“Ruins give us a sense of security. They are living spaces without a sense of pressure so you can do whatever you want. Abandoned places are also public, meaning that you may enter and visit. This is similar to the process of a viewer who is looking at an artwork. I am trying my best to identify the residual traces left behind – not so much what the place has now, but rather what this place used to be for a long time, which no one can take away and cannot be seen.”
Presenting in breath-taking detail the grandiose interior of a Persian mosque from the Islamic era, Blues from 2010 is an archetypal painting featuring Yuan Yuan’s signature hyper-realist expressionist style and impeccable painterly technique. Depicting an abandoned empty temple that bears strong resemblance to the predominantly blue interior of the Jameh Mosque of Yazd in Iran, Yuan Yuan’s brushwork illuminates the architecture’s exquisitely carved arches, mosaic vaulted ceilings and marble tiled flooring, rendering miniscule details with meticulous and virtuosic care. Yuan Yuan’s meticulous and laborious painterly process echoes the arduous construction procedures of the embellished Iranian faience mosaics, whereby each tiny piece is cut from monochrome tiles and re-assembled to create intricately complex designs. Combined with sophisticated chiaroscuro effects and strategic perspectival depth, Blues immerses the viewer within an ethereally enchanting atmosphere – one that invites us to contemplate on the vicissitudes of history and the lost glories of centuries past. In his elaborate representation of visible material details, Yuan Yuan seeks paradoxically to depict the immaterial instead; in his own words: “The invisible thing I want to address is time itself”.
Speaking about his recent well-received exhibition Alternative Realities at the Palazzo Terzi, Bergamo in 2018, the artist further elaborates: “The concept of alternative time and the process of understanding the juxtaposition between forever and the moment are central to my work”. Within Yuan Yuan’s consummate brushwork one becomes privy to a pluralistic dialogue between past and present, tradition and modernity, East and West, art and architecture. A graduate from the Hangzhou China Academy of Fine Arts Oil Painting Department, Yuan Yuan was rigorously trained in traditional Russian realism with a particular emphasis on the Romantics’ dramatic handling of light and space. His extraordinary precision and meticulous skill in depicting mosaics sees him illustrating thousands upon thousands of miniscule individual tiles within enclosed spaces, manoeuvring subtle nuances in light, shadow, colour tone and perspective to produce infinitely hyper-realistic and visually stunning effects. Often, as in the present work, the atmosphere feels enclosed, slightly claustrophobic and humid, lending the composition a hauntingly wistful and melancholy mood. Such an effect of glimmering surfaces is achieved via repeated layerings of diluted pigment, a technique borrowed from classical Chinese painting.
By romanticizing empty and abandoned spaces, Yuan Yuan’s oeuvre continues a lineage from the 17th and 18th centuries in which European artists were entranced and preoccupied with the ruin. In the artist’s own words: “Ruins give us a sense of security. They are living spaces without a sense of pressure so you can do whatever you want. Abandoned places are also public, meaning that you may enter and visit. This is similar to the process of a viewer who is looking at an artwork. I am trying my best to identify the residual traces left behind – not so much what the place has now, but rather what this place used to be for a long time, which no one can take away and cannot be seen”. In all of Yuan Yuan’s works, a sense of the mystical and the otherworldly pervades, a theme particularly applicable to the present work. According to Iranian literary critic and writer Dr. Eslami Nodooshan, the colours of azure and blue in traditional Iranian architecture signifies sky and water, both of which are significant symbols in mysticism, alluding to heaven and paradise.
While frequently using real locations as sources of inspiration, Yuan Yuan layers his compositions with imaginary as well as photorealistic detail, concocting bewitching reconstructed interiors that comprise gilded slices of history. In his words: “I approach the canvas like an installation artist – adding, removing, transforming and creating a particular setting, for I want to confront the inevitability of decay and loss” . In this way, Yuan Yuan creates archaeological collages that manifest as critical commentaries on the entire history of mankind’s artistic and architectural achievements. Peering into Yuan Yuan’s glorious yet desolate interiors, we are inevitably compelled to confront the enormity of our ambitions and vanity, our incessant pursuit of beauty, our aspirations towards the divine as well as our fragile mortality and struggle against time and decay.