Between the 1970s and 1990s, China experienced tremendous social, political, and economic changes, which also brought about concurrent changes in the nation's collective consciousness. Confronting the gap past idealism and their contemporary reality, a sense of futility in the changing social environment was aroused, resulting in a deeply ironic, sardonic, if not ambivalent disposition. The contemporary painter Yue Minjun was able to understand thoroughly the contrast between his generation's mentality and the distorted values of the world around them. His paintings then reflect his satirical response to the world around him, and his sensitivity to the mental state of his contemporaries: Through the repetition of his own self-image in deliberately absurdist scenarios and always with a cheeky, mad grimace, he developed a distinctly personal language of art-making, one that spoke to the spiritual state of his times, making him an icon of his generation.
Accompanying Yue's laughing face are stiff facial muscles and tightly closed eyes, the face that Yue Minjun perceived as an equivalent to human life, "are both interweaved with pain and delight," "every day is painful, every day is also delightful, life might not be able to forget its own happiness completely, a laughing face is like that too, being happy and tense, and it is also very frightened, closing his eyes not wanting to look at the world." In The Black Bird (Lot 1597) and Musician (Lot 1435), the more he laughs, the more ridiculous he seems; the more he wants to be "less detestable," the more elaborate his postures, and the more contemptible he becomes. The absurd laughing face of Yue's self-portrait appears to be the mirror of a way of living - a way of "survival," in fact, in a complicated society, which pressures him to put on an act as an "idiot" or a "fool." The philosophy behind resonates with the creed of Laozi, the patriarch of Taoism, who believed that "Tao follows the nature" and, from such premise, "the greatest art looks uncultivated"; it also, therefore, vibrates with Su Shi's "a man of the greatest wisdom looks witless," which also stems from Taoist doctrine. Sometimes men are forced to conceal their abilities and feelings for the sake of survival, and Yue's laughing face is exactly a medium of such concealment. "The fool" has also found its role in literature as in the plays of Shakespeare where an ill-witted character is often portrayed as the most sagacious and clear-minded persona despite his seeming ignorance. Imbecility is thus a challenge to the standard and received wisdom of a society, which are, in truth, no more than a laughable jest.
Apart from the artist's classical laughing face, animals become the protagonists in his paintings as well. Reviewing Yue Minjun's creations, as early as in 1994, large white cranes had already made appeared in Massacre of Chios, other tracks of animals could also be found in Coexistence, 2002, and Big Swan, 2003. Here Yue Minjun deliberately places the human on the same plane as the most primitive of animals. The almost unvaried appearance of the animals surprisingly matches skilfully with Yue's repeated self-portrait. Only if one situated himself among the birds could he tell the difference between "you," "me" and "it," just like the migratory birds being capable of recognizing their leader, forming their own natural hierarchy and flying over the mountains and rivers between the south and the north. This is the instinctive survival skill of the animals and one that Yue evokes in his composition. In The Black Bird, the artist intentionally depicts the profile of the man and the bird, linking the two subjects with the similar contour lines they share. The man's hand clenches his neck tightly, his gesture mimicking a pair of 'wings' grown at the side of the neck. The imitation of animal behaviour also extended to the Flowing Clouds Leisure Crane series later in 2003. 'Imitation' and 'repetition' symbolize Yue's 'object-orientation' of human figure. In the human world, everyone possesses his or her own inborn, distinct character and qualities, nevertheless, in Yue's world of paintings, these unique characteristics are stripped away, depriving individuals of sentiments and identity, which enables them to become functioning members of society.
Musician, on the other hand, links the man with a cicada. Here the artist half-covers his classical grin embarrassingly, as if intending to hide his laughter so as not to disturb the cicada's chirp. The chirp produced by male cicadas is their distinct mating call for attracting the opposite sex. By linking the male figure to the cicada, Yue Minjun humorously suggests the common ground between animals and men and the most basic function of natural life: to reproduce. Since ancient times, "Natural selection, survival of the fittest" has always been the rule of survival in the world of nature, and the extension of survival is naturally reproduction and to avoid extinction. Yue seems to hint that being the paragon of animals, men have distorted their original characters and thinking so as to survive in the worlds they have created, and that this is one of their inborn skills, too.
The Black Bird and Musician both have bright blue background with the characters placed under strong sunlight, which Yue Minjun has once claimed that this might be related to his past experience working in a sea oil refinery. This strong sense of light gives his paintings a simple and bright tone. This style is also reminiscent of the political posters of China during the 1950s and 1960s. The use of simple and straightforward brushwork with almost flat contouring results in a concise visual power. It is also a technique well suited to the shallow, hilarious and boring society that Yue satirizes. Yue Minjun, with the use of an ironic yet familiar expression, has provided a distinct insight into that of a twisted humanity and a social environment that necessitates emotional and spiritual hypocrisy as a mode of survival. It is such perspicacity that wins him the recognition of critics and the public alike, instating the epochal significance of "Cynical Realism" in the history of Chinese contemporary art.