mystic Richard Rohr once wrote that “mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand — it is something that you can endlessly understand”. I think the greatest paintings had this underlying mystery to them, similar to the mystery one feels when looking into the sea, into a fire or at the immensity of the night sky — I would like my work to evoke such feelings.

They certainly do. Spending time with Unus Mundus I felt the same engaged calm that I feel when watching light across water. Could you describe your collaboration with Furmi Gomez and how music and the duration of a performance changes how you consider and program your pieces?

In 2019, I collaborated with jazz musician Furmi Gomez in a light + music performance. It was the first time I worked with music. I composed light patterns on the Unus Mundus and he composed ambient music on his slide guitar. I met Furmi through his wife, Dionne Lausberg, a painter who I became friends with while studying at the Arts Students League of New York. Furmi and I made this collaboration first for New Union, a pop-up show at the 5–50 Gallery in Long Island City. Later, we performed it for the closing of the HoloCenter’s SPACE:LIGHT show at The Plaxall Gallery. This collaboration led to Furmi’s ambient music album Nebulas.

Jason Yung and Fermi, New Union at 5–50 Gallery in Long Island City, New York

What I learned most from this collaboration was about the problem of narrative. I remember once reading that visual art is about the organization of space, whereas music is about the organization of time. So in this sense, visual art and music are, to some extent, contradictory mediums. They can also be complimentary but the tension is there. Filmmaking reconciles this through the use of narrative. In film, music/sound and moving image are both at service to a narrative which requires specific images and sounds to convey it. However, in film, recognizable images of people or places convey narrative. In my work, I had to do this through fields of color and the movement of light itself, which was an interesting new experience.

In the end, I decided to go with an alchemy-themed performance. After all, the term ‘Unus Mundus’ comes from medieval alchemy. When I created the Unus Mundus, I was reading a book called Mysterium Coniunctionis, which is about the psychology of alchemy. So, I loosely based the performance on stages in alchemy. Medieval alchemists had different stages in their mixing and transformation of metals — first the mixture is black (nigredo), then white (albedo), then yellow (citrinitas), then red (rubedo). The progression of the different patterns looked like some kind of cosmic journey. Furmi’s music came from what I described to him as the concept, but also how he felt about the colors of the different patterns. The collaboration was a great experience and opens up doors for future exploration.

To program the LEDs with an Arduino controller you use code and math. Could you describe this process? Do you start with how you want something to look, or do you begin with an algorithm?

I learned how to code through working with LEDs, so my ability to control the light coincided with me learning how to code in the Arduino language (C++). Growing up, I hated math. I especially hated word-math problems like: “if person A leaves this location travelling at X speed, while person B leaves in a different direction at Y mph, when will they meet?”. But now, that’s the majority of what I do — solving mathematical problems like that, but in C++. However, the difference between then and now is that now, when I solve a math problem, something visually interesting happens with LEDs. Ironically, I quit computer science in first year college because I hated it — now all I do is code, and now I enjoy it because I see the tangible results immediately. Art made code relevant for me.

Typically, I construct images in a step-by-step organic process. Generally, I don’t have a plan for what I will make. It’s more like an organic process of development over stages. The process goes like this: I make a shape (through code) and then just wait and see what occurs to me. It’s exactly like the process of painting. A lot of time is spent just looking at a blank canvas until an inner impulse tells me to do something — make shape here, change the color there. However with LEDs, the process is much cleaner, since the image changes immediately as you code it, whereas with paint, the opportunity cost for fixing a mistake is much higher.

Other times I will begin a whole series by doing a study of something inspirational. For instance, in late summer 2019, I did a series of light paintings on the Bushwick Lightbox that were inspired by Paul Klee’s Ancient Sound (1925). I like doing studies of old paintings because by virtue of the difference in the medium, the image transforms and becomes something different. From the new thing that emerges, the cycle of waiting, doing and evaluating continues. It’s an organic process of tinkering with the code, seeing the visual result with my eyes, then doing more with the code.

For instance, I begin with this image as inspiration:

Paul Klee, Ancient Sound (1925)

The study looked like this:

Jason Yung, Succotash (2019)

From this, I took parts of the previous pattern and combined them with some techniques of creating depth that I explored earlier that year. Then, it became this:

Jason Yung, Untitled (2019)

After that, using the 4x4 LED pixel square as a visual building block (similar to how Klee used the same block unit to build Ancient Sound), I created a bunch of new patterns. Over time it becomes less and less like the original and further abstractions and direction give it a life of its own.

Jason Yung. Left: Untitled (2019), Right: Not Seeing The Yellow River The Heart Does Not Die (2019)
Jason Yung. Left: Marbles (2019). Right: Elixar (2019)

When I use randomness in my work, what that means specifically is that I use the C++ random() function in order to simulate randomness. For instance, if you write: random(0,100) — that means that the random function will choose a number between 0 and 100.

An underlying theme in my work is the relationship between randomness and structure. This theme emerged, in part, out of technological necessity. Unlike paint, LEDs can be animated. While I’ve created static light paintings, I feel that this underutilizes the LEDs. I think the fullest expression of LEDs as a medium involves animating them. However, the prospect of animation introduces the problem of time (as discussed above regarding music) — do the patterns have a beginning-middle-end? What would the progression be like? Won’t it be boring if something just endlessly loops on a pattern that the viewer knows exactly what will happen?

Early on, I found that when I used just randomness too bluntly, the effect was overwhelming to the eye. There was too much chaos. However, if I didn’t use randomness, the composition seemed to lack vitality. I was caught between the two. I remember the breakthrough came in early summer of 2017. Whenever I’m stuck on a problem or need inspiration, I typically go to a museum. I remember thinking about this problem while at the MoMA in Manhattan, looking at a Rothko painting.

As I gazed into one of the color fields in one of his paintings, I had an insight: I noticed that beneath the seemingly monolithic block of color, there were actually extremely subtle variations in tone, which revealed an enormous amount of layering. I began to see a whole world inside the subtle forms of the color field — and I grasped how complex Rothko’s paintings really were. As I kept looking at the subtle forms, they seemed to morph and change. For a moment, I thought I saw The Last Supper in the color field. I thought about how Rothko accomplished this effect; no doubt he let his hand fly for layers and layers and painted without any conscious design. However, it was not entirely unconscious, since it remained within the square of the color field. It was like Rothko found a way to bound chaos in order — controlled chaos. A balance between the two. So I immediately went into the studio and started to code the Digital Rothko series, where I used the random function to create organic movement and subtle differentiations in color fields.

This is how I came to the idea on how to use randomness. I use the random() function just as a painter lets her hand go without conscious deliberation. I give the choice to the machine, like the painter gives the choice to the hand. However I always make sure to encompass that randomness within a broader structure. Randomness must be calibrated in order to gain all the benefits of vitality without overwhelming the eye. I like the idea of my work being like a campfire — its flames are never the same, yet it remains contained in the fire pit.

The funny thing is just as Rothko had his breakthrough at the MoMA while looking at a Matisse painting; so too I had my breakthrough looking at a Rothko painting.

When you installed Undus Mundus (2019) in SPACE:LIGHT you came to the gallery and reprogrammed work and, I assume, have continued to do so. Are the pieces ever ‘finished’, perhaps ‘closed’ is a better way to describe this? Are the previous programs still a part of the piece or are these replaced with each iteration?

At this point I want to make a distinction between the term ‘structure’ and the term ‘paintings’ or ‘patterns’. When I say ‘pattern’ or ‘painting’, I am referring to the code that is loaded into the Arduino that is driving the LEDs/motors/whatever. When I say ‘structure’ I mean the physical structure that makes the patterns possible — the wood frame, LEDs, wires, power distribution, power supply, fasteners, how they fit together, etc.

The Bushwick Lightbox is a 24" x 48" x 2.5" lightbox with a matrix of 2,240 LEDs inside. The Unus Mundus is a gigantic 14.5" x 49" x 96" lightbox with less than 500 LEDs inside, not in matrix format. Each structure uses light in an entirely different way. So, patterns made for the Bushwick Lightbox would not work on the Unus Mundus and vice versa. It’s weird because there’s an intimate link between structure and pattern, yet they also separate. The Bushwick Lightbox by itself, is just a lightbox without the pattern, and the pattern is just code on an Arduino without the lightbox.

I do modify the structures from time to time — repairs, upgrades or modifying it for a particular situation. For instance, in NEW PAINTINGS I showed a different variation of the patterns that I did for SPACE:LIGHT. The difference is subtle, but I removed some things to simplify the mechanism and it changed the visuals entirely, even though the code remains the same. So really, it’s not a new piece and yet it is — it’s weird.

In terms of the patterns themselves — the Arduino sketches — I generally don’t touch them once they’re finished. However, I do re-use code from one pattern to another. The re-use of code in my work, since they have visual implications, almost appear as recurring motifs. The code itself has a lineage and history that link many pieces together. For instance, the code from the Digital Rothko series that simulates ‘the painter’s hand’ forms the backbone of many of the animated patterns that I do. Oddly enough, the code itself becomes an element of recurrence.

— correspondence between Jason Yung and Martina Mrogovius, November, 2020

Curator of holographic, immersive and optical art exhibitions at the Center for the Holographic Arts. Occasional artist

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