As early as the early 1990s, while living in the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) artist' s village in northwest Beijing, Yang Shaobin and other artists such as Fang Lijun began working on a definitive, distinct visual language that soon become known as one of the most influential phenomenon in Chinese contemporary art - Cynical Realism. Yang Shaobin created an art form that focused on the depressing banality and brutality of the times, showing his reflections and critical thinking about the existing social order, the human spirit, as well as reflecting on the close connection to the modes of thought and cultural discourse prevalent at the time.
The Battling Crowds (Lot 1056) perfectly elucidates the formation of Yang Shaobin's developing artistic language, technical skill and thematic vision. The work demonstrates Yang's his transition between his early Police Series into his later famed Red Violence Series. Having spent his childhood in a mining area in Hebei, and having also spent a period of time as a policeman in his youth, the emotional experience of regularly experiencing scenes of street violence made him sensitive to issues of violence and conflict, and fuelled his long-standing interest in violence as a core aspect of human nature. The Battling Crowds displays Yang's later penchant for expressive exaggeration, it remains grounded of naturalistic representation. At the same time, Yang's employment of an increasingly expressionistic treatment of the surface and hue of human flesh in distress foreshadows his imminent shift into the drama and cruelty of his later Red Violence Series in which the figures are stripped entirely of clothes and narrative.
In 1995, Yang relocated to Tongxian, in the suburbs of Beijing. Painted not long after over 1996 and 1997, The Battling Crowds marks a significant moment in the development of artist's methods. Here a play of jarring, primary colours, yellow, blue and red, dominate before a dark grey background - the bold red of the torsos jumps powerfully into the visual foreground. Applying his wide paintbrushes with speed and agility, and making use of the unbridled fluidity of the diluted oil paint, Yang Shaobin achieves a perfect integration of form, technique and theme. The result is a tour de force composition of active wrestling poses in a contained yet restless motion. It was this particular painting, along with other significant pieces from the Red Violence Series, that were featured in the 1999 Venice Biennale and that fully propelled Yang into international stardom, gaining exposure in international to domestic gallery exhibitions, entering both private and public collections of the world.
In the mood and atmosphere established in his paintings, Yang probes the psychological state of his subjects. By depicting the most brutal banalities, Yang reminds the viewer of the prevalence of violence in society, and of our own apathy and inertia to resist. Here the diptych evokes a certain universal human dilemma, a feeling of oppression, of being helplessly disempowered and humiliated, while also conveying sensitivity to violence in its emotional and physical totality. As Yang commented in a 2007 interview, "Everyone is familiar with the confrontational aspect of violence, but there's actually a more frightening form of violence than the kind we usually see: I call it 'soft violence.' Under the current power structure, soft violence can be far more harmful than physical violence or the cruelties inflicted on the flesh." Yang pointed out that while audiences might overlook this aspect in his work, this is his natural reaction to an oppressive power structure.
Ultimately, Yang leaves off the debate on the justifiability of violence, its origins and backgrounds. Although Yang focuses on facial depiction and deliberately hides emotions, the flow of paint tells only the occurrence and result of the violent action, we cannot tell whether which characters are the perpetrator or the victim, the cumbersome telling of the event is excluded from the picture, the background, process, cause or motive of the violent event is no longer important. While the scars and wounds that take on the painterly layers of flesh surface recall the psychological intensity and figural abstraction of Francis Bacon's paintings, the lineage in visual history of such themes of grotesque, banal beauty seems to relate to deeper historic sources. The characters remind us as well of the nameless victims of war in the works of Francisco Goya, or a statement of opposition against injustice like Picasso's La Guernica. In both of these we find truth in the German litterateur, Friedrich von Schiller's words: "Only in the state of violence and fight can we maintain the highest level of consciousness on our moral nature, and the highest degree of moral pleasure is often accompanied by pain."
While Yang's preoccupation with power in its various incarnations and iterations is similar to the concerns of his Cynical Realist contemporaries, Yang Shaobin's oeuvre shows a direct engagement with the results of violence rather than the ironic detachment of his peers. An unflinching witness to hyper-violence and its consequences, Yang reveals this in The Battling Crowds as an aspect human nature that is universal and also grounded in reality. Yang' s images, not to be misconstrued as an endorsement of violence or nihilism, carries the weight of the timeless theme of competition and survival, a fundamental battle between man and man, or man and circumstance. Such themes, existing across many genres of contemporary visual art forms - paintings, sculptures, film and popular culture, is only a manifestation of this ineluctable reality of human existence. Although the theme is violence, by illuminating on bodily senses, and wiping all external descriptions about personality, identity and status away from the characters, the image is a powerful statement that demonstrates naked human nature - a constant wavering between moral and conflict, good and evil, divinity and animality.