As one of the leaders of the Chinese avant-garde, Yue Minjun is best recognized for the signature motif of his works: his stylized self-portrait, with a gaping grin and eyes closed tight, appearing in contorted and absurdist scenarios that point to Yue's satirical and often cynical worldview.
Yue's first fundamental breakthrough as an artist was simply to begin incorporating himself as a figure into his paintings. Painting one's own self or one's contemporaries was one of the first radical breaks with tradition and with the academy for Chinese contemporary artists. Having been trained in heroicized and idealized production of "realist" paintings, the move to paint oneself elevated the artist to the status of a relevant agent of history, while at the same time allowing the artist to comment on more personal and psychological aspects of their lives. This is the case with an early work of Yue's here, Untitled (Lot 860) from 1989, an intimately small, almost classical canvas of a female nude with a male's head lying beside her. The work is painted in somber, romantic tones; the rough-hewn setting evocative of the romantic and somewhat mournful mood of the times. At first glance, the work appears to depict two lovers in repose. The male however does not completely materialize, and his presence highlights his absence, and it is not clear if he is a ghost, a memory, or a lover longed for. The male figure may be one of Yue's earliest representations of himself as a symbolic form, while the focus on the figure, the ambiguity and mildly surreal quality of the work only hints at the extraordinary canvases that followed.
By the early 1990s, Yue's image of himself quickly became the dominant motif of his works. The image is not a self-portrait in any conventional sense; rather, it is an exaggerated and satirical form that gathers meaning in repetition and in the world Yue imagines. Yue first began experimenting with this motif as a manifestation of his own disillusionment with the credibility of surface realities in modern society, a feeling that was heightened in the immediate aftermath of the Tian'anmen Square tragedy in 1989. In essence, the artist turned himself into an 'idol' to satirize what he felt was an idolatrous society, one that is too easily influence by images of mass production, whether they be the propagandistic images and spectacles of the communist era or the mass media images of a consumerist society. Yue has said, "the appearance of conformity and abeyance [is] so often acted without conviction of purpose. I chose to depict the same figure, similar stance, and same features, to highlight the inanity of such parades. To use one figure in such a manner lent them the appearance of cartoon caricatures: satirizing humanity to tell a particular story" (Yue Minjun, Galerie Enrico Navarra & Hanart TZ Gallery, Paris and Hong Kong, 2006, p. 60 - 61).
Yue Minjun has honed his craft through deft and insightful variations on his singular vision. His paintings titled 99 Idols are from a series of paintings Yue produced for the important 1997 "8 + 8 - 1: Selected Paintings by 15 Contemporary Artists" organized by one of the earliest international advocates and dealers of Chinese contemporary art, Manfred Schoeni. Yue produced a series of small ninety-nine small canvases, appropriately titled the "99 Idols Series". This was the first major series in which Yue began to explore the potential in manipulating his self-image in isolation. These examples offered here show Yue's range with the series and how they begin to resonate together as a series. In each image, Yue shows the figure's face in extreme close up and isolation, the intense proximity to the figure resembling that of the fetishistic imagery associated with fashion spreads or "candid" images of a Hollywood star. As with all of the images from the series, Yue paints his self-image in a state of hysterical laughter, his eyes shut to the world. Here there is no overt point of reference for the laugher; the infectious laughter is nonetheless baffling, and, taken collectively, the laughter takes on the aura of a kind of madness. Yue was one of the first artists to adopt a critical and ironic view of contemporary life, one that is expressed in the nihilistic hilarity of his paintings. In an artist's statement at the time he wrote, "I paint people laughing, whether it is a big laugh, a restrained laugh, a crazy-laugh, a near-death laugh or simply laughter about our society: laughter can be about anything. Laughter is a moment when our mind refuses to reason. When we are puzzled by certain things, our mind simply doesn't want to struggle, or perhaps we don't know how to think, therefore we just want to forget it. The 90's is the time when everyone should laugh" (Yue Minjun cited in M. Schoeni, Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 111).
This sardonic, distanced perspective is clear in another work from 2006, which diverges from Yue's usual exploration of the "self-image". In another monumental canvas, Yue offers a cross-section of an anonymous residential complex. The view however is stylized to resemble a cartoonish maze. Seeking for Terrorists (Lot 857) was part of Yue's "Search for Art" series from 2006-7. The canvas is, exceptionally, devoid of any figure, the deliberately childish and reduced painting style underlining Yue's view of the global political climate at the time, while at the same time the series itself perhaps makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the heightened awareness of the international art market among Chinese artists. Here Yue is mocking the over-exuberance of those in search of things that they do not, from the outset, have the capacity to find. "Searching for Terrorists" is almost the literalization of Yue's practice; like Backyard Pond, he seduces and disarms the viewer while confounding our expectations and desires, in his tireless effort to hold a mirror to the illusion of our lives, the perceptions and the structures that limit and define us.