Mao Zedong, leader of China's communist revolution and the People's Republic of China for over 25 years, has proved a natural subject for not only many Chinese Contemporary artists, but for Western artists as well. Mao's iconicity as a political and historic figure has had broad creative appeal, making appearances in the works of Andy Warhol, Leon Golub, and Gerhard Richter, to name a few, his iconicity lending itself to these artists' meditations of fame, power, history, and representation.
In the hands of France-based painter Yan Pei Ming, portraits of the Great Helmsman take on an altogether different character. Yan grew up partially in a Buddhist monastery during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). His earliest aspiration as an artist was to become a theater or movie poster painter. Having famously failed his art academy exam in Shanghai, Yan relocated to Dijon, eventually fulfilling his ambition to become a professional artist.
From the beginning, Yan has gravitated towards portraiture; he returns again and again to the same subjects: self-portraits, portraits of anonymous individuals -- people Yan remembers from his past, strangers on the street, or victims of crimes, and images of more recognizable personages, like Pope John Paul II, Bruce Lee, or Chairman Mao. Through his practice, Yan's focus is on the individual's face; all references to a context or environment are eliminated. He always paints in a restricted, monochromatic palette, typically a somber black and white or a blood red. He uses a variety of unusually broad brushes to produce his figures, a technique with certain affinities with Buddhist calligraphers who similarly used over-size brushes in order to incorporate elements of chance and allow for a less mediated form of creative expression. In this same mode, Yan's works are not necessarily realistic representations of a form; rather, they aim to capture the essence of their subjects as they exist in a moment in time. Yan's near-obsessive return to the portrait genre, the scale and manner of his technique, serves as a process of externalization and objectification that allows the artist to explore broader philosophical concerns beyond just the depiction of an individual figure. Within his finite number of subjects and intentionally restricted palette, it becomes clear that Yan's art practice involves a multi-layered investigation of identity, being, and mortality.
The expressionism in Yan's works is often in dynamic tension with the painting's monumentality. Here, in this exceptional example from the artist's portraits of Chairman Mao, the figure is rendered in a bold life-giving Mao, Chinese Vermilion #1. The image is not one of Mao's iconic poises, but instead captures him in a seemingly candid moment, apparently in mid-sentence. His features are rough, sketchy, and fleshy. Yan's muscular brushstrokes give the figure an almost sculpted presence, and he is revealed to be as mortal as he is larger than life. Mao's recognizability as a figure of course cannot be denied. Situated within the artist's oeuvre, Yan's portrait of Mao seems to be merge from a desire for reconciliation, capturing all of the vexed feelings an expatriate Chinese artist might have towards one of the most famous and controversial figures of the 20th Century.