'Rendered in varying shades of ivory white and onyx black, Contrat non exécuté by Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming depicts a close-up frontal portrait of an unknown sitter with generous and masterful brushstroke. Spanning the width of the canvas, luxurious, thick swathes of black and grey create a monochromatic colour field behind the larger-than-life face, obscuring any detail of background that might hint at a location or time of day. In the spirit of the American Action painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, Yan confronts and attacks his canvas with deliberate gesture and movement, creating a spectacularly defined human face from the abstraction. From inches way, the smooth, yet violently applied paint strokes reveal only glimmers of the true image they form; from afar, a restrained, but commanding human face emerges. Gazing with searing determination and curiosity, the mystery sitter offers a look of quiet solitude and melancholy. Painted in 2000, this monumental canvas was executed in the same year that Yan participated in the first ever Shanghai Biennale and the Fifth Biennale de Lyon.
Interestingly, while many of Yan's subjects are taken from source material such as photographs and newspaper and magazine clippings, adjusted and often modified to his own specifications, this portrait depicts an actual person, a figure whose identity remains unknown, adding to the enigmatic quality of the painting. A unique endeavor for an artist whose 'characters are... without nationality or race, hybrid being looking like each other but like nobody in particular'. (V. Dupont, quoted in T. Botz-Bornstein, 'Transcendental Blandness of Yan Pei-Mings International Landscapes', in Yishu Journal of Contemporary Art, July/August 2009, Vol. 8, no. 4, p. 20). The seemingly anonymous figures found in his portraits here become a point of tension, of contradiction. A portrait designed and based on a real person, yet whose identity is concealed and therefore, returns the sitter to the status of the any man, or rather, the every man.
This concept is at the heart of Yan's artistic practice, as curator and critic Hou Hanru has explained: 'Ming considers his work to be a perpetual search for the meaning of humanity, and the goodness of human beings... but he was born to be provocative by nature. His art is the epitome of provocation. He constantly attempts to confront his art with our expectations and cultural stereotypes by exposing contradictions, ambiguities and conflicts. He takes pleasure in showing, or 'proving', that his work is not what we expected it to be.' (H. Hou, quoted in Yan Pei-Ming, Exécution, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de Saint-Etienne Métropole, Saint-Etienne 2006, p. 259).