Yu Youhan, now aged 75, has been a revered figure in the development of contemporary Chinese painting since the heyday of China’s avant-garde. One of the principal artists associated with the political pop movement that emerged at the tail end of the 1980s and early 1990s, Yu has been at the centre of longstanding debates around his seemingly abrupt stylistic shifts as well as his appropriation from iconic contemporary Western artists – most notably Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.
‘The Representational and the Abstract’ is Yu’s first solo show at ShanghART in over a decade and features new paintings as well as rare, early works that are being shown for the first time. It sets out the three distinct, if somewhat oversimplified, categories that his work has fallen into since the beginning of his career in the 1970s: modernist abstraction, pop and rural and urban landscapes. Yu’s early paintings were directly influenced by his experiences during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). His best-known works, from the early political pop period, are his portraits of Mao Zedong in bright floral patterns, playing ping-pong or standing proudly in a decked-out suburban living room (a re-creation of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?). These are not so much critiques of the harsh, dark days of the Cultural Revolution as they are Yu’s attempt to humanize Mao – to place him among the masses, rather than perpetuate historical deification.
Occupying both floors of ShanghART’s West Bund space, the exhibition opens with eight large-scale paintings made between 2013 and 2017. Terracotta Army on Yimeng Mountain and the twelve-panel The Wheel of Life, both painted in 2017, best establish the hybridity of Yu’s representational and abstract concerns. Sometimes the artist directly references his own earlier works: the figures in the foreground of Terracotta Army, for example, are from his ‘Ah, Us!’ series and closely echo Black and White Heads (both 1998), which depicts a pair of ancient terracotta soldiers. The mountainous background and receding terraced landscape are rendered in the loose, multicoloured brushstrokes that are characteristic of Yu’s abstract compositions. The Wheel of Life is painted in hues of yellowish brown, tan, orange and black, and appears like a series of stained glass windows (each canvas panel is roughly one metre square) or an architectural floor plan. With its quilted, abstract motifs, it also feels like a nod to the Swiss modernist painter Paul Klee.
Two of the show’s earliest works, on the second floor, serve to illustrate the range of Yu’s styles and themes. Colosseum (1988), one of his first pop pieces, depicts the great Roman amphitheatre in contrasting primary colours of cobalt blue, bright yellow and cadmium red. Enshrined in its own separate space, the acrylic on paper Still 1979–17 (1979) is a table-top still life that pays homage to both Giorgio Morandi and Pablo Picasso.
The showstoppers here are a modest-sized black and white work, Abstract 1990–12 (1990), with a rectangular band of brushstrokes running across its stark white canvas like a fragmented paragraph or code, and the adjacent, larger 20131231 (2013). Here, a circular celestial pool is set within a large, square canvas swarming with lines of lavender, variants of blue, umbers and black on a slightly modulated dark ground. Both are dazzling abstracts in modulated colours that feel illuminated from within.
‘The Representational and the Abstract’ isn’t necessarily a defining treatise on Yu’s shifting, nonlinear trajectory over the past nearly five decades, but his statement from a recently published monograph summarizes it beautifully: ‘Art is valued for its freedom, and I have the right to choose.’
Main image: Yu Youhan, The Wheel of Life (detail), 2017, acrylic on canvas, 12 pieces, each 1 x 1 m. Courtesy: ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai