As the Shanghai gang of artists prepares for the “PARTY” exhibition opening this week at the Sheraton Shanghai Hongkou Hotel, it is Yu Youhan (b. 1943) who again captures the imagination. Turning to the most recent documentation of his work at hand—catalogues from the Sotheby's fall sales in Hong Kong—his range is self-evident even as his insistent process of evolution continues to turn back on itself. Perhaps the quintessential representative of Shanghai painting, Yu turned to abstraction in the mid-1980s purportedly under the influence of Impressionism and Pointillism, choosing to employ dots and, later, circles for their capacity to contain all else within them. If work like 1990-5 (1990) could be said to retain the influence of figurative painting from the beginning of modernism, however, it also drives this visual possibility into collision with the calligraphic, seeking a far more expressive capacity in each mark as it moves across the plane of the work. These dot paintings pursue purity above all else, not by excluding the unnecessary but rather by containing a continuous influx of energy, calling on the pleasure of the image as the viewer is asked to traverse the canvas seeking excitement and gratification. This composition is a study in continuity without a disharmonious pattern in sight, mobilizing the empty signifier of the brush into a field of affect that is sometimes considered and sometimes unrestrained but never overtly negative; this is a vortex that welcomes its observer, carrying on the metaphysical agenda of the 85 New Wave into the early 1990s even as the latter decade was hijacked by a far more brutal visual culture. Yu Youhan is, after all, an advocate and ally of his audience.
Yu Youhan, Ah, Us ! 12, Acrylic on canvas, 190 x 151cm, 1998; Courtesy of the artist
After quitting his detour into Political Pop that brought Chinese contemporary art some of its most memorable and innovative iconographic moments, Yu Youhan returned to the painterly with efforts in portraiture inextricably linked with the broadly humanist mandate of his earlier abstraction. His body of work throughout the late 1990s, as influenced by this piece from the Ah! Us series (1998), demonstrates this demarcation by dropping the cultural universality of his abstract work while turning determinedly to its collectivism, replacing the marks of the brush with human faces in a painterly composition of smiling, stoic, and perplexed expressions on an earthy brown field: here the terracotta warriors lie in repose, while there a waitress stands erect next to a small child. Focusing on certain coherent aspects of Chinese identity, this is an ode to a past that passes for optimism in an era no longer known for its explicit visual pleasure. This is a messy and uneven space for exploration, not entirely hospitable to the viewer unless, of course, he or she is on the side of the painter in his ambivalent relationship to the shared communal experience of Chinese history throughout the twentieth century.
(Image at top: Yu Youhan, 1990-5, acrylic on canvas, 134.5 x 134 cm; Courtesy of the artist)