- Yue Minjun
- Looking Straight
- signed and dated 1993
- oil on canvas
- 70 7/8 x 98 3/8 in. 180 x 250 cm.
Private Collection, Singapore
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Now based in Shanghai, Yue Minjun studied painting outside of Beijing at the Oil Painting department of Hebei Normal University. He then moved to Beijing, where he began developing his highly recognized style in an artist's community not long after the calamities of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989. Along with Fang Lijun, Yue was an early proponent of an approach characterized by critic Li Xianting as "cynical realism"; Yue's toothy, uproariously laughing demeanor is precisely repeated throughout his work, whether he is copying Velazquez or examining the mores of the New China. As an arbiter of China's present, he communicates the ambiguity of its newly found wealth in works that seemingly celebrate himself—but to an absurd degree. In fact, the overall effect of his paintings is far from benign; the repetition of the exact same demeanor suggests a society given over to homogeneity and conformism. Indeed, a regular stylistic feature of Yue's work during the 1990s, namely, groups of men standing shoulder to shoulder, mimics military men standing in a regimented formation to reveal the pressures of convention in a one-party state.
Even though they can be read as critical of postmodern China, Yue's laughing faces have an iconic prominence in Contemporary Chinese art - so much so, it is hard to remember the field without them. Looking Straight is painted in a pivotal year when the artist commenced painting his smiling features on a regular basis. The group of grinning faces (set in a V formation) stands atop a brick overlook; knowing that the artist works allegorically, the brick wall suddenly becomes China's Great Wall, a fortification greater than 1,500 miles long.
All the Yues look ahead, as if ready for anything. The protective defense of the wall can be read as both shielding China from attack or keeping people confined. The ambiguity of the image adds to its power; the group of figures can be commenting on the oppressive nature of Chinese government as it seems clear that some sort of repression is being reported. It is clear the wall is of a permanent nature, while Yue's smiling army looks ready for anything including violence. A seemingly simple painting all at once takes on grave significance.
Each Yue figure wears a T-shirt with a colorful abstract design, much as a soldier would wear a uniform. Absolutely identical in their expression, there is something eerie about the group's indistinguishable identity; it feels as if the painter—and his subjects as well—is locked into one kind of portrayal: that of enforcing uniformity. Consequently, one imagines that Yue is satirizing personal autonomy by extinguishing any trace of individuality. Suddenly, the precisely arranged, utterly alike figures feel like conformists whose joy consists of constant subjugation. This would mean that Yue is a painter of disturbances and political insights, as well as an artist blithely presenting trends. It is not too much to see Looking Straight as a portrait of China on several levels, incorporating criticism into a seemingly straightforward group portrait. The Great Wall, from which his group looks down at the viewer, becomes its own character in the play of symbols, which do not necessarily advance the Chinese state.