Alongside Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and Liu Wei, Yang Shaobin is considered one of the great "Cynical Realist" painters that emerged from Beijing's art scene in the 1990s. These artists shared a preoccupation with the torments and ironies of contemporary daily life, focusing in particular on the body and the figure as a site of struggle and meaning. Despite the fact that Yang's works share a similar preoccupation with power in its various abuses and incarnations, his oeuvre shows a direct engagement with the results of violence rather than the ironic detachment of his peers. Owing in no small part to his tenure as a police officer in the Public Security Bureau before the start of his art career, Yang's work demonstrates a long and varied exploration of the various forms of violence inherent to human nature and existence.
Yang Shaobin spent his childhood in a mining area in Hebei province, and grew up in gang fights and mischief; when he first went to Beijing after graduating from the Hebei University of Science and Technology, he encountered some emotional turns of events, making him realize the fragility of human relations, at that time, he resided in the Yuanmingyuan Artists' Village, which was filled with restlessness, all these caused him frequent feelings of panic and anxiety.
Yang Shaobin's Circumstance No. 4 (Lot 2038), painted just two years after Zhen Bao Dao Heroes (Lot 2037) perfectly indexes Yang's ongoing development as an artist, as well as his own personal life circumstance, and the social and cultural forces that were re-shaping Chinese contemporary art at the time. Significantly, Yang is continuing to paint on a grand, "historic" scale, but has broken with the formalism of his earlier works. Instead of evoking the heavy handed didacticism of communist propaganda, here Yang presents a dynamic composition of individuals and paired figures at various scales in a manner reminiscent of commercial or film advertising. Against an aerial view of a placid lake, crosscut by a marble walking bridge, are a series of figures in various states of conflict, play and repose. Foremost among them are the two dominant figures on the left of the composition, a male figure in casual dress who, with teeth grit and bared, is wrestling another figure to the ground, who, in turn, gestures to the viewer, seeking our intervention. This gesture is repeated twice by smaller figures, appearing in what appear to be military green fatigues, in the lower right of the composition. Another pair struggle in the lower left of the composition, while another set, a uniformed military figure and a man dressed in his undershirt, stand idly by in the lower right. Towering above these figures is that of a child in flip flops and shorts, mimicking the combative stance of a kung fu master. The incongruous figures of two children's dolls. They are both "Cabbage Patch Kids", the ubiquitous and highly sought after commodities of the era. One stands in as another idle witness, while yet another, in overalls, suspenders, striped shirt and cap, "plays dead" with his tongue extravagantly hanging out of his mouth.
The soft modeling of Yang's previous works becomes rougher, the colors and contrasts of his palette more acidic. The flesh is almost uniformally a flayed, meaty red, blistered with tension, and, as in the case with the dominant figure in yellow, disfigured to the point of seeming to detach itself from the figure. This is a technique that would Yang would elaborate further in his Fighting series, and on that highlights the themes of violence found throughout Yang's works, suggesting that man's nature is so intrinsically violent that it seems to take on a life of its own, exceeding the limits of self-control and of the body itself.
Yang's collage of figures at different scales, in repeated poses and in isolated tableaus, index various aspects of contemporary life in China at that time. On the one hand, the seeming randomness of these vignettes suggest the increasingly urbanized lifestyle of Yang and his generation, the feelings of anomie that can accompany an onslaught of unconnected visual and personal experiences. At the same time, the Cabbage Patch dolls appear as signifiers of globalization and the glut of foreign consumer products that were then appearing regularly on China's shores. The composition then further references the advent of mass produced consumer imagery that had begun to dominate everyday life. As such, the painting's composition has the logic of a film poster, a montage of recognizable sequences, full of jarring scenes, an unsettled narrative, and inexplicable violence.
The setting of this jarring scene is an idyllic park setting, the green of the trees and foliage reflected in the sublime blue of the lake, gentle hills and rolling clouds retreating gently into the horizon. This context, along with the white marble of the pedestrian bridge, seem to reference what was then Yang's home, the so-called Yuan Ming Yuan artist's village. The Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) was itself then slowly being transformed from its status as the ruins of a formerly glorious imperial refuge to that of a popular tourist destination and theme park. Yang's ambiguous if not cryptically titled work, Circumstance No. 4, suggests that Yang, consistent with his fellow Cynical Realists, is attempting to represent a "reality" stripped of any ideology or pretense, to portray it in its absolute emotional and philosophical truths. Here Yang presents his "circumstance", one of a violence so inherent and ubiquitous that it has already been sublimated into child's play and entertainment. Circumstance No. 4 then is an essential and historic turning point for Yang and in Chinese contemporary art in this critical period. In later works, Yang pursues violence as a universal theme; here however he captures something else: the transformations facing and challenging the nation, and the ways in which his generation lead the way in reformulating Chinese contemporary culture.