As with many of the other members of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde who have spent considerable time living and working in the West, Yan Pei-Ming's career represents a unique, on-going dialogue with Eastern and Western history, experience and artistic practices.
Born in Shanghai but based in France since the early 1980s, Yan Pei-Ming has developed a creative practice built around a near-obsessive commitment to the portraiture genre. By intentionally limiting his subject matter, technique, and palette, Yan has built an extraordinary body of work which gains in depth through the use of repetition, variation, and juxtaposition. Yan paints individuals, typically at monumental scale, fixating primarily on self-portraits, family members, anonymous strangers, anonymous victims of crimes or disasters, or more iconic figures, like Chairman Mao, Bruce Lee, or Buddhist figures. These images are drawn from memory, sometimes abetted by newspaper photos or other mementos. Within his chosen vocabulary, the creation of these images serves as a process of externalization, one that allows Yan an extended meditation on the persons in his life, the meaning of their existence, and the ephemeral subjective quality of the artist's relationship to his subject. Taken as a whole, it becomes apparent that Yan is compelled by an on-going search for identity that is at once cultural, personal, and existential.
Yan has commented on how a visit to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam early in his career inspired him to count the number of brushstrokes in the artist's work and challenge himself to paint with as few strokes as possible. As such, his works have an intensity that exceeds that of classic portraiture. Yan manages to conjure the essential qualities of character compressed into a moment in time.
The work featured in this sale, painted in 1999, is a rare diptych including separate portraits of the artist's own father and Mao Zedong. Painted in a somber, elegiac black and white, using Yan's signature economy of musculature brushstrokes, both figures emerge from a neutral and rapidly executed background. The surface of the canvas is covered with scattered splatters, attesting to the velocity of the artist's method. The differences between the two images are striking. Mao's gaze meets our own, proud and unflinching; his arched eyebrows and set mouth render his gaze aloof and coolly critical. His features are healthy and robust, lit by a strong raking light, his dark suit and black hair contrasting strongly with the background. In contrast, Yan's father is much more neutral in tone, less extroverted as a presence. His eyes are downcast, unfocused, as if avoiding the viewer's presence or in a moment of internal reflection. Compared to Mao's full cheeks and pronounced features, Yan's father seems weather-worn, his cheeks hollow, his mouth long, solemn, and regretful. In general, his features are somewhat vague compared with Mao's, almost as though the artist had an easier time conjuring the image of the Great Helmsman than that of his own father.
The artist uses unusually broad brushes that allow him not only to paint economically and with considerable urgency. Though Yan is working in a classically "Western" painting genre, this technique has certain corollaries with Chinese Zen calligraphers, who would sometimes use overly large brushes in order to sidestep their "conscious" impulses and give rise instead to a less mediated form of expression. This immediacy is apparent in Yan's works as well; they have an almost "automatic" quality, as if revealing Yan's visceral and subconscious feelings towards his subjects during the time of their creation. Painted at a distance from his subjects both physical and temporal, Yan's portrayal of these two figures is a distillation of experience and memory, at once personal and collective. The powerful differences between these two portraits - one full of power and agency, the other utterly diminished in spirit and vivacity - point to a legacy of conflicted relationships - between the public and private, between the political and personal, between idealism and reality - that are at the core of Yan's generations experiences and China's 20th Century.