As early as 1992, curator and critic Li Xianting identified the new art emerging from Beijing as "Cynical Realist". While this was quickly understood to be a "movement", it is perhaps better understood as a disposition or world view common among avant-garde artists at the time. Certainly the "Cynical Realist" painters - among them Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei and Yang Shaobin - would loathe to consider themselves part of a united group. But if any thematic united their works, it was one of alienation, unrest and ennui, a philosophical disposition that was then instilled into extraordinary works that critically reflected on a historically changing social environment, ushering in an utterly new paradigm in contemporary Chinese art.
Beijing painter Yang Shaobin is one of the foremost painters of this generation, capturing the psychic mood of his time and his city, passing from the post-Tiananmen tragedy through a period of rapid urbanization and commercialization. Untitled (Lot 59) perfectly elucidates the pinnacle of Yang Shaobin's evolving artistic language in the 1990s, technical skill and thematic vision. The work demonstrates Yang's transition between his early Police Series into his later famed Red Violence paintings. Having spent his childhood in a mining area in Hebei, and having also spent a period of time as a policeman, the emotional experience of regularly witnessing scenes of street violence made him sensitive to issues of pain, violence and conflict, and fuelled his long-standing interest in violence as a core aspect not only of human nature but of social interaction. Untitled 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 his compositions are stripped entirely of clothes and narrative.
In a monumental canvas, Yang depicts multiple figures in various, exaggerated poses of violence. One figure tears at the elastic cheeks of another, stretching them past their plausible limits and beyond his ears, in a gesture drawn straight from the slapstick comedies of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. In another passage, one male appears to be slamming another across the roof of the car, both laughing gleefully. A lone figure squatting behind the car appears almost to be biting into its trunk. At the forefront, a shirtless figure in black slacks is doubled over, his mouth agape and fist clasped near his waist, as if mimicking the mock-cinematic gesture of someone just punched or stabbed in the gut. All of these figures are pressed into the composition around the form of the car, with an additional two males appearing through the side window, flattened to fit its shape as if captured within a television screen.
Untitled is an extraordinary painting, highlighting Yang's evolution as a painter as well as a philosophical disposition that fundamentally set him apart from the other so-called Cynical Realists. His earliest Policeman (fig. 1) paintings were primarily individual character studies, grotesque mockeries of human character and moral decay. The later Red Violence series focused on violence as a fundamental aspect of human nature, almost cosmic in scale (fig. 2). As Yang moved towards the purity of expression found in Red Violence, we can see that the rogue humor of the Cynical Realists was never a perfect description for his works. Yang presents this scene of rampant violence around a symbol of masculine consumption par excellance - a trophy, brand name sports car. The vehicle and the clothes are articulated in cool steel greys and a soft military green, emphasizing every contour and fold and highlighting a fetishization of sensuous surfaces, reminding us of their status as consumer goods and in turn index the changing priorities and values of Yang's generation as global market forces took hold of Chinese cities. These cool tones and surfaces are then countered with the outrageous poses and sinewy, muscular flesh of the figures, painted in aggressive salmon reds and pinks, modeled with loose strokes that suggest a flesh that ranges precariously brutally solid and limpid.
In this way, Yang's critique of his generation and his environment is quite distinct from his contemporaries, such as the vague emotional displacement of Fang Lijun (fig. 3) or the aggressive, iconoclastic humor of Liu Wei (Lot 48). Instead, with these stunt-man poses plainly mimicking that of mainstream cinema, coupled with this distinct image of capitalist largesse, Yang is critiquing the stylization of emotions and their displacement into the field of consumption. In this way, Yang's work is somewhat akin to Andy Warhol's early Death and Disaster paintings from the early 1960s, such as his Green Car Crash (fig. 4), wherein the relatively new, mass mediation of images, and our instant access to images of tragedy, fueling our lurid curiosity over such scenes while also stripping them of their humanity. Untitled in many ways is a more powerful statement than the increasingly confrontational images of Yang's subsequent series, located as in an extraordinary moment, registering the debasement of an entire population, which no longer has any moral or philosophical agenda outside of the petty, slapstick squabbles over dubious ambitions.