"Why did I paint Mao? I did so in part as a memorial to my past political life. I borrowed the method of Pop art and elements from Chinese folk art to represent an ordinary Mao in a way of resilience, a little humor, and few critical remarks, all mixed with a little admiration. I am proud that he is no longer a sacrosanct god in my paintings; he becomes an ordinary person." - Yu Youhan
In the early 1990s, as China was already in its second decade into Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, Shanghai-based Yu Youhan quickly rose to fame as one of the nation's leading Political Pop artists. As the nation was facing a period of extraordinary economic and cultural change, Yu's inspired appropriations of conventional communist imagery, combined with Western and domestic "pop" forms, quickly brought him international attention, his works appearing in the 45th Venice Biennale (in 1995), the China Avant-Garde Exhibition (which traveled throughout Europe in 1993), the 22nd Sao Paulo International Art Biennale in 1994, and one of his works even graced the cover of Time Magazine.
China's "Political Pop" has often been too easily confused and elided with Western Pop Art. While it has its corollaries, we can also see in the two exceptional works by Yu featured here (Lots 1201 and 1202) that it also has its own distinct native roots in the context of Chinese history and visual culture. Unlike many of the other practitioners of Political Pop, Yu, born in the 1940s, trained as an artist before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) rather than after. His training and education were aborted by the Cultural Revolution, but he sustained his interest by relying on the propaganda posters of the era as inspiration. By the time he was able to take up a teaching post in 1973, his interests took him not to the works of Warhol and other Western pop artists, but the color field experimentation and painterly expression of Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh.
Yu's Mao (Lot 1201) is one of the early canvases of the artist's historic series. He began to appropriate political imagery in his works as early as 1988, and we can see here how the artist has fully internalized both the standardized imagery of Chinese propaganda, as well as the flattened color fields that one finds in the works of Matisse and Cezanne. Western Pop art represented a wholesale embrace of consumer culture; however droll Andy Warhol might have been, he was rarely explicitly critical of a consumer capitalist system. Similarly, the level of pointed critique in Yu's works remains elusive. Mao appears seated in a comfortable armchair, affably engaged with an audience not pictured, and dressed in the typical communist attire of the era, all drawn from popular "official" imagery. Yu paints the scene in bright, disarmingly bold colors and in simplified flattened forms, contra the idealized natural tones one would find in conventional Soviet Realist depictions of state figures. These color fields are reminiscent of the posters Yu had taken inspiration from in his youth. Yu further heightens the visual plane by treating the flat color fields like interlocking patterns of complimentary designs, with motifs drawn from folk art and traditional bed covers and other popular domestic materials. Yu as such places the content of the composition in tension with the picture plane, creating a lively visual experience that seems filled more with affection than with critique. As a result, Yu effectively has domesticated Mao's image, suggestive of his continued popularity and cult-like status, one that was passionately revived and rendered nearly to the status of kitsch by the growth of consumer culture in China.
Shanghai has historically been the city within mainland China that was most "open" to international influence, commerce, and exchange, and this may be one way to understand why Yu's works feature considerably less of the hard-edged angst of younger Beijing-based Political Pop artists like Wang Guangyi; reform era transitions were perhaps less traumatically felt in Shanghai than in the north. Yu instead seems to be seeking a new visual language to define the nations' tentative new steps towards modernization, one that embraces the past in order to find an emotional roadmap for the present and future. This is most explicitly the case the more surrealistic Towards Prosperity (Lot 1202) from 1994. In this canvas, Yu offers us a strange vision of a dark tunnel. Three joyful and fantastic Pegasus fly through the space; at the left we see the neon outline of what appears to be a cityscape, and the bold vertical strokes along the right wall create a visual rhythm that draw the viewer's gaze to the window pane tableau at the center of the composition. There we see a classic image appropriated from Communist history, drawn from one of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong's factory visits, closely examining some new breakthrough equipment. The image then is suggestive of the future and the past. Yu has created a mysterious but inviting space, one that draws us towards the idealism inherent in the image drawn from the past, suggesting that the new transformations that the nation was facing might not only lead to a new prosperity, but might also at last make good on the great promise of the revolution. Across these two extraordinary canvases then, we can see how Yu's Political Pop is one that creates visions that are intimate, disarming, and inspiring, tapping the unconscious power communist iconography still held, its ability to lead the nation towards new dreams and horizons.