As one of the most influential figures of the Cynical Realism movement, Yue Minjun combines cynicism with humor and sympathy. Since the early 1990s, Yue's trademark image has been a figure with tightly shut eyes and a caricatured smile that exposes a full set of dentals. Each version of the iconic laughing figure is essentially a satirical self-portrait, and Yue's use of this figure in various scenarios represents his critical response to the social and existential effects of China's rapid path to modernization.
Painted in 1997, Paradise shows three of Yue's self-portraits with their hyper-extended grins floating in the sky. A fourth figure is mischievously suggested by a pair of feet dangling from beyond the edges of the canvas. Yue's exaggerated facial expressions are references to pop and consumerist aesthetics; nevertheless Buddhist and Daoist influences shine throughout his paintings. The title of the work immediately invokes Buddhist conceptions of the afterlife, and the composition itself appears to be excerpted from popular Chinese images of "paradise." The central, standing figure's posture and attitude evoke images of the "Monkey King," a mischievous character who has been a beloved figure of Chinese popular culture since his first appearance in the 16th century novel, Journey to the West, and who has been endlessly reproduced in the modern period live action films, animated in cartoons, operas and acrobatic performances, and comic books. The figure seated on a cloud further evokes Buddhist imagery, and the cropped composition and lack of definition of the physical space inhabited by the figures contribute overall to the whimsical tone of the work.
By recycling his own image, Yue reinterprets the notion of idolization by making his own self-image into an icon, thus satirizing the lack of spirituality in contemporary times. As with his Cynical Realist contemporaries, Yue's works exhibit a kind of "grey humor," a satirical stance that de-stabilizes and confounds all ideological positions. Here, his economic use of materials engages the history of Buddhist imagery and conceptions of paradise, while his technique and compositional elements render it a place less of enlightenment than one of deviousness, disorientation, and downright silliness. While classical and popular culture references are apparent, Yue's main critical target is the every day gap between reality and ideology, and the false rewards of a consumer "paradise". Yue has said of this series, "Nowadays the phenomenon of idols has become extremely tiresome... Life has become tasteless and absurd because of the idols. Do you not think one should counter and ridicule idols with a hearty laugh?" (Yue Minjun quoted in 8+8-1, exh. cat., Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd, Hong Kong, 1997, p. 50).