As with many of the Chinese painters of his generation who have spent considerable time living and working in the West, Yan Pei-Ming's career represents a unique, on-going dialogue with Eastern and Western history, experience and artistic practices.
Born in Shanghai but based in France since the early 1980s, Yan Pei-Ming has developed a creative practice built around a near-obsessive commitment to the portraiture genre. By intentionally limiting his subject matter, technique, and palette, Yan has built an extraordinary body of work which gains in depth through the use of repetition and variation. Yan paints individuals, typically at monumental scale, fixating primarily on self-portraits, family members, anonymous strangers, anonymous victims of crimes or disasters, or more iconic figures, like Chairman Mao or Bruce Lee. These images are drawn from memory, sometimes abetted by newspaper photos or other mementos. Within his chosen vocabulary, the creation of these images serves as a process of externalization, one that allows Yan an extended meditation on the persons in his life, the meaning of their existence, and the subjective quality of the artist's relationship to his subject.
In the monumental Black Self-Portrait (Lot 166) from 2007 featured here, the artist's solemn visage emerges from a neutral and rapidly executed near-black background. The surface of the canvas, covered with scattered splatters, attests to the velocity of the artist's method. The artist uses unusually broad brushes that allow him not only to paint economically but with considerable urgency. The scale of the work suggests the grandeur of the history painting genre, while the inky blacks and agitated brushstrokes, in the context of Yan's long interest in identity, anonymity and history, suggest a start meditation on existence and his own mortality.
Though Yan works in a classically "Western" genre, his technique has certain corollaries with Chinese Zen calligraphers, who would sometimes use overly large brushes in order to sidestep their "conscious" impulses and give rise instead to a less mediated form of expression. This immediacy is especially apparent in Yan's works on paper, which have an almost "automatic" quality, as if revealing Yan's visceral and subconscious feelings towards his subjects during the moment of their creation.
In his Double Emperor (Lot 167) diptych portraits of Puyi, China's last emperor, and Mao Zedong, Yan's extraordinary facility with his materials is fully apparent. The supple features of the figures, their clear, wary gazes, emerge amid loosely swirling pools of ink. Again, the artist renders them with exceptional empathy; they appear at once fragile, grand, and mysterious. At the same time, Yan's doubling of these iconic images reminds us that his practice is not simply one of rote portraiture, but an extended exploration into the nature of identity as it is refracted through memory, experience, and the mediations of history.