Yu Youhan

Yu Youhan came to prominence in the same early exhalation of the avant-garde with fellow Shanghai-based artist Li Shan. Yu Youhan was born in Shanghai in 1943 and graduated from Central Institute of Art & Design, Beijing in 1973. Like Li Shan, Yu Youhan appropriated the image of Mao, but where he differs is that like Wang Guangyi, his rendering of the Great Helmsman derives from a more political, though no less personal, experience. Like Wang Guangyi, Yu Youhan reflects his understanding of the Chairman on canvas, yet the results are poles apart. For Yu, Mao was the beloved hero of the people, which he brings to canvas as a popular and revered icon, garlanded with flowers, his characteristic 'Mao' jacket and broad-legged Oxford bags cut of a 1950s style floral cloth. Yu frequently decorates the whole surface of a composition with a layer of bright blooms, that set up preference to a world of (intentioned )good where the masses joined together as one big co-operative and unified family. There is little malice evident in these works. Even where the smiling, waving Mao appears beside idealized western icons like Whitney Houston, there is no more than a passing quip at Mao's rumoured weakness for women. Yu style is more an equivocation of great with great, loved with beloved, the icons of modern times.

Yu Youhan continues to draw on his personal experience of an unsettled and distinctly unhealthy period of Chinese history glossed over in vibrant colour, although through the 1990s, his palette turned first towards the grey scale, ending in more recent works in a range of earthy, muddy browns which allude to the subject, here China's ancient warriors, fashioned from clay. Here Yu has moved away from political slogans and well-known propaganda phrases instantly recognized by all Chinese. The sobriety of the tones reflects the solemn reverence accorded classical culture, so much of which was destroyed. But like the speech of the majority of Yu's generation, comment is thickly veiled.

Yu Youhan's works have been shown in many of the major exhibitions of contemporary art from China abroad, including China's New Art, Post-1989, Hong Kong; the touring show China Avant Garde, Berlin, Germany; Odense, Denmark, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; 46th Venice Biennale; and the 22nd Sao Paulo International Bienial. His paintings were also the subject of a solo show at the Maison de la China, Paris, in 1995.

--Karen Smith