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"Master of the Big Brush Strokes: Yan Pei Ming" by David Barboza
SHANGHAI, 2008: The artist Yan Pei Ming is smoking a Cuban cigar and pacing in a large, cluttered studio here, surrounded by a collection of recently completed inkwash paintings, a series of works that will be presented as part of his first solo exhibition ever held in the United States.
He says in an interview here that he is eager to create something new and powerful for the upcoming show in New York, and in his own playful way the 46-year-old Paris-based artist is suggesting that this is a do-or-die show for him. And so hanging on a back wall in the studio here is a large ink wash self-portrait that shows the artist hanging with a noose around his neck.
"Although I have a name in Europe, all the big artists go to New York," Yan Pei Ming says here. "So I always wanted to go to New York. So in that sense, New York is critical for me."
But the upcoming show, which opens in May, 2008 at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, will likely elevate the reputation of Yan Pei Ming, who is already acclaimed as a talented portrait artist. His works are widely collected in Europe, including some held by the Pompidou Centre in Paris. They have appeared in auctions by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, selling for as much as $500,000 for a single piece. And though he has been away for more than 25 years, Yan Pei Ming is not just respected here in China, he’s considered one of the most expressive Chinese-born oil painters in the world.
His giant portraits of Mao, Bruce Lee, the Pope, his own father and even children from the slums of South Africa, are created using big brush strokes and a unique style that renders the works both messy and, from a distance, evocative and emotional portraits of his subjects.
Hou Hanru, the distinguished curator and critic, says this of Yan Pei Ming. "Ming is certainly one of the most determined and intransigent painters of our time," adding: "Looking at Ming’s powerful work, one becomes fully aware of the tension, and the inseparable connection between art and life."
And so why isn’t Yan Pei Ming as famous or well-known as Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun or Yue Minjun? Largely, experts and curators here say, because he has spent his entire career abroad, mostly in France, where he has lived since 1980.
The Chinese contemporary art scene blossomed in the 1980s, culminating with the “No U-Turn” exhibition in Beijing, and then went dormant in the 1990s, only to re-emerge in 2001 as the world’s hottest art scene. During that time, Yan Pei Ming has worked quietly in Europe, creating a tremendous body of work that is mostly portraiture, his own attempt to reveal the humanity behind his subjects.
He is part of a group of artists who are working abroad, elevating the idea of Chinese art to something that is both modern and Chinese, like Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Huang Yong Ping, Wang Keping and Cai Guo Qiang.
II. The Blossoming Artist.
Yan Pei Ming was born in December 1960, in Shanghai, the second of four children raised by a pair of factory workers. His father worked for a time in a slaughterhouse, and his mother did odd factory jobs. Ming, as he is known to his friends, says he was born in a temple, where the family lived for a time.
His earliest memories of Shanghai are of painting and upheaval. In a lengthy interview here in Shanghai in early April, Yan recalls growing up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when most of the country’s great Chinese contemporary artists were youths, just beginning to think about art.
Ming’s recollections are of crowds gathering to burn the books of scholars at the temple, and of the city’s public executions, which occurred at a time when being labeled a counter-revolutionary or a capitalist could mean a death sentence.
"There was a big crowd, and I watched as they burned all the scholar's books at the temple," he says. "This was one of the burning memories of my childhood."
During the Cultural Revolution, Ming says that in his spare time he painted, images of workers and peasants, familiar images that fit in with the ideals of the Cultural Revolution when "Big Character Posters" were blanketing the city’s streets, featuring images of Mao and peasants, but also pictures and stories of revolutionaries. Everyone during that time, seemed to be caught up in the public propaganda, and Ming says he created images that were meant to praise Mao or criticize Confucius or Lin Biao, the country’s fallen military chief.
"We had a lot of spare time," he says. "So I started painting."
In middle school, he found a good teacher and began to think seriously about painting. And by the age of 17 or 18 he began thinking of becoming a professional, hoping perhaps to work for a theatre or movie studio, which would allow him to paint movie posters.
But Yan Pei Ming’s artistic career faced a huge roadblock when he was rejected for admission into one of the city’s leading art institutes, the Shanghai Art & Design School. He was not rejected for his painting skill but because he failed an oral test due to a stuttering problem.
In fact, the speech problem had, in a way, pushed Yan Pei Ming toward a different mode of expression, one that required brush strokes, the language of the artist.
