‘Yi Ban’, an exhibition of more than 40 of Yu Youhan’s paintings, was an example of the appreciation of one artist for another. The invitation for what would be the legendary artist’s first solo show in Beijing came from Zeng Fanzhi, a much younger, Beijing-based artist and the driving force behind Yuan Space, a non-profit gallery with a museum project also in the works. It was no coincidence that Zeng chose to present Yu’s works: at the beginning of his career in the early 1990s, Zeng forsook his training in Soviet Realist painting. Likewise, Yu, who was born in 1943, escaped the omnipresence of the Soviet Realist training that was dominant in most Chinese art academies by choosing to study in the porcelain department of the Beijing Art and Design Academy during the 1960s.
Yu also owed much of his artistic influence to an old neighbour, a professor at a drama academy in Shanghai and an amateur painter himself, who worked in a mixture of post-Impressionist, Expressionist and Chinese ethnic styles. In his neighbour’s home, Yu was first exposed to catalogues of oil paintings from Western countries, among which he saw Fauvist works, for instance, at a young age. Because of these early influences, Yu was later drawn to an exhibition of prints of Impressionist paintings in a cultural centre in Shanghai, which, as he recalls today, was a seminal moment in his life.
‘Yi Ban’ was a rare opportunity to see a substantial body of Yu’s works, ranging from his portrait paintings of the early 1970s to his landscape and abstract series of the 1980s, to his Pop-style Mao paintings made throughout the 1990s and his more recent landscape paintings which he began around 2000. The un-translated title of the exhibition literally means ‘a spot’ in Chinese, both referring to the irregular circular spots that fill the canvases of many of Yu’s abstract works as well as the fact that this is just one peek into the artist’s varied, life-long practice.
In the early 1990s, Yu was among the group of Chinese contemporary artists who were featured prominently in international exhibitions – in Yu’s case, for his Pop paintings depicting Mao Zedong in various settings: a Cézanne painting, a Van Gogh canvas, a Gauguin painting, and so on. This series was often termed ‘political Pop’, a name created to describe the kind of paintings that turned Chinese revolutionary political symbols into aesthetic elements. Although this group of works remains the best known and most celebrated among Yu’s oeuvre, it was shown in a closed room in Yuan Space, available for viewing only by friends of the artist, due to the political sensitivity of its subject matter. (Yu was warned against painting and exhibiting them inthe 1990s by the Shanghai authorities, whose attitude toward these works has not changed since.)
As a young man in the early 1960s,Yu joined the people’s army before beginning his art education. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, he was criticized by his artacademy classmates for making still lifes instead of embracing Mao’s political calling. Yu’s landscape and abstract paintings reflect his belief in art as an autonomous practice. These works, presented together here, illustrate an exemplary, lifelong exploration of the internal language of art.
After graduating, Yu took a teaching position in the Shanghai Art and Design Academy, where he taught for 30 years.In the absence of an abstract movement in China, Yu described his adherence to abstraction as an attempt to modernise his own paintings. Though he had attempted portraits and cityscapes in Neo-Expressionist styles, from the 1980s, after several years of experimentation, Yu settled on what he called his ‘circle’ paintings, which he continues to make and experiment with today. Using acrylic on canvas, Yu paints short strokes or spots whose colour, scarcity, intensity and drips of paint lead to different rhythms and visual experiences.
The first room of the exhibition presented his landscape series ‘Yimeng Shan’ (2002–ongoing), punctuated by large canvases from his ‘circle’ series. Yu began ‘Yimeng Shan’ after a field trip with his students to Yimeng Mountain in Shandong Province. The intention was for his students to paint this rural and remote area from life, an approach widely employed by art academies in China. While there, Yu took photographs of the landscape and, upon returning home, he used the images and his memories of Yimeng Mountain to create several magnificent master works of his idealistic vision of its natural scenery. More importantly, these photos became the basis for Yu to fluidly incorporate both hisobsession with Cézanne’s depictions and composition of mountains and his admiration for Chinese painter Huang Binhong –a revolutionary figure in the modern history of Chinese water-ink paintings, with his characteristic use of loose and dry brushes – into his own paintings. His acrylic oncanvases appear, at times, like ink-wash paintings, with thin layers of colour, which are often more abstract than figurative. Given the variety of approaches on display here, it’s clear that a survey like this isonly the beginning of a much-needed closer look at Yu’s practice, which expands far beyond his well-known Mao paintings.
His acrylic oncanvases appear, at times, like ink-wash paintings, with thin layers of colour, which are often more abstract than figurative. Given the variety of approaches on display here, it’s clear that a survey like this is only the beginning of a much-needed closer look at Yu’s practice, which expands far beyond his well-known Mao paintings.