Picture perfect? Only on the surface, as Beijing-born artist Yang Xu declares.
IT’S like someone is very well-mannered, but wild inside,” says Beijing-born artist Yang Xu, effectively summing up the multi-faceted nature of his works.
He is referring to his art, but it feels like he could just as well be talking about himself.
During a chat at his solo exhibition launch at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur on March 20, the 33-year-old artist comes across as down-to-earth and polite – relatively soft-spoken, but with strong opinions that he isn’t afraid to share.
Apologising profusely for donning sunglasses in an indoor setting at night (he relates that he is rendered practically blind after his everyday pair of glasses was unceremoniously whipped off his face by the wild wind while out at sea, fishing before the launch), Yang chooses his words carefully in English and is focused and intense when sharing his thoughts on art and life.
He stresses that life, like his art, is not always how it looks like superficially.
“People think China has lots of rules and restrictions. And that’s true. But if you know the right people, the right locals, you can do anything at all, really … anything at all … except killing people,” he says.
Like real life, under the serene surface of each work, despite the rules, regulations and conventions it follows, lies some sort of “turbulence.” Although heavily influenced by the classical style, most of Yang’s works could hardly be considered to fit the poised image of what “classical” usually suggests.
But that’s just as well, as the artist embraces both suggestions of “classical” and “contemporary” with ease, saying that he likes them both and that he draws inspiration from contemporary life, news, films and “some atmospheres” from classic paintings.
On the 11 works presented at his solo exhibition, Soul Aesthetic, Yang settles for the description: “contemporary (that) is hidden from the classic surface.”
Indeed there is more than meets the eye here.
“My works look like they are following the rules and standards, but with many of them, the perspectives are ‘wrong’. It is like a lie,” the artist shares, pointing out that it is often not immediately apparent.
Aiming to express arrogance, eccentricity and absurdity with his works, he offers a “ridiculous” real-life example that plays a role in his crafting of “ironic images” – the daily evening news, aired at prime time, in China.
“On Chinese television, there is a news programme every night at 7pm,” he relates, explaining that in the first 20 minutes, viewers are treated to stories and images of a prosperous China in full glory. This is followed by 10 minutes of screen-time depicting “problems” around the world, including conflicts, disasters, hunger and war.
“Ninety percent of the channels show this news programme. Almost every night’s news is the same, I feel it is very ridiculous and funny, and that’s why I paint these ironic images,” Yang declares.
He states that when the surface appears to be “perfect”, not only do people forget about fundamental problems, but they become numbed and oblivious to issues around them, no matter how obvious they are.
“Everyone defines ‘perfection’ differently. I believe it’s a sense of contentment. If all my desires are met continuously, I think it is perfection,” he says.
“If a country’s governors consistently force their values onto its people for years, this is called ‘brainwashing’ or hypnotisation. People slowly lose their capability to judge. They just live, and be controlled by the government. This kind of society won’t be creative and it won’t last long,” he adds.
Interestingly, Soul Aesthetic features excerpts from a conversation Yang had with Chinese contemporary artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei, one that was set up in Ai’s studio specifically for this exhibition.
“He and I are familiar with each other. We are friends. We usually meet up for dinner or drinks … but ‘official’ conversation like this is rare,” says Yang. “We both feel that art critics write about art too ‘professionally’, no one wants to read it. So in the interview, we talked about something else.” (Which includes what kind of artists he abhors, corruption, and his relationship with his mentor Chen Danqing, among other things.)
He comments that although the conversation does not directly affect this exhibition, it influences his opinions and inspirations, which will, in turn, have an effect on future creations. Clearly, Yang has no qualms about expressing criticism for artists he feels fall short - whether in the department of technical expertise, or something else entirely.
“Look at Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s works – he always paints this big head with a happy face. Do you think there is any difference looking at one or a hundred of his paintings?” he poses a rhetoric question.
In the conversation he had with Ai (which is presented in the Soul Aesthetic catalogue), Yang expressed very strongly that he doesn’t like “star artists” who “have no technique” and only get by on so-called “concept.” Yang calls painting an art form, the best quality of which is to communicate with people directly through canvas and evoke emotions in the viewer.
“The foundation of painting is its techniques,” he says, “which brings aesthetic appreciation to people. I feel my works are in between these two things.”
At first glance, it seems like not only is he purposefully “deceptive” with his works, but is fickle with his choice of subject matter – a chunk of meat, a pair of ballet shoes, water droplets, a handful of coins, pictures in a book, and so on.
His apparent disinterest in sticking to the same subject matter or working in series has piqued the curiosity of many, fuelling comments that this calls into question his “maturity” as an artist.
But Yang maintains that while he is “still experimenting and accumulating”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that his works are immature.
This artist is adamant that developing one’s painting skills should be a priority – merely talking about the “concept” is not sufficient.
“There are people who think only concept matters. But I think that as long as you are presenting it through a painting, your skills must be good. That is non-negotiable,” Yang concludes.
At least he walks the talk, with beautiful paintings to his name.
Yang Xu’s second solo exhibition in Malaysia called Soul Aesthetic is showing at Richard Koh Fine Art (Lot No. 2F-3, Level 2, Bangsar Village II, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) till April 3. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 10pm. Call 03-2283 3677 or visit www.rkfineart.com for details.