Beginning in the 1980s, Chinese society was moving toward a market-oriented economy in an atmosphere of opening and reform. These factors helped spark a corresponding new emphasis on freedom and liberation of thought in the cultural sphere. At the same time, as the darker side of modernization became more apparent, mainland Chinese artists became increasingly engaged with the massive social changes taking place around them, often dwelling on the psychological effects on personal experiences and intimate relationships. Famous for his paintings of his own grinning 'self-image', often multiplied in absurdist scenarios, Yue was one of the first artists to adopt a critical and ironic view of contemporary life.
For Yue, the multiplication and objectification of his own self-image allowed him to criticize what he perceived as the 'society of idols' in which he lived, where the mass media production of particular images and styles of behaviour wield disproportionate power over everyday life. At the same time, the gaping smiling faces and the deliberately ambivalent use of irony also pointed to Yue's sense of the cultural atmosphere in China in the 1990s. Disarming and jovial exteriors are frequently at odds with the discomfort and disorientation of Yue's compositions. Yue has stated, 'Everybody in China lived their life this way at that time; which is why the act of smiling, laughing mask feelings of helplessness has such significance for my generation'. (Yue Minjun, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris 2006, p. 54).
These dominant themes are evident in Yue's 2001 Sheep Herd. The idea of a herd of sheep raises associates with mindless masses requiring direction. Here the 'sheep' have been replaced by Yue's 'self-image', squatting on all fours almost in supplication, and barreling against each other in contradictory directions. Yue's grinning face emerges again and again from the crowd, his features contorted in a strained and forced guffaw, an expression that may also betray a desperate effort to break free of the teeming masses of other 'sheep'. The bold pop colors, unusual composition, and hollow hilarity of the scene point to the 'stylized ambivalance' and 'grey humor' typical of China's Cynical Realists. Yue creates a deceptively light-hearted and surrealistic scene through which to mask his critique his contemporary social and political reality.