Yu Youhan’s method combined intuition with formal construction, which resulted in sublime compositions that balanced simplicity and complexity, chaos and order, transcending the dichotomies of not just representation and abstraction but also that between man and nature. Such a singular visual quality is rooted in Yu Youhan’s interest in Daoism at the time. According to the artist, his circle works were expressions of “the inertia and freedom of movements in the universe”. Employing dots and lines of varying thicknesses and lengths, Yu Youhan encapsulated the fluctuating yet ceaseless flows of the material and spiritual world, subsuming his being and artistic impulses to the unseen forces and instincts of the universe. In the artist’s own words: “On a spiritual level, my greatest inspiration came from Laozi’s Daodejing, which I hadn’t read until the 1980s. When I did read it, I fell enraptured by the basic ideas within. I hope that my own work can be like Laozi’s. the idea that the universe is alive, in a permanent state of change. If I were to have a spiritual teacher, then it would probably be Laozi”.
Unlike Western painters, Yu Youhan resisted any obliteration or reworking of his paintings, opting to achieve an intuitive “spontaneously progressive part-by-part balance between passages of painting across a canvas” (Paul Gladston, Yu Youhan, 3030Press, p. 36). As Paul Gladston argues, Yu Youhan’s works were “inescapably challenging” in the context of the 1980s China where the iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution still persisted strongly in the public consciousness (Ibid., p. 35). Edward Lucie-Smith further comments that Yu Youhan was “one of the first ‘Western style’ painters [of the post-socialist era] in China to find an artistic language that was unmistakably his own” (Edward Lucie-Smith, Yu Youhan, 2006). The eminence of Yu Youhan’s abstractions was underscored by their inclusion in the seminal exhibition China/Avant-Garde in Beijing in February 1989 which encompassed the activities of the era-defining ’85 New Wave. Soon afterwards in the early 1990s, Yu Youhan burst forth onto the international stage as a seminal contributor of the Political Pop movement. In the ensuing decade, whilst exhibiting at prominent global stages such as the 1993 Venice Biennale, Yu Youhan worked through a succession of diverse styles, from Political Pop to expressionistic figurative paintings to landscape works that combined Chinese and Western techniques and sensibilities. Returning to his pre-Political Pop abstract style in the mid-2000s, Yu Youhan came full circle from his stylistic and cultural pluralism to articulate a critical ‘post-West’ contemporary art – one that combined political subversion with a rich “spirit resonance” (qiyun shengdong). In following the natural genesis of all matters, like the biological formation of a forest, Yu Youhan’s abstractions allows the natural law and flow of the universe to guide both his art and his vision for a better world.
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