Dijon-based Yan Pei-Ming relies on an intentionally limited creative practice in order to realize monumental, dramatic, and poetic investigations into identity, existence, and representation. For the vast majority of his career, Yan has returned almost obsessively to the genre of portraiture, developing a style that has roots in both Western and Eastern aesthetic traditions and experiences. His earliest training as an artist came during China's Cultural Revolution. At the time, the country's landscape was over-run with "big character" posters, a style of public political editorializing by competing political factions. Yan was impressed by the scale and directness of the posters, the bold expressiveness of the calligraphy demanding the viewer's attention. Later in life, Yan was most impressed by the Abstract Expressionists; not wanting to mimic them in his own art, he eliminated color from his palette and relied instead on the monochromatic, calligraphic technique of his youth. Yan also began to use excessively large brushes in his paintings, reasoning that larger canvases required larger brushes, a technique similar to that used by Zen Buddhist calligraphers allowing an element of chance and a greater sense of immediacy in both process and result. This approach is similar, to that of the Abstract Expressionists whose gestural, non- or semi-representational works embraced also spontaneity and subconscious forms of expression.
Painting with a minimum of strokes, his portraits are built up in blunt, muscular, almost crude gestures. The majority of Yan's portraits are not traditional representations of individuals. They do not typically provide any conventional insight into character or psychological disposition or even social or historical context. Nor does the artist limit himself to a single, unique portrait of an individual person. Rather, he returns repeatedly to the same subjects - self-portraits, portraits of Buddha or of Chairman Mao - rendering them as personal icons with which he maintains a complex, extended relationship. Yan has said that he only paints "miserable people", including himself, a disposition that seems to imply a fixation on the inevitably of death. Taken as a whole, his deliberate reduction of technique, subjects, and even contextualizing details, points to his focus on the ephemeral nature of identity and existence.
Considering the context of Yan's traditional art practice renders his 2004 portrait of Pope Jean Paul II all the more exceptional. The monumental canvas is executed with an unusually expanded palette, including flesh tones, the stunning white of the pontiff's robes, and the piercing blue of his fixed, penetrating gaze. His massive hands and rough facial features emerge in flesh tones that seem worked over to the point of being raw, a metaphor perhaps for the seriousness of the his meditation; the clarity and intensity of the passages in white underlying the figure's own moral resolve. With this painting, Yan is laying claim to a place among the pantheon of artists - from Diego Velazquez to Francis Bacon - who have grappled with such a subject. Like the works of Bacon, Yan's paintings gravitate towards an exploration of mortal anguish. Among the artist's preferred subjects, Pape is in some ways thematically similar to Yan's portraits of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, the Pope is a historical person whose existence bridges mortal experience and the contemplation of an afterlife. Indeed, his selection of the Pope as a subject reiterates the dominant themes of the artist's career. Unlike either Bacon or the artist's own paintings of Buddha or other Chinese figures however, Yan's portrait of the Pope is not a metonymic exercise allowing the artist to ruminate on his own cultural and religious heritage. Rather, it is one of only two portraits the artist created of the living Pope, and as a living figure, it is one of the very few paintings where Yan emphasizes the character of the subject itself as much as his iconic significance. Despite his much-discussed ailing health, Yan must have been impressed by the pontiff's fierce and moral commitment to his calling and his continued influence over Roman Catholic Europe, and as such paints him with an intensity that exceeds his mortal frame. He is in many ways the perfect companion for the themes that compel Yan, representing a willful, disciplined and courageous mediation on the meaning of existence that inspires the artist's own.