Yu Hong finds poetry in day-to-day existence. She represents the simple joys that we all experience, from laughing with friends, to sitting and thinking quietly, to falling in love and forming a family. Her focus on the individual extends back to her years as an undergraduate in the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where she received a thorough training in the techniques of figural realism (1984–88). Initially, her paintings combined highly realistic portraits with unreal surroundings and colorations, suggesting a sense of dislocation from the world. Gradually, however, perhaps reflecting the fact that her life was settling down, Yu Hong stripped away the surrealistic devices embellishing her art. At the same time, she honed her skills of observation, so that she has become extremely sensitive to both facial expression and body posture.
More often than not, Yu Hong’s subjects are women. Only rarely in the entire history of Chinese art has the female point of view been depicted in such an understanding and understated manner. In general, earlier depictions of women engaged in everyday activities were created by men, who overlay that subject with endless symbolic ramifications: they were not interested in depicting women per se, nor did they care about the female point of view. And now, while contemporary female artists in China favor the subject of women, many invest the figures they paint with such heavy doses of symbolism that the value of the individual is lost. Yu Hong honors the individual in all phases of life, from childhood to maturity.
The current exhibition exemplifies Yu Hong’s rare combination of observational powers and technical facility as a painter, and includes two groups of works representing the latest developments in her oeuvre. The first is a set of fifteen paintings chronicling the artist’s life—a spin-off from Witness to Growth, a project that has occupied her for several years. The second, a group of six paintings, is the start of a new series that takes up a new thread, describing everyday activities. This series is called Routine. Both groups focus on the absolutely mundane, but with such intensity that we are led from contemplation of the commonplace to an appreciation of the broader currents of life.
In 2000, Yu Hong commenced work on Witness to Growth, a series of paintings that has occupied her for the past several years. For each year of her life, she has painted a one meter square canvas with an image of herself, based on a photograph taken at the time. Whether posed or spontaneous, the photographs’ compositions and coloring capture something essential about the visual sense of their times. In making her selection of which photograph to reproduce, and then in adapting the photographic image to suit her memory of the time, Yu Hong condenses her experience to defining moods and moments. Breaking the pattern of one painting per year, two paintings mark her twenty-ninth year: in one she is pregnant; in the next she has given birth. From that time on, a second series of paintings, chronicling the life of her daughter Liu Wa, year by year, joins the first. In viewing these paintings, we recognize the transitory nature of the moments represented. Unexpectedly, the fleeting emotions captured in paint trigger memories of comparable moments in our own lives: somehow the specificity of Yu Hong’s self-portraits is not a barrier to our self-recognition, but rather a catalyst.
When the Witness to Growth series was first published, Yu Hong chose a newspaper or magazine spread to complement each image. For example, next to a painting of herself aged six months, napping in her stroller, the artist placed a contemporaneous China Pictorial spread depicting “Chairman Mao reviewing the rank and file of the Great Cultural Revolution for the first time.” He stands in a jeep, waving to massed soldiers. Fast asleep in her stroller, Yu Hong is oblivious to the unfolding drama of history, seemingly as confidently in control of her world as Mao was of his. The juxtaposition of political and social events with events of equal moment to an individual—such as the birth of a sibling, a marriage, or the building of a house—sets up a tension, highlighting the loose relationship between outer and inner events.
In the set of fifteen works rendered in pastel on paper for the current exhibition, Yu Hong has recast images from the original Witness to Growth series, extracting the individual from the surroundings. Whether it be Yu Hong or her daughter who is represented, the figures are complete in the moment, utterly self-sufficient. In the absence of setting, we concentrate more closely on the figures’ momentary state of mind. The monochrome background washes, often acid-toned, color our interpretation of the figures’ emotions. In this usage of startling color juxtapositions, Yu Hong is drawing on her color sense developed in the later 1980s, to great effect. Against a mustard background wash, two-year-old Yu Hong, sporting a large Mao badge, walks hand-in-hand with her mother. Wearing a green sweater, at age six she leans pensively on one elbow, the acid green backdrop throwing her into a surreal space: what could she be thinking? Aged twenty-one, she poses with friends in front of Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen (his visage is the only extraneous context we are offered in any of these paintings). At twenty-six, Yu Hong appears in the film, The Days, and the next year, she marries painter Liu Xiaodong. Liu Wa at age six hugs a soccer ball: restricted to pinks and red, with touches of black and white, this painting radiates warmth and happiness. Liu Wa appears to be more connected with the world than her dreamy mother at that age.
Concerning her new series, Routine, Yu Hong says: “All six Routine paintings are about my daily life. Like most of us, I lead a life of trivialities. It is how life really is.” Accordingly, in these paintings she shops for fruit, shops for vegetables and laughs with friends. The sometimes jarring color schemes and inventive compositions framing these day-to-day activities give us pause, leading us to reconsider the value of the trivialities that fill our days. Pulling us further along in our musings, Yu Hong has paired each painting with a newspaper or magazine article. As she relates: “All the news clippings are about how we Chinese spend money. The Chinese government is trying to build a ‘well-off society,’ and I find there is a certain interesting relationship between individuals and their patterns of consumption in such a well-off society.” It is worth contemplating her pairings.
Since graduating from the elite Central Institute of Fine Arts in Bejing with a specialty in the Western medium of oil paint, Yu Hong has produced a striking body of paintings that have a personal focus. From her early days as a student to today, her subjects have been herself, her family, friends and fellow artists, and now her child—in other words, the people in her everyday life.
1988 Bachelor of Fine Arts in Oil Painting, Central Institute of Fine Art, Beijing
1995 Master of Fine Arts in Oil Painting, Central Institute of Fine Art, Beijing
2002 Witness to Growth, The East Modern Art Centre, Beijing
Goedhuis Contemporary, New York
2001 Towards a New Image—1981-2001 Twenty Years of Contemporary Chinese Painting, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, China
China Art Now, Singapore
Living in Time, Berlin, Germany
2000 Nature: The Third Exhibition of Woman Artists, Beijing, China
Exhibition of Paper Work, Beijing, China
Time of Reviving—Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art in 2000 Upriver Gallery, Chengdu, China
China Art in the 20th Century, Beijing, Shanghai, China
1999 Exhibition of Upriver Gallery’s Collection, He Xiangning Museum, Shen Zhen, China
Exhibition of Dong Yu Museum’s Collection, Dong Yu Museum, Shen Yang, China
China Art, LIMN Gallery, San Francisco, CA, USA
transience—Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century,
The David and Alfred Smart Museum of art of the University of Chicago, USA
1998 Century—Woman Art Exhibition, Beijing, China
Art Show of Oil Painting Department of the Central Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing, China
Exhibition of Upriver Museum’s Collection, Upriver Museum, Chengdu, China
1997 Portrait of Chinese Oil Painting in the Last 100 Years, Beijing, China
The 47th Venice Biennial Art Exhibition, Venice, Italy
The Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Woman Artists, Chicago, USA
97Asia Art Show, Bangladesh
1996 The Exhibition of the Association of Chinese Oil Painting, Beijing, China
1995 Art Show of Oil Painting Department of the Central Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing, China
The Second Exhibition of Woman Artist, Beijing, China
1994 Yu Hong & Liu Xiaodong : Recent Paintings, OIPA East Village, New York, NY, USA
Transformation, New York, NY, USA
Between East and West : Transformation of Chinese Art in the Last 20th Century, The Discover Museum, CT, USA
The Sketch Exhibition of Chinese Artists, New York, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan
Art Exhibition of Woman Artists of China and Korea, Beijing, China
Exhibition of the 94 New Zhulian Cup, Beijing, China
1993 Chinese Avant-garde Art Exhibition, traveling Show, Germany, Holland, Denmark, England
The 45th Venice Biennial Art Exhibition, Venice, Italy
Red Star Over China: Tenuous Peace, Keen Gallery, New York, NY, USA
Contemporary Chinese Painting, Z Gallery, New York, NY, USA
1991 Century—China Art Exhibition, Beijing, China
China Annual Oil Painting Exhibition, Beijing, China
The New Generation Art Exhibition, Beijing, China
1990 Yu Hong’s Painting, Beijing, China
The World of Woman Artists Exhibition, Beijing, China
The Art Exhibition in Memory of the 100 Anniversary of Van Gogh, Beijing
1989 Exhibition of Chinese Woman Artists, Macao
Exhibition of Chinese Woman Artists, Japan
The 7th Chinese Fine Arts Exhibition, Nanjing, China
Monte Carlo International Art Show, Monte Carlo, Monaco
1988 The Sketch Exhibition, Beijing, China
Nude Painting Exhibition, Beijing, China
1986 The 1st Oil Painting Exhibition of China, Shanghai, China
Singapore Art Museum
Dong Yu Art Museum, Shen Yang, China
Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai, China
Upriver Art Museum, Cheng Du, China
China Art Gallery, China
Ludwig Gallery, Germany