A practitioner of Cynical Realism like Fang Lijun (Lots 178 to 183), Yue Minjun also relies on a trademark version of himself in his paintings, even moreso than his peer. His excessively wide, markedly toothy grin is found in a delightful variety of settings, ranging from versions of Western Old Master paintings to a mock execution scene to self-portraits of the artist in drag. The constant throughout his work is Fang himself, who appropriates all manner of styles and contexts and undermines them with the image of this faintly disturbing figure. Such repetition of a more or less identical, flat and cartoonish image points to a similar reality for all participants in the new Chinese society. Yet the inevitable grin with which his subjects greet their viewers seems at first indicative of an overweening confidence, the blithe self-regard and values of Western self-promotion rather than Eastern modesty. A brave new man for a brave new world, Yue’s figure celebrates the amoral self-absorption of an anti-self who appears equally poised no matter the context into which he is transplanted.
Indeed, the kitsch backgrounds of many of the paintings, with their single matte colors of gray, blue, orange, and tan, as well as the self-conscious parody derived from the overt repetition of grinning heads, underscores the sheer banality of a self trained to smile in agreement with any setting. The artist’s usage of Western art materials and a simplified figurative style bespeaks a more than passing involvement with the general protocols of contemporary Western art, which itself may be seen as a conscious wink towards non-Asian culture. But at the same time, the terms of Yue’s constructed identity suggest an ad hoc acceptance of the way Chinese culture currently works, even if the artist parodies the fact that individualistic affluence is simply the supplanting of one conformist ideology with another. It is perhaps for this reason that Yue’s ubiquitous grin – more of a mischievous smirk – is by turns intriguingly obsequious and maddeningly off-putting.
Yue’s training occurred outside the pale of the influential and prestigious art schools in Beijing, in the oil painting department of Hebei Normal University. And he developed his distinctive style and signature imagery while living in an artist’s community on the outskirts of Beijing in the years immediately following the tragic events of Tienanmen Square. Nonetheless, Yue does not need to claim outsider status; his art speaks to and for a generation that saw increased close contact with Western culture, the principal theme suggested by his work.
In the paintings themselves, Yue often uses multiple identical images to conjure a sense of absurdity. In the early painting Untitled (1994, Lot 105) a smiling head directly faces us, with two identical heads flanking him on either side, their features partially blocked by the central image. The main figure wears a green jacket and brown shirt. The multiplicity of the ridiculous grinning head behind a waving hand, undermines our easy response to this would-be self-confident presentation. More like a jack-in-the-box or an unctuous salesman – the image leads us to wonder just what exactly the artist is projecting? For all the directness of the image, we see an identical portrait, a kind of ‘everyman,’ who reflects to us nothing beyond a certain disingenuous, at-your-service pleasure.
The repetition of the same face suggests a uniformity to the Chinese condition that cannot be remedied, despite the upheavals and confusion of recent decades. In the large, early painting entitled Flying (1993, Lot 109), for example, three self-portraits are stacked on top of each other, each wearing an identical pink shirt and offering the same broad smile. Surrounded by blue skies and a couple of clouds to their right, their improbably weighty heads apparently fly upside down because above them, at the top of the canvas, the entrance to the Forbidden City appears upside-down. But in this topsy-turvy world, Mao’s familiar image over the central gate also appears upside down – or rather right-side up, if the artist’s perspective as he looks out in triplicate upon is the right one for us to get our bearings in this zero-gravity space. The inclusion of the famous architectural icon reminds us of a past the jovial triplets appear to deny – and even Mao himself is submitted to a tongue-in-cheek cursory treatment that leaves us unsure if this ubiquitous, solemn portrait is indeed what we see in the image. While we have no question about the setting of the picture, its multiple orientations belie its lighthearted theme and colorful palette to suggest a rootless, untethered world in which the individual self flies by the seat of his pants!
The theme of a Chinese everyman is continuously available in Yue’s self-portraits, which actually conceal as much as they divulge. After an extended reading of this endless replication of eternally smiling images in their different contexts, one begins to read them as impartially as one might look at an official portrait of Mao, but with considerably more conceptual charge. Is this projected happiness a travesty of actual feeling, a scathing commentary, a strategic ruse? It’s hard to say, for these images give us little beyond their inscrutable, duplicitous joy. In two untitled images of the artist’s surrogate self more or less undressed (1996, Lots 106 and 107), the sheer nakedness of the figure reads as a sharp comment, although seemingly innocent, upon Chinese identity. Naked, vulnerable, and put in awkward positions, the portraits nonetheless keep their distance with a countenance that is more a mask than a genuine expression of feeling. In these works, as throughout his oeuvre, Yue offers us few if any answers, and it becomes clear that the artist is keeping his own emotions closely concealed, presenting a welcoming expression that distances him from the very audience his works so ingeniously charm.
- Jonathan Goodman
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