A visit to Chinese artist Ye Yongqing’s retrospective ‘Broken Flow’ felt like a journey through the historic moments of Chinese art of the 1980s and ’90s. Chronologically organized, the exhibition surveyed almost three decades of Ye’s practice, from 1983 to 2011. The artist’s formative period in the 1980s – presented through a group of pencil sketches, paintings in gouache, acrylic on paper, oils and prints organized chronologically and by media – demonstrated the varying influences the young and earnest Ye, who studied art at the Sichuan Art Academy in southwestern China, actively subjected himself to – from the woodcuts of Chen Laolian to the folk art of Yunnan minority groups, Australian bark painting, Persian miniature painting and African woodcuts.
Ye’s schooling started shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the second wave of Modernist thought and influence entered China. In the 1980s, Chinese art students and artists were starved of alternatives to Soviet socialist realism and communist propaganda art, and were eager to absorb any material or information they could gain access to. Ye, like many of his peers, sought to emulate Western masters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Maurice de Vlaminck and was fascinated by Western poetry and literature. On the other hand, he was drawn to the dense woods of Xishuangbanna and the bare red hills of Guishan in his hometown Yunnan, in which he found what he considered ‘another kind of realism’. Consistently referring to the natural settings and inhabitants of both places, Ye’s early works constituted various technical and stylistic experiments inspired by sources ranging from Expressionism to medieval altarpieces. Meanwhile, he consciously shied away from the kind of realism and formalism generally described as ‘scar painting’ and ‘Native-soil Trend’, which were earning painters from the region nationwide acclaim at the time.
Ye’s ‘Big Posters’ (1991–4) and the series of collages on canvas he made between 1994 and ’99 ushered in a period in which his work took on a more socially conscious dimension. His ‘Big Posters’ appropriated the poster format, a remnant of the propaganda approach commonly employed during the Cultural Revolution, over which he applied scribbles, numbers and large characters on imprinted newspaper, canvases or silk scrolls. His collages of the same period consisted of photographs of his studio, pictures with his friends, letters and exchanges with fellow artists, as well as quotes and texts of a philosophical or aesthetic nature. These collages seem to represent a process of self-examination by which the artist faced his sources of influence and his network of ideas and people, which he described as fragmented but always related.
Following his collages, Ye became completely absorbed in painting birds – usually a singular bird on a large canvas, realized through a meticulous process and attention to detail, yet retaining the appearance of something close to a doodle. These works achieved tremendous popularity on the Chinese art market when he first began making them in 1999, and consequently Ye has produced them steadily for more than ten years. On the top floor of the exhibition space, his enormous four-part canvas Big Bird (2011), appeared to be a reduction of the complexity of his earlier practice and an abrupt end to the show, leaving one to wonder how Ye’s career might have differed without the powerful influence of art-market forces.