Wondering at Clouds

“Wondering Clouds” – Yu Hong solo exhibition

Long March Space (4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, P.R. China) Nov 23–Dec 29, 2013

Like her husband Liu Xiaodong, whose name need not precede hers, Yu Hong is a painter of consummate skill. While studying at CAFA in the 1980s, her drawings were held up as exemplary. In what might be called a slightly sheltered and practical artistic career, she continues to teach painting there—a post she assumed not long after graduation. In another way, however, this period has seen Yu Hong solidify a career as one of very few mature female artists in China who enjoy significant exposure. In status and in demeanour, Yu cuts a confident figure.

The training she has absorbed is directed at a certain kind of intimacy in her paintings. Strong, vivacious strokes of the brush are put in service of figurative subject matter—often women, often naked (never nude), and frequently the artist herself. Although the backgrounds are sometimes grand—one whole series is of figures against plain gold grounds—the poses one discovers in her oeuvre share a very human awkwardness and normality. They bend, twist, sit, reach, shuffle and recline; arms flail and torsos curve inwards. A robustness of purpose combines with a sense of everyday theater; she tends more towards portraying human emotion and movement in successive moments than more high-minded or transcendent concepts. That said, impressions of the passage of time through experience emerge strongly in her paintings; this theme surfaces anew in the recent works on show at Long March Space.

Yu Hong, “Drawer”, acrylic on canvas, 190 x 110 cm x 3, 2013, courtesy of LONG MARCH SPACE

There are six powerful triptychs in the first room. Each centers on one person, who appears twice. Yu seeks to explore and reveal the emotional lives of her sitters—all of whom having suffered from depression. The resultant works are a strange and compelling mixture of banality and embellishment. In “Lost in the Night” (2013), a young man lies supine, smiling up at a fiery canopy of golden leaves and floating jellyfish. In the far panel on the right, he is seen again, clutching a microphone and with head drooping despondently. Red jellyfish plummet past his waist as if shot down. In “Abyss” (2012), two figures of the same young woman wearing only sunglasses stand as if she is back to back with herself, brandishing a cigarette. A rumpled, grey landscape of rocks, indigo water and distant old-style doors and windows upside down at once displace and dramatize her immodest stance. Across the room, a more troubling work (“Drawers”, 2013) shows a man on an suburban fringe with half-built houses in the distance. His body is trapped inside stacks of old drawers, and he looks down into a dark, partially covered hole at his feet. In “Plain Fingers” (2013), a young girl is seen in two different reclining attitudes. Above her float a legion of hands glimpsed in varying poses—one of the lasting visions of the exhibition.

Thus do these paintings summon both the internal, imaginative landscapes of the mind and the external setting of these subjects, evoking from this fusion of the tangible and dreamlike a sense of time passing. But it is not fluid progress; these figures appear caught—sometimes sublime, at other times anguished. These are not portraits so much as attempts— the term is not meant critically—to exorcise internal landscapes through discernible imagery. One senses symbolism and notes touches of the surreal in drawers and mannequins. An unnatural degree of light pervades the canvases, turning skins yellow and colors more lurid. They are striking portrayals, though the degree of artistry in their execution precludes empathy—they are removed from us, absorbed in their own worlds through the window of the canvas.

The second space comes as something of a shock. In it, a colossal painting across several panels meets one head-on from the recesses of the dark room. Ripping clouds, thick smoke, fire, glacial mountains and the distant lights of a city cavort in twisted perspective. The peripheral panels also stage people—an arc of infants, squatting youths and reclining labourers, entwined naked bodies, sexualized women, a child in a bath tub and flying schoolchildren, their bodies stiff. This is “On the Clouds” (2012). It is a spectacular and disarming scene, its tenor near-biblical, its subjects contemporary. One wonders at this grandiose painting, bold and yet potentially subtle in its possible interpretations. This is a strong—if strange—closing image for the year’s exhibitions in Beijing.

Yu Hong, “Lost in the Night”, acrylic on canvas, 190 x 110 cm x 3, 2013, courtesy of LONG MARCH SPACE
Yu Hong, “On the Clouds”, acrylic on canvas, 250 x 1800 cm, 2012, courtesy Long March Space
Yu Hong , “Plain Fingers”, acrylic on canvas, 190 x 110 cm x 3, 2013, courtesy of LONG MARCH SPACE

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