"From the earliest time, I wanted to find a way to express myself without speaking," he says. "And so I painted."
Depressed by his failure to enroll at the Shanghai Art & Design School, Yan Pei Ming left China for France in 1980, gaining a student visa with the help of a family member who had settled in France. In one interview, Yan Pei Ming expressed his disappointment in leaving China at the time but also said it opened up new opportunities for him.
"I started from zero in France," he says. "But I felt, you don’t need to worry about your background. If you can achieve things, people will recognize you. It’s not about your parents."
In an interview with Fabian Stech, he said: “In China I was condemned. I was a low class worker’s son. There wasn’t the slightest chance to gain success no matter how great my will power. There was no place for me in China. In France, an artist of low class origin can have a future.”
But it wasn’t easy. In France, Ming says he struggled to learn French, studied painting during the day and worked nights in a Taiwanese restaurant, for eight years. Eventually, in 1989, he earned a degree from the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Dijon. But Yan Pei Ming says much of what he learned about art he discovered in China.
"My roots are in China," he says. "I learned my techniques in China."
By 1990, however, he had begun to make a name for himself, showing his work at group exhibitions in France. And in 1991, his work appeared alongside other upcoming Chinese-born artists in a show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The show, which was curated by Hou Hanru,featured works by Gu Wenda, Chen Zhen, Huang Yong Ping and Cai Guoqiang.
Following the show, after 11 years in France, Yan Pei Ming says he returned home for the first time, just newly married.
"Before I left China," he says. "I said, 'If I can’t get an exhibition in the Pompidou Museum, I won’t come back.' In '91, I had an exhibition at the Pompidou Museum. Right after that, I bought a ticket and went back home."
III: The Artistic Ideal.
When asked which artists he most admires, Yan Pei Ming does not look to China but to the West. He admires Picasso and DeKooning above all. But he wanted to develop his own style, his away way of painting. And so his earliest works were black-and-white portraits, large-scale, like the Big Character Posters he grew up with during the Cultural Revolution.
While Chinese artists were forming groups in the 1980s, and artistic movements, Yan Pei Ming was working in a more individualistic way, creating his own style and technique. Most of his early works are still in France, stored in a warehouse. Mostly, he painted heads; backgrounds were not that important. And so, to this day, he still mostly paints this way.
"I wanted to avoid painting like them (Picasso and DeKooning), so in the '80s, I started painting in black and white."
His technique, early on, became the big brush stroke. The origin was a trip to Holland in 1983 or 1984, when he visited the Van Gogh Museum. He bought some posters of Van Gogh’s works and began counting the strokes in his pieces.
"In 1983 or 1984, I went to Holland and saw the Van Gogh Museum," he says. "And I counted how many times he did his brush strokes. So I said, 'If I do a much bigger piece, how many brush strokes should I have?’ I figured, if you have a bigger painting you should have a bigger brush."
Soon after, he was using 20 and 30 inch paint brushes, and now he also uses a 50-inch brush. He pulls out a few brushes to show how large they are.
For a while, he says, he even created larger brushes by piecing together brushes.
Most of the time, Yan Pei Ming says he paints miserable people, but that isn’t always clear from the images. His Mao is not political but perhaps miserable and chopped up, but so are his portraits of his father and Bruce Lee. He created an entire series of works about his father, in every emotional expression,in the year just before his father died a few years ago. He has also painted children from a Soweto ghetto. His portraiture, it has been said, is often "anti-portraiture." And his lifelong problem of stuttering, his "flaw," became a driving force in the production of great art works, Hou Hanru once said.
Now, Yan Pei Ming is working on his first large scale ink wash paintings. And so he has returned home, and even to his old middle school teacher, to work on these very Chinese style images.
His subjects, once again, are the people around him or who infect him – everything from American soldiers in Iraq to the curator Hou Hanru to Mao, the last emperor Pu Yi and the American dollar. He even has a pair of portraits of his friend, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who now lives in New YOrk and recently visited Yan PEi Ming in Shanghai.
"I've never felt the necessity of putting objects around the people I paint," he says. "I just want to paint the portrait."
For the show, Yan Pei Ming has produced over 100 pieces since February here in Shanghai. It’s the first time he’s held a water color exhibition. He says he always imagined he would go to New York with his oil paintings. But he’s trying something new. And if he fails, well, he won’t hang himself, but he’ll have some extra pieces to hang at home.
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