A continuation from yesterday’s post. This past Friday, we here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa enjoyed the one-two punch of talks from husband & wife super major Chinese contemporary artists Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong, courtesy of Prof. Jaimey Hamilton and her Intersections visiting artists program.
Above: “Us Two: Yu Hong and Zhao Bo”, depicting Yu Hong (right) and a friend. Image via Long March Project.
Yu Hong, like her husband, is a professor of oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the same school where the both of them attended high school, undergraduate, and graduate school. Her work, like his, is mostly figurative, focusing on depicting real people who model for her, in a realistic manner, in oils or acrylics. Her paintings, however, tend to be much more personal, addressing less any kind of social or political events on a national scale. She paints herself, her family, her friends, mainly, within their own real-world contexts – studios, apartments, coffee shops.
My first exposure to Yu Hong’s work was in Boston, where she and her husband were included alongside a number of other contemporary Chinese artists in a group show entitled “Fresh Ink.” I’ll come back to the work she displayed there later, but first I wanted to touch upon my first impressions, and how my taste or interest in her work has changed as a result of this week’s talk. The gallery labels in “Fresh Ink” emphasize the feminine energy or femininity of her work, that she focuses so much on painting other women, her friends and family, and that she focuses so much on their lives. At first, I was a little turned off. I had no real interest at all. It reminded me of housewives, and their lunch dates and shopping, and the kind of lives they lead, living in essentially a totally different world from their husbands, or from other people, immersed in the interpersonal politics and gossip of each others’ families, the wholly insignificant accomplishments of their children’s crayon drawings or soccer leagues, totally divorced from the major happenings of the art world, business world, politics, or whatever else may be going on beyond the picket fences of their suburban little lives.
Yet, while listening to Professor Yu’s talk, I found myself reconsidering her work and gaining a new appreciation for it. It’s a celebration, really, of life, and of the beauty and enjoyment of having friends and networks; the relative calm of everyday people’s lives even as the country changes so swiftly and dramatically around them; and the calm, beautiful, energy of celebrating one another’s accomplishment’s and goings-on in one another’s lives.
Above: From her series “Witness Growing Up,” images of a photo celebrating the publication of the oil painting “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” (left) and of two year old Yu Hong in a park with her mother, wearing a badge with Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan on it (right). Images via All-China Women’s Federation.
For her painting series “Witness Growing Up,” Yu Hong went back through her family photo albums, and painted pictures of herself at every age, every year of her life (or, at least, at various ages, if not every single year; I’m not sure). Each of these is one-half of a diptych, accompanied by a magazine cover or other image relating major political events of that year. When the series reaches the year her daughter is born, it becomes a series of triptychs, no longer tracing only Yu Hong’s life, but that of her daughter as well, as major events continue to change our world. The contrast between the relatively normal, calm, family-oriented, very personal narrative of this woman’s life (and that of her daughter), and the rise and fall of Mao, Tienanmen Square, the return of Hong Kong to PRC control, 9/11, etc. is striking and interesting. We all live these lives, but while many artists might focus on only one or the other – the big political/social events, or the personal – she brings the two together to highlight the calm and smoothness of life as these major things happen around us, on a very different scale.
Above: “Flute Player – Rong Yiru” from Yu Hong’s series “She.” Image via Artnet.
Another series, titled simply “She,” consists of portraits of her friends, including artists and writers, each within a context (studio, coffeeshop) that somehow speaks to their identity. One painting in the series depicts a friend very pregnant, and nude, a painted record of this important time in the woman’s life (and in Yu Hong’s life, as her close friend), since under the One Child Policy, she may never be pregnant again. Another painting in the series shows Yu Hong herself creating plaster molds of a friend’s legs; the friend, a famous writer apparently, suffered (suffers?) from depression, and had fallen and broken her leg. I don’t fully understand the connection or the logic, but somehow, for some reason, because of having broken her leg, the writer wanted Yu Hong to make plaster molds, and to record her legs in that fashion, as they are/were. Considering this whole series in aggregate, we see between the lines a network of friendships, and can imagine the personalities and characters depicted, their lives, and their interactions. We can picture a calm, friendly, sunny, happy set of interactions – even punctuated by such things as depression, and terrible falls & broken legs – in which Yu Hong visits these friends at their studios, or meets up with them at coffeeshops, talking, chatting, keeping in touch. And since some of these people are themselves artists or writers, it seems also a bit of a glimpse into the world, the life, the friendship circles of being a member of this art-immersed lifestyle, romanticized not so much on the canvas, but rather in the mind of the viewer.
Above: “Spring Romance”, full view, across eight silk hanging scrolls. Image from the webpage of Harvard University’s “Fresh Ink” symposium.
Now, returning to “Spring Romance,” the piece Yu Hong made for the MFA show. She was one of a number of artists invited to create a new artwork inspired by or based on a work from the MFA’s collection of Chinese art. Selecting Emperor Huizong’s “Women Folding Silk,” she replicated the composition of the handscroll on a series of hanging scrolls in gold-infused silk, depicting her friends – including the pregnant flute player and the writer with plaster-covered legs – as themselves, in modern clothing, in positions emulating those of the figures in Huizong’s painting. And, as an extra little amusing jab, she replaced the lengths of silk being stretched out by women in the original work, with the handscroll itself, so that Huizong’s work is visible within the new composition.
I had thought this was perhaps a departure for Yu Hong, as necessitated by the specifications of the project. And I am sure that it was in various ways. The fact that she re-uses figures from other works, rather than creating new portraits based on who and where those people are today, and that she divorces them from any background which would inform the viewer of their context, are certainly a change from some of her other works.
Left: Yu Hong’s “Atrium,” a piece meant to be installed on the ceiling and viewed from below. Image via Blouin Art Info.
But, I was stunned to discover that, actually, this is hardly her only work on gold, hardly her only work playing with formats this way – using multiple hanging scrolls to create a polyptych – and hardly her only work based on or inspired by famous works from art history. I had thought the gold was perhaps a choice to emulate or recall the brownish discoloration of the silk of Huizong’s painting, and I still hold that it adds meaning in that way for me, but asking Prof. Yu her intentions or thoughts, she simply said that gold is a powerful, special color, especially in Chinese culture. Fair enough. In any case, it has a beautiful effect. I particularly love how it just sort of fades into the background. The gold is no more obvious than a solid-color background in any other color (and, in fact, probably far less noticeable or distracting in many cases), and just provides a beautiful, glowing, warm background. I wish more Western artists, or more artists in general, used gold today. (Or maybe I don’t, because then it would be less special when it is used.)
Yu Hong has reproduced “Spring Romance” in a polyptych of canvases, and has produced another similar work, seemingly on silver-infused silk handscrolls, depicting figures peering over a curve, like a hill maybe, which extends across the whole composition. Several works were designed to be installed on ceilings, and some were even painted in that posture, the artist stretching up, the work facing downwards. Recalling the trompe l’oiel and de sotto in su techniques I just learned about having been used in the High Renaissance, fooling the eye by painting a skylight, for example, with a beautiful blue sky on the ceiling, when it is in fact simply painted on and not an actual cut-through view of the actual sky, these works do something I feel is not particularly common at all today.
In another piece, she emulates the layout of the famous Ghent Altarpiece, replacing each of the figures – God, Mary, John the Baptist, Adam, Eve, etc. – with her friends, all of them asleep. I am not sure I fully understand the connection thematically between this and the Altarpiece, a very religious work, but she says the figures are asleep because they are tired out from the swift and dramatic changes China has seen in recent decades, and continues to see everyday.
Above: Yu Hong’s “Ladder to Heaven.” Image via CAFA Art Info.
In another work, called “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” she depicts figures climbing a sort of ladder to success. I’m guessing it represents the rat race, or something, the sacrifices we make forcing ourselves into the one path that mainstream society seems to expect of us. The medieval European work it is based on depicts figures struggling to ascend to heaven, as demons try to pry them off and pull them down into Hell. Yu Hong has kept the basic composition, more than enough of it to be quite recognizably based on that medieval work; but she has reversed the meaning. Those who make it to the top of the ladder might achieve a sort of “Heaven” of financial/career success, but those who fall off are depicted as being happy. They’ve found happiness in marriage (love/relationships), or in art, or in pursuing their own path. The idea that falling off means falling into Hell is completely not in evidence and is, I believe, meant to be extricated, removed, not present in this work. She’s really changed around the meaning of it, in an interesting and creative way. The total and complete secularization of what’s essentially, to its core, a Christian work, is also very interesting to me, and seems very (Communist) Chinese to me.
So, to sum up, I guess, Yu Hong’s references to historical masterpieces, her use of gold, and her playful, creative use of formats (e.g. ceiling paintings) made her works quite appealing and interesting to me from the beginning. But what is attractive and beautiful about her works on a deeper level is the calm, optimistic, positive energies they exude, as they chronicle her everyday life, her social circles, as well as her own life-story growing up. Seeing one of her works at the MFA was impressive and enjoyable enough, but now I really want to see an installation of her works filling a gallery, seeing how they interact, and feeling the energies flow through the space.
Above: An installation shot of a recent show of Yu Hong’s work, showing how her pieces work together in a consistent aesthetic. The canvas version of “Spring Romance” can be seen on the left wall. “Atrium” and “Natural Selection” appear on the ceiling, while her work referring to the Ghent Altarpiece graces the far wall.