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An Essay on YU Youhan

Author: Anna Marie Sophie Conrad Jun,2013

An Essay on YU Youhan

When looking at Yu Youhans artistic work, it seems difficult to believe, that all derives from the hand of one artist. The various themes, techniques and stylistic approaches are extremely manifold and diversified. At first, it seems impossible to place him into a particular artistic movement. Often considered as one of the pioneers of Political Pop, Yu's opus offers more and should not be reduced to just one specific time period. Numerous art critics have tried to categorize him as belonging to a particular group, but as soon as it is settled, Yu seems to destroy the artificial logic by returning to what he did before or even tackling new paths of expression. Due to these circumstances, many trials have been made to analyse his work throughout the different phases of his creation. Of course, breaking his work down into different series facilitates the contemplation of his work. The attempt at finding a combining element, to track down a leitmotif, is almost set aside. However, behind the creative diversity, stands an individual, a single artist. Whether we consider Yu's abstract or Political Pop paintings his entire creation or if we only mediate on one single piece, a feeling of aloofness is omnipresent.

An elaborate eclecticism of different styles play an important role in his body of works and decisively contributes to his game desire of dazzling the viewer's eye. Yu Youhans work leads us on a journey through colour, form and images, in which we are left utterly puzzled.

His early works display typical Shanghainese street scenes. The influence of the classic modern painters might even evoke the appearance of a Parisian street. It appears obvious that he chooses to expose us to only an excerpt of life, like a part cut out of a bigger picture. Almost all of his small paintings on paper show a restricted view. They are mainly created by gating the perspective, for instance by using a walled lane, clipping off parts of the houses by using the extremity of the canvas, or also camouflaging by painting tree tops, so that the eye is deprived of wandering further. It seems, as though there is always something more, hidden away in the unknown. Especially the bird's eye view reminds the viewer, that he is standing outside of the image and is not part of the action. This might create a feeling of intense dissatisfaction, desiring to see more and the resentment of being excluded. The dominant perspective lead is especially provoked by incorporating the peephole principle, which might even convey a feeling of disturbance. We will come across this again in other work periods, which are echoed by different methods. In his early paintings, dating from shortly after his graduation, already a taste is given of his later skills of expression, though they still remain guarded and discreet. The brush strokes in some of these works reveal a handsel of his characteristic mark, which determines his abstract paintings.    

In Yu Youhans abstract work, the choreography of graceful dancing brush strokes baffle our eyes. The rhythm is chaotic and no chorus seems to be distinguishable. A strong guide conducts us through a complex labyrinth, leads us in to dead end streets and takes us back to where we started. Regardless, if we consider his early or late abstract works, the paint strokes alter from one painting to another and at times they appear thin, filigree, and delicate, but then they can surprise us by their bold thickness, or meticulous preciseness. Through a very personal language of forms and a distinguished flow, Yu Youhan creates his proper formal vocabulary, mystifying and aggravating any possible decryption.      
These compositions of balletic brush marks arouse many associations, especially to organic microcosms or botanical shapes. Some may remind us of cellular forms while looking trough a microscope. Whatever ones own particular association is, the feeling occurs of recognizing something, being close to, or being able to discern it. Though the longer you stand in front of the painting and are trying to recall your association, it vanishes again. It is similar to the haunting feeling when a thought escapes your mind and you cannot remember it. An enthralling feeling of aloofness persists. Not even reoccurring forms, like the circle or the cross, help the understanding. The contemplative moment is missing completely. In almost all abstract works, we find drips running down the canvas. They proceed through and across the jumble of the strokes, as though they would trickle through different stages of consciousness. Naturally, the drips end at the end of the painting. Consequently, nothing escapes the internal pictorial logic. We might still be following the drips with our eyes, lingering in the hazy state of searching, driven by the will to understand, but clearly not concluding. The drips moreover can be read as an indication about the artificiality of the painting since they remind us that we are exterior to the art, it neither allows any contemplation nor accretion.

This is exactly the tension of being strongly directed and then left floating, which Yu Youhan creates and which manifests the bounding element in his work.

