Yue Minjun's ironic self-portraits emerged from a profoundly unique set of cultural and historic circumstances. In the immediate post-Mao period and the earliest years of Deng Xiaoping's "Open Door" policies, Chinese artists were suddenly exposed to a whole trove of contemporary philosophy and Western art history. China's avant-garde artists opened new debates on contemporary culture and developed a new aesthetic practice engaged with their rapidly changing environment.
Yue has said his earliest paintings emerged from investigating distinct Chinese cultural and linguistic forms, revolutionary visual culture and popular culture. He paints his own self-image not as a portrait of an individual but as a blandly smiling everyman; this figure's repetition in multiple scenarios allows the artist to reveal the absurdity of these forms and of the social environment's impositions on humanity. This small example from 1996 features one of the artist's idols, reduced to a sculpted black and white palette, mouth broadly gaping with a disarming smile, and a blossoming flower over his eyes. These brief allusions link the work to Yue's exploration of beauty, drawing specifically from the elaborate fantasy images of Chinese New Year's posters. Yue has commented, "Artists are the kind of people who always like to reveal the never-ending illusion of our lives" (Yue Minjun, quoted in M. Schoeni, Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain, Hong Kong 1994, p. 11.)