Yang Shaobin initially assumed his place in the Chinese contemporary art scene as a Cynical Realist. Cynical Realism, as coined and purported by seminal art critic Li Xianting, is a deliberate derision of authority, a potent satire of reality, in contrast against the mainstream art trend then in the 1980s, one which tended toward grand narration and metaphysical expression. The movement is a product of the prevalent ennui and shared disillusionment that plagued the nation, an inevitable result from the violent annihilation of political and cultural utopianism in 1989. A return to the realist and the figurative characterized the Cynical Realist style. In content, it captures the lackluster, hollow moments of daily life, depicted with intentional haphazardness and conscious erraticism.
The artist himself has openly divulged in many occasions, that he had tenaciously abided by a Cynical Realist mode while painting between the years 1991 and 1996. Policemen and soldiers frequented his compositions and standard Cynical Realist motifs such as the inane smile, the impeccable uniform, blue waters and blue skies, etc., served as supplementary material. If one were to examine closely his earlier works of this phase, the pictorial context would reveal many points of conflict and disjuncture. Overtime, Yang Shaobin would find innovative ways to convey these contradictory, paradoxical details in his imagery.
The Battling Crowds II (Lot 865) is perhaps the most literary of all the works created in 1996. Like many that were completed in the same year, the painting features policemen, chosen not only because of their capacity to represent ideologically a society deserving of staunch criticism, but also because the artist himself had once been a policeman, an experience that struck a stark contrast against his subsequent days as a professional artist. Many times the artist recalled the humiliation and anger he felt when he first moved to Beijing, where he was detained and mistreated by police because he had come without a temporary residential permit. The inclusion of policemen in his works suggests an intentional revenge of sorts on behalf of the underprivileged as well as the oppressed within society. Under Yang's hand, the work's mandatory cynicism is overshadowed by an unassailable violence. In technique, The Battling Crowds II marks a turning point for the artist, where brushstrokes are wielded to generate an air of speed and of materiality, an approach rarely employed by practitioners of Cynical Realism. Instead, they would solve the problem of conveying the mass and the posture of human figures by applying a thin wash of paint. In Yang Shaobin's later works, he would come to violate this convention and emphasize heavily the elements of physical mass and bodily contortions so as to expose the aggression hidden within.
Post-1997, Yang Shaobin revved up the measure of violence in his paintings, expressing it respectively or collectively through means of visual language as well as compositional content. Take Lipstick Series (Lots 866, 867, 868) of 1997—it retains the uniform, the mischievous face, including perhaps even a hint of eroticism, yet the mode of execution reveals a certain transformation. No longer set against idyllic scenery, Yang's pictures are presented via a sophisticated dripping effect within an abstract space. It is with the use of linseed oil, or other such paint binders, that the paint loses its grip upon application and then trickles down the surface of the canvas in unexpected and spontaneous ways. The hand of the artist is somewhat overtaken by the medium's own autonomy.
Yang Shaobin once described the drip effect with the Chinese onomatopoeia pili pala, denoting an uninhibited energy or a boisterous dynamism. The effect itself does not naturally allude to a manifestation of violence. The artist, however, used it to portray the contorted and disembodied faces of belligerent men in combat, in pain, in attack, a pictorial strategy that has come to dominate his canvases ever since 1996. Though dressed with an air of humour and sarcasm in the beginning, the images, emboldened by a natural force, slowly spiralled out of even the artist's control and gained an independent existence. Thus, pili pala not only illustrates the state of fighting, but it is also a descriptor for the drip effect.
In the cluster of smaller paintings sharing similar compositions that Yang Shaobin made after 1997, an intriguing coexistence of the dry and the damp can be found. The two opposing properties then started to wrestle with each other, only for the damp to beat the dry into submission—the drip effect has taken centerstage ever since. The inexplicable contortion of the face is like violence itself, without a dedicated historical context and without a credible logical reason. An abstract violence is captured in Yang Shaobin's pictures as well as in his pictorial language, so is an essentialist violence. The mutilation that is inflicted on the face infects the entire body and the drip effect is expanded to swathe the entire surface of the canvas, resulting in a tormented effect of incompletion. It is through his arrival at such a painting strategy that Yang Shaobin locates his equilibrium between the forces of expressionism and neo-expressionism. The same points of disjuncture that had been present in his works of the mid-1990s have been reconfigured into his inimitable style. What sets Yang Shaobin apart from other artists who were also pursuing the encapsulation of violence in their art, is that while he has come to his own brand of violent manifestation, he has not dwelled on it. Hisultimate hope is to stimulate one's visual capacities through the simple act of painting and the emphasis has shifted onto the core notion of violence, stripped of its many associations—the attacking by a body on another body.
There is no question about Yang Shaobin's role in the development of Chinese contemporary art since the 1990s. His own maturation as a practitioner of art and his persistent search for the most potent artistic expression coincide with the volatile evolution of Chinese contemporary art history itself. The dynamism that saturates his body of work comes not from a calculated espousal of the prevailing art movement. It comes from paradoxes that lie between conflicting systems, the first the artist's own psyche against his acquired knowledge as well as understanding of society, and the second the popular art trends against the official institution. As an artist of honesty and experience, he identifies these problems and modifies his approach and his resources in order to adapt.
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