Certainly, his landscapes keep reminding us of the masterpieces of Cézanne and many other French artists of the 1900s. In Yu Youhans landscapes, Cézannes influence of the interplay of light and dark planes to create plasticity, can be retrieved. More than in other work periods, the landscapes manifest his extremely sophisticated usage of light, which often is the only form giving component. His work however, shouldn’t be reduced to simple adoptions of techniques and colouring. The Chinese component is obviously conducted by the senses through the colour employ and the gestural stroke of the brush. By combining traces of French impressionism with elements of Chinese iconography he creates his own convincing pictorial language. The blurriness in some paintings also might evoke Monet’s water lilies, when he already was losing his eyesight. The whole picture disappears when only concentrating on an aspect, like colour or surface. One can hardly identify it as a landscape; it appears to be almost an abstract painting. The same is true of the Impressionists, who set aside the realistic representation. Yu also focuses on colouring and form. The technique of reduction has a long history, but here Yu Youhan creates something new, by directing all attention towards his own mark of forms. The boarders between abstract and figurative seem to blur, but form remains none the less to be the deciding element in Yu’s body of work. This becomes even more obvious, when he mirrors two images on one single canvas. The left side shows the worm’s eye view looking in to the treetop, the right side the bird’s eye view from the tree, showing the reflection in water. The reflection diminishes the sharp contours of the tree, till it becomes almost unrecognizable. He reduces the naturalistic representation in favour of form and colour. At first sight, it seems as if contra- positioned a figurative image against an abstract.

Yu Youhan likes contrasts, if it should be understood as a provocation or critique or not, is left open. In his Political Pop paintings, we find Mao next to pop-idol Whitney Houston or the statue of liberty. The same is true as in his other work periods, he does not impose any belief on us. Mao is the central theme of these paintings. He can be seen as a symbol with various meanings. In fact, as Yu states himself, Mao Zedong in his paintings reflect sometimes China, sometimes the East, sometimes a leader, sometimes history or sometimes just his youth and childhood. For sure, it certainly can be sometimes one or the other, but it is never uniform. It always changes and is not classifiable. Mao can be seen as a container term, which we are free to fill with content.

In his series A pocket Art History about Mao, he integrates Mao in masterpieces of great European artists, like Gaugin, Rousseau, Vang Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian or Francis Bacon.

Using an elaborate adoption of their techniques, the work appears to be very humorous though painted in the same manner, Mao is like a foreign body in the painting and sometimes not even considered by the other figures (Gaugin). It is the concept of appropriation, which Yu Youhan uses here. Appropriation offers a possibility to enter the dialogue of artistic conventions. Yu touches a very sensitive subject that China is often completely missing in Western Art History and has been for a long time. The reference to a dominant parameter, like Western Art History, is the first condition that the own contribution, Yus works, is recognized. Therefore, artistic appropriation is a technique, which can lead to appreciation. Maybe the Mao and the great master paintings can be understood as an attempt to integrate Chinese artists in an international Art History and also to demonstrate the cultural and historical contrasts between China and the West? Perhaps just fragments of memory inscribed in a collective history?

The aspect of change plays a key role in Yu Youhans oeuvre. It is not only shown in his choice of themes, but also in the stroke of the paintbrush. These infinite variations of spots and specks might seem meaningless at first, but might direct us to a bigger structure, to a deeper content. This area is hardly accessible by a rational approach. His art demands a much more emotional, even spiritual contemplation. In the same way you are sometimes unable to distinguish an emotion, you find yourself struggle when approaching Yu Youhans work. His work is in a constant movement, so are our emotions, so is life. In a beautifully subtle way he reminds us of the boundless flow of live. His work is full of verve indicating an ever changing, ever evolving complex circle. We try and hope to define it as a whole. Is it the conglomeration and interaction of these individual specks that lead us to the whole picture? Or does the answer lie in one single speck?

In ever new versions, we find ourselves conducted into unseizable and hazy spheres. By being so caught up with the desire to comprehend, we might deprive ourselves from just letting the work take effect on us.

Related Artists:
Related Exhibitions:
YU Youhan: Yībān


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