Yu Youhan, 2009.05.27, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 96 1/2 x 81".

Yu Youhan, 2009.05.27, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 96 1/2 x 81".

Yu Youhan

Yuan Space 元·空间

Yu Youhan, 2009.05.27, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 96 1/2 x 81".

Yu Youhan is best known for his contributions to the 1990s painting movement known as “Political Pop,” but these works remain only one facet in the remarkably productive career of the now seventy-year-old painter. This exhibition put his influence in the ’90s in perspective by displaying a broad selection of Yu’s canvases dating from 1973 through 2012. In view of Yu’s more recent experiments with abstraction, his Political Pop style appears to be merely one stage in a developing mode of expression, one that repeatedly addresses the complex intertwining of political and artistic influence.

Yu’s canvases chronicle a history of imported visual lexicons and techniques ranging from Cézanne to Warhol. The results are often close to direct appropriation, or to the traditional Chinese practice of lin mo, “imitation of masters.” Gauguin 2, 1999, for example, depicts Mao Tse-tung puffing on a cigarette surrounded by a pastiche of Gauguin’s island beauties. As his art thus evolved in a loosening political climate, Yu’s painterly language expanded to include homegrown techniques that were not necessarily welcomed during the years of the Cultural Revolution, such as the calligraphic style pioneered by the late-nineteenth-century painter Wu Changshuo. In the past decade, Yu has produced a great number of Impressionist-style landscapes and abstract circle paintings, all acrylic on canvas, which were highlighted in this exhibition. While set apart by their seemingly incompatible subject matter, the two bodies of work share an important feature: Both rely heavily on the brush mark or “trace,” a concept familiar in ink-painting connoisseurship.

In connecting Yu’s landscapes and his abstract compositions through his characteristic brush mark we uncover to a syncretic mode of abstraction unique to his generation and its hybrid artistic background. His approach to painting is neither “Chinese” nor “Western,” but an amalgam of techniques and concepts that have been absorbed into a cohesive body of work, one that may appear misleadingly simple but nevertheless evokes a complicated history understood perhaps only by insiders. For instance, the terrain in his landscapes is Shandong’s Yimeng Mountain, represented here in multiple plein air views. This landmark is most famous to the Chinese as the backdrop and namesake of the revolutionary ballet Ode to Yimeng, dating to the Cultural Revolution. Yu renders it in a mode that owes as much to nineteenth-century Europe as to Song-dynasty China: Yimeng Shan 01, 2002, is a scene of distant mountains in blue, green, gold, and gray; in a two-panel canvas titled Yimeng Shan 25, 2007, he depicts the landscape in limpid pastel colors marred by blurry shadows.

In the early 1980s, Yu began using undulating dot and dash brush marks to conjure voluminous spheres that hover in the center of his canvases. As in ink painting, each application of paint is a careful manipulation of the surrounding void that can also be read as an individualized trace of the artist’s labor with a distinct temporal start and finish. The different degrees of opacity of paint create a sense of motion and three-dimensional volume, although the pigment clings flat to the picture surface. In an interview included in the exhibition catalogue, the artist describes the circle as an abstract representation of inertia and freedom of movement in the universe, and in the monumentally large work 2009.05.27, 2009, we are dwarfed by the macrocosm. But as one approaches the canvas, the brush traces look like details of landscapes, and we realize countless Yimeng Mountains are present.

Lee Ambrozy