Yng-Ru Chen ‘01 on Why She Opened Praise Shadows Art Gallery

Yuri Shimojo, “Sakura 桜” (detail), 2013. Watercolor, 52″ x 38″ (132cm x 96cm).

Duke Entertainment, Media & Arts Network (DEMAN) is partnering with Duke Boston, Duke Asian Alumni Alliance, and the Art, Art History & Visual Studies department to present a virtual preview of Yuri Shimojo’s Memento Mori, a monumental painting series premiering in the US on the tenth anniversary of the Japanese Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear crisis.

A Conversation on Art & Healing: US Exhibition Premiere of Memento Mori

Thur, March 11, 2021 at 8–9 p.m. EST via Zoom. Register here.

Attendees will meet Yng-Ru Chen ’01, owner of the Boston-based Praise Shadows Art Gallery; Yuri Shimojo, the artist; and Dr. Gennifer Weisenfeld, professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, as they discuss Shimojo’s exhibition and Chen’s journey from Duke to the international art world, including Sotheby’s and MoMA.

Ahead of the event, I asked Chen and Weisenfeld to reflect on their first interactions with each other at Duke, as well as Chen’s decision to open Praise Shadows Art Gallery in 2020. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Perfect Alignment”: From Duke to Praise Shadows

Yng-Ru Chen: I came to Duke as a transfer student in 1999. After three years at Williams College, I was brought to Duke to join the rowing team as the coxswain. Being a New England-raised person, going down South was not something that was on my agenda. But I knew that Duke had a really strong art history program, and that was one of the reasons why I agreed to make the transfer.

I immediately signed up for a graduate seminar taught by Gennifer on fascist art of Japan, Italy, and Germany. I loved that class. Having a close relationship with a professor and learning in a small class setting was very different for me. I also felt that, at the subject level, it was no longer just about the appreciation of art as beautiful objects, but it was also about political and visual culture.

I ended up continuing my art history degree at Duke, even though I had questioned whether I would stay on that path. (An internship the summer before really turned me off to working in the arts.) I figured I would take one more art history class, and if it proved everything wrong, then I would continue. So, literally, Gennifer, you’re the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing today. Your class really showed me that there was more to studying art history than just selling decorative objects on a fancy street.

Yng-Ru Chen inside Praise Shadows Art Gallery. Photo by Jonathan Wiggs, Boston Globe Staff.

Gennifer Weisenfeld: There is nothing more gratifying to a teacher than hearing from a student that their instruction was impactful. But I have to say, I knew the minute I met Yng that she was an extraordinary student. She not only could keep up with PhD-level students, but even exceeded them in her abilities. That’s one of the wonderful things about the 500-level courses that we have. We can bring our undergrads into contact with students who are doing original research on a professional track.

That was the first time I had ever taught that course, so it was fun to experiment with students who were willing to go on that journey with me, embrace it, and get a lot out of it. As a teacher, that is the best kind of experience.

YC: Over the last two decades, I’ve realized that the content of the class wasn’t history—it could be repeated. I always say that you don’t have to have the vocabulary for art or be a practitioner to appreciate art history. I’m a terrible artist. But I’ve learned so much about the world through these sorts of courses.

GW: I’ve always had the feeling that art history, being so interdisciplinary, is a wonderful window through which we can see the world exactly the way it is.

After that semester, Yng and I would touch base throughout the years, and I’d think, “This is an amazing career path this woman is crafting for herself.” It was exciting to watch, knowing Duke and I were the launchpad, but Yng was really the engine.

Gennifer Weisenfeld in front of a poster for her lecture on prewar Japanese advertising at SUNY Stony Brook.
Shimojo’s “Memento Mori” installed at Hōnen-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan, where Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is buried.

YC: I started my company, Praise Shadows Art Partners, in 2018.  I was not planning on opening a gallery. My work was in connecting artists to partnerships and commissions that didn’t have to rely on a physical space.

Around that same time, I was introduced to Yuri Shimojo, and we had one of those really emotional moments where you think, “Oh, my God, wow. This is meant to be.”

I named my company Praise Shadows after Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows,” which I read in a Japanese architecture class at Williams. One of his lines is: “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” That really resonated with me. It was a sentiment I wanted to explore with the artists I worked with. If they’re represented by a gallery, they get a show about once every year or two. What do artists do the rest of the time, what are we not seeing right now?

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

When I met Yuri, I told her about the name of my company, and, of course, she understood the reference, because her first Memento Mori exhibition was at the temple in which Tanizaki is buried. She then showed me that body of work and I was very moved by it. When I finally decided to open a gallery in 2020, I knew I wanted to show her work at the space.

GW: When you reached out to me about your gallery opening and Yuri’s Memento Mori exhibit, I also got the feeling of perfect alignment—because of the connections between us, between you and Duke, between all of our shared interest in Japan. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and this year’s arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, Nina was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.

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