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Sociality and Aesthetics

Yu Youhan: The Representational and The Abstract Author: Yu Yu Translator: Jo Liu Sep,2017

Yu Youhan’s solo exhibition “The Representational and The Abstract”, to be opened in November 2017 at ShanghART Gallery, is a rare exhibition of new and past unseen works that will help the viewers better appreciate the features and trends in his paintings after his solo at Power Station of Art in 2016. One can effectively research his creative context through the examination of sociality and aesthetics in his works.  

One of the core quality of art is its sociality. Since ancient times, there’s a saying that “[art] forms social order and help bring enlightenment”. Since the establishment of the republic, art servicing the people became the political norm. People from that generation both resist this norm, and have it deeply imprinted in their psyche. Yu Youhan is an intensely socially responsible person, even though his sees his only weapon - art, as merely “a small flower.”  

When he started creative work in the end of 1970s, the country was making modernisation its main principle. Immersed in that environment, Yu Youhan was deeply affected by it. Till today, creating contemporary Chinese painting has always been his main creative direction. This idea has duo qualities of the social and the aesthetic. He believes one needs to combine contemporary Western painting approaches and traditional Chinese culture to achieve true “east and west Harmony”, which is also a widespread way of thinking for that generation.  

From mid 1970s to mid 1980s, Yu Youhan spent 10 full years to educate himself on the different schools and genres in mainstream contemporary western art, and various forms of Chinese arts. He was most taken with the post-impressionists represented by Paul Cezanne, Chinese drum inscriptions, Dunhuang frescos, as well as paintings on ceramics from Changsha and Cizhou Klins. He believes what these art have in common is their high level of generalisation. Generalisation is abstraction, a way to extract subjectivity from concrete objects. Perhaps because he never went through the mainstream Soviet influenced training of the art academies, Yu Youhan’s works maintain the power to generalise from the start. His abstracted expressions are an iconic feature of his aesthetics.

As an intellectual who grew up in the new republic, he practices dialectics as his main method of thinking. His understanding of painting: “Painting is essentially two dimensional, comprised of different combinations of forms and colours that complete a contrasting and unified whole. Paintings of various subjects, are all the same in these basic principles.” We can understand this as a study of composition using painting dialectics. In his eyes, abstract dots, lines, and surfaces, as well as representational figures and landscapes are all components of composition. The sense of order created by these components as a whole is the central question of his creative work. In terms of composition, there’s no difference between the representational and the abstract, or what kind of subject is chosen.    

The Pop Series, which originated in late 1980s, is his social observations on the joined memories of historical figures and events. Works from this period used large amounts of representational painting language. Although expressions of social consciousness seem to be the main subject of the works, the contrasting and unified compositional dialectics makes up the foundation of their expressions. It’s this kind of new expression that make the Pop Series iconic works of their time. As famous contemporary art historian Edward Lucie-Smith once said: “he is one of the first ‘Western style’ painters [of the post-socialist era] in China to find an artistic language that was unmistakably his own. For this reason, he is likely to have an important place in histories of Chinese art.” But those planar and decorative art have been widely featured in Chinese traditional and modern art. He once said “Chinese people are more driven by emotion than logic. Therefore, Chinese artistic expressions tend to be more concrete than abstract. For the public, it may take some time for logical thinking to be established. In the meantime, as a painter, I must stay faithful to the public.” Thus his more representational works came from socially conscious expressions.  

As an intellectual who grew up in the new republic, he practices dialectics as his main method of thinking. His understanding of painting: “Painting is essentially two dimensional, comprised of different combinations of forms and colours that complete a contrasting and unified whole. Paintings of various subjects, are all the same in these basic principles.” We can understand this as a study of composition using painting dialectics. In his eyes, abstract dots, lines, and surfaces, as well as representational figures and landscapes are all components of composition. The sense of order created by these components as a whole is the central question of his creative work. In terms of composition, there’s no difference between the representational and the abstract, or what kind of subject is chosen.  

His new works created in recent two years look different from before, but in fact, like all new works in each period, they contain traces of the works that came before. Different painting languages are updated and recycled. Heavy historical elements and light dynamic characters are all integrated in the images that implies the representational. Whether it’s figure he has painted before, or any other visual elements that fits his criteria, he paints them in his own distinct way. In “Terracotta Army and Yimeng Mountain”, the Terracotta army from the “Ah Us” series and the “Yimeng Mountain” series merge together across time and space, reflecting Yu Youhan’s contemplation of the developmental status of human society. Misappropriation is a principle method in his painting works. From a set of paintings inspired by packing boxes to works of “realism” depicting the surface of the moon, the techniques used in his new works continue to capture the temperament of returning to a primal “clumsiness”. An impressive diversity is demonstrated by these forms, revealing the relaxed attitude behind his creative process, his skillful misappropriations, and the way art deeply connects to his life.

Surveying Yu Youhan’s artistic journey, there has always been cross-overs and alternations between the signature symbols from each series. Generally speaking, when he is expressing social concerns, the representational elements in his images will intensify, while abstract elements are reduced. After working with his social consciousness for a while, he begins to return to the basics of painting itself. At these times, his painterly side would become dominant, which is manifested in increased use of abstract elements. When the social environment triggers his reaction, the concrete elements would take over again. As the environment around us changes, his social consciousness and painterly consciousness alternates, while his style switches between the concrete and abstract. But no matter which period of creative style, aesthetics is always the necessary foundation and premise of an art work.  

Painting is more of an expression of personal consciousness, fulfilling the artist’s unique personal aesthetics. Some artists are self-claimed rightists, who firmly stand with the theory that art is the expression of personal experiences; they are against the leftist idea of art as a service for the society, which is possibly an act of over-correction from the age where social function of art was overemphasized. But in Yu Youhan’s creative journey, alternating manifestations of his social consciousness and personal consciousness have always been the driving forces behind decades of his rich artistic journey. To return to dialectics, social consciousness and personal consciousness are also a contrasting and unified whole; they interact with each other, to push painting forward. He once said “after painting the leader of men, it’s natural to start painting the people; after painting people, it’s natural to start painting the land they live on.” His socially conscious expressions contain his uniquely personal consciousness.  

Yu Youhan once said that there are three relationships he pays careful attention to when he’s painting: 1. The relationship between each section of the image; 2. The relationship between the image and its surrounding environment; 3. The relationship between the form and content of a painting and the cultural environment of its time. Sociality and aesthetics are clearly interwoven in Yu Youhan’s critical judgement of each one of his works. When people ask him how he sees the future of painting in an age of endless new techniques and mediums, he said: “I believe painting will continue to exist, just like how people are still walking after the invention of cars and airplanes. Walking is a basic necessity in life. That is also what painting is to me.”  



Related Artists:
YU YOUHAN 余友涵
Related Exhibitions:
Yu Youhan: The Representational and The Abstract
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