Man is forever on the road between embeddedness and emergence from embeddedness.
Ernest G. Schachtel, Metamorphosis(1)

...focal attention is the main instrument which, as it gradually develops, enables man to progress from the primitive mental activity of wishing or wanting (primary process thought) to a grasp of reality (secondary process thought); and man’s grasp of reality is not merely based on his wish to satisfy primary biological needs…but that it also has as a prerequisite an autonomous interest in the environment.Ernest G. Schachtel, Metamorphosis(2)

…the peculiar quality of the ‘uncanny’ and ‘aweful,’ which survives with the quality of exaltedness and sublimity or symbolized by means of it.Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(3)

Looking at Marlene Yu’s paintings of nature, which capture and distill what has been called the creative flux of ever-changing nature with their own painterly, dramatic flux, one is struck with their boundless, relentless energy, seemingly formless and wild yet oddly fixed in shapes that seem to have spontaneously precipitated out of it, limiting but not controlling its movement, sometimes slowing it down but never stopping it. The rhythm changes, but the flow of energy is constant, a sort of élan vital in perpetual motion, persisting, as though in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics, that is, the tendency of things to entropically run down and die.The large—enormous—paintings are cosmic in scope, the smaller works more intimate, if equally passionate.Yu, I want to suggest, is a nature mystic, her fascination with nature indicative of her numinous experience of it, that is, her unconscious sense of it as a “mysterium tremendum,” “something uniquely attractive and fascinating,” as Rudolf Otto says, and thus draws one to it, but also something intimidating and threatening, even overwhelming, by way of its “awefulness,” “overpoweringness” or majesty, and “urgency” and insistence. These properties cannot be “’rationalized’ away,” as Otto writes,(4) suggesting that nature is peculiarly transcendental however empirically the case.

Yu is a careful observer of nature in all its physical reality, yet she seems to transmute it into a sort of sacred substance, the four elements, in all their metamorphic permutations, becoming uncannily transnatural however conspicuously natural.Conventionally speaking, she is an abstract expressionist, but abstract expressionism, whatever its homage to the unconscious, is a sort of attenuated version of romantic naturalism, which was consciously realistic for all its pursuit of an oceanic experience of nature—the idea of nature as a sort of cosmic womb.Yu restores traditional romantic naturalism—total engagement with the observable facts of nature in recognition of their integration into the dynamic whole of a “therapeutic landscape”--to credibility while retaining the modernist insistence on pure painting.While Yu’s large paintings convey this oceanic experience of total immersion in nature, and her smaller ones seems to concentrate and essentialize it, her love affair—romance—with cosmic nature also becomes, paradoxically, a means to the end of individuation, to use the psychologist C. G. Jung’s term, that is, to selfhood.Identifying with nature, Yu finds her own identity—comes into her own as an authentic self.Nature’s process of becoming becomes her way of becoming herself—as self-certain and compelling as nature, for all the uncertainty that seems to be built into its appearances.The “spontaneous process of unfolding,” the “series of metamorphosis” that nature is for the romantic function as metaphors for the “spontaneous gestures” of her True Self, as the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott suggests.Yu’s “personalized idea” of nature is also an expression of her True Self.Nature for Yu is an alembic of self-transformation as well as an intoxicating ocean in which the self finds oblivion.

Yet while the spontaneous process of unfolding of nature and the self are coordinate, they are not exactly the same.We all begin life embedded in nature, as it were—we’re all biological beings, anxiously concerned to satisfy our nature-given needs in order to survive—but to become more or less autonomous selves we have to emerge from nature, as it were.That is, we have to become conscious of nature—including our biologically given instinctive nature—to become conscious of ourselves, and with that not be dominated by our own biological given nature, that is, our instinctive needs.Even as Yu is embedded in nature, indeed, unconsciously submits to it, she emerges from it by bringing its details into sharp focus, giving her a certain mastery, consciousness, and dominance of it.Her determined attention to its sheer givenness—its materiality--liberates her from its spell, even as she remains ecstatically embedded in, not to say possessed by and permanently bonded to it.The mystical attraction of raw nature competes with the refined consciousness of it that allows Yu to be herself without denying its “influence.”The greatness of her art has to do with her ability to sustain this dialectic—the tension between nature “at large” and her extraordinary ability to focus on the details of its metamorphic process.Yu has a natural gift and capacity for numinous experience that is the core of creativity, along with the cognitive detachment that allows her to bring its least detail into aesthetic focus, showing that however seemingly trivial it is fascinating and unique, for it is informed with the majestic energy and mystery of the cosmic whole of which it is a part.

Black and White Cracked Ice

Black & White Cracked Ice, 2013, (black & white series), acrylic on canvas, 10' × 37'

Iceberg Garden

Iceberg Garden, 2013, triptych, (glacier garden series), acrylic on canvas, 36" × 48" × 3

Turquoise Floating with White Cloud

Turquoise Floating with White Cloud, 1999, (turquoise floating series), acrylic on paper, 36" × 60"

Roaming Canyon

Roaming Canyon, 2003, (canyon & red rock series), acrylic on canvas, 12' × 18'

Crystal Pyramid

Crystal Pyramid, 2003, (crystal reef series), acrylic on canvas, 10' × 18'


(1)Ernest G. Schachtel, Metamorphosis:On the Development of Affect, Perception, Attention, and Memory (New York:Da Capo Press, 1984), 77

(2)Ibid., 252

(3)Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York:Oxford University Press, 1958), 17

(4)Ibid., chapter 4, in passim