Without question, Mao Zedong was one of the most influential and recognizable political figures of the Twentieth Century. His official portrait still hangs over the Tian'anmen Gate, his symbolic influence is still felt by many around the world. Inevitably, his iconicity and power inspired any number of artists to appropriate and de-construct his image. In the hands of Andy Warhol, Mao's portrait becomes an unironic celebration of media celebrity and power. In the hands of Gerhard Richter, Mao's image becomes a historical artifact. In the hands of Yan Pei Ming, Mao's iconic image becomes something else altogether.
Based in France from the early 1980s onwards, Yan trained in Dijon and, unlike his contemporaries in China, benefited from prolonged exposure to Western modern and contemporary masters such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Early on, he reduced his palette to simple black and white or a monochromatic red in order to set himself apart from other contemporary abstractionists. The artist also tells of an early trip to Holland where he obsessively counted the strokes in Van Gogh's paintings; soon thereafter he began to challenge himself to paint with a minimum number of strokes, no matter the size of the canvas. This resulted in his innovative use of exceptionally broad brushes, some of which are 20 inches or as much as 50 inches wide.
Yan's overarching focus on portraiture betrays his fundamental search for identity through portraits of himself, of strangers, of his father, of victims, or of such icons as Mao Zedong. In all of these works, Yan eliminates any background or contextualizing detail, focusing entirely on the figure. Yan's depiction of Mao is a portrait of ambivalence, registering the artist's attempt to grapple with Mao as both an icon of his homeland and as a human being. He appropriates the full frontal composition of the Chairman's official portraits. At the same time, the tight cropping of the compositional frame is reminiscent of common identification photos. Yan's portrait then is a matter-of-fact portrait and un-idealized rendering Mao as an imperfect and mortal being, lugubrious, aged, and somewhat aloof, immediately familiar and yet subject to the same fate as anyone else. Yan's red may read as a blood red, or even communist red, but the artist has always maintained his fondness for the color stems from its cultural meaning in China, as the color representing success, wealth and life. As such, Yan's is a deconstructive and extremely personal portrait of the Great Helmsman, one that captures the essence of his influence in the lives of so many, and his fragility as a human being.