The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Bodu Yang

A black monolith seemed to have materialized out of nowhere in ’s 2021 solo exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art in Bangkok. The only installation at the show—titled “Along the Horizon”—and among the few in Yang’s painting-centered oeuvre, Atmosphere (2016) has four rectangular peepholes, one for each face of the two-meter-tall pillar. Looking inside, one discovers a series of white frames, extending like portals all the way to the other side. Appearing both dense and hollow, enclosed yet expansive, Atmosphere manifests, in three dimensions, the same contradictions that abound in Yang’s enigmatic paintings, which have garnered growing acclaim for their distinctive interpretations of the body, space, and perception.
Born in Tianjin, China, in 1986 and now based in Beijing, Yang is best known for her depictions of unusual interiors and edifices, a theme that has preoccupied her since childhood. Her grandfather, who worked at a publishing house, once brought home a set of books on architectural painting; she pored over the contents, copying the pictures and visiting the rooms in her mind’s eye. “At the time, life was still a huge mystery; everything I encountered hadn’t yet been given a definition,” she said. “I started drawing before I learned to read because I could never keep my hands still and it felt like a natural form of play.” She was 13 when she sat at an easel for the first time, as part of her preparation to enter a fine arts academy. “I initially felt unsure, but the moment I picked up the brush and started, the confusion disappeared,” she explained.
Not long after she earned her bachelor’s degree at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Yang completed Henri Matisse (2009), an early example of her museum paintings, which would become a defining body of work. The canvas depicts ’s Dance (I) (1909) hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Strangely, Yang captures Matisse’s circle of dancers at an angle, as if she had painted it while standing off to the side. In fact, she had never set foot in MoMA, and wouldn’t for another year; Henri Matisse was inspired by a photograph she saw in a book. The work is an uncanny replication of an actual museum setting, but filtered through secondhand and imaginary encounters.
Yang began her “In the Museum” series in 2011, while pursuing her MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The art museum, for her, is not just a neutral public venue for the exhibition of works, but a sanctum with its own “abstract atmosphere” that diffuses beyond the gallery walls and lingers in an individual’s consciousness. While some paintings in this series show people looking at or positioned near art, many omit or blur the exhibits, shifting focus to the gallery itself. One 2016 work presents a sliver of an empty vitrine, discernible by the subtle glint of a glass edge, while In the museum 2018 (2018) is mostly taken up by a shadowy wall and display case, shunting one’s line of sight to the narrow window at the canvas’s edge. In their selective fields of view, these paintings are suffused with interiority, quietly detailing fragments of the museum that usually go unnoticed, and leaving Yang’s audience to wonder at their private significance. Other works are more surreal, like the oil-on-board In the Gallery 2020 B (2020), of a tiny moon floating amid nested white doorways that lead to an oblong void—a mirror of the Atmosphere monolith. In the Museum 2020 (with natural light) (2020), included in the first X Museum triennial that year in Beijing, depicts the pitch-black interior of an expansive hall, with a single illuminated doorway at the center of the composition; through this opening, a figure is shown gazing at a monument that is oddly shrouded in fog. The series, Yang explained, “may appear to depict indoor scenes, but is actually about being positioned at a vantage point, or a spiritual level, to balance the external world. I take space as a framework that extends infinitely. Any concrete structure derives from weightless consciousness.”
Inherent in Yang’s approach is a relational aspect that sees her works toggling between proximity and distance. This is exemplified by a set of paintings depicting essentially the same view of a seated guard by a doorway but with variations in the scale and framing of the image. The smallest, In the Museum 2021 B (2021), positions the woman farthest away, but this perspectival depth is paradoxically undercut by the flattening effect of an off-white border—what Yang calls a “section of wall that follows the picture.” By contrast, the vertical, large-format In the Museum 2021 C (2021) evokes intimacy not only by bringing the woman closer to the fore, but also by enhancing details such as her reflection on the shiny, multicolored floor tiles. This play with distance is also in “Nightfall” (2016–present), a series featuring rectangular structures in a range of settings. In the illusionistic Nightfall 6 (2019), for instance, it is unclear whether the shape looms or recedes, representing a black-painted block or a darkened doorway.
In the past year, Yang has been working on “crossover” works, remixing recognizable motifs in prismatic palettes for “Perspective Parallel” (2021), her duo show with her partner, , at THE SHOPHOUSE in Hong Kong; MINE PROJECT’s recent booth at Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design fair; and The Artsy Vanguard exhibition online.
The black oblong forms of “Nightfall” counter the high-ceilinged hall of In the Museum 2021H (2021), haloed by crepuscular blues and violets seen through a skylight. In the Museum 2021K (2021) references an earlier series that superimposed small geometric shapes onto close-ups of the human body. In this new oil painting, the human figure is replaced by a marble sculpture, set against a gradient backdrop of dazzling sunset colors; a knifelike triangle pierces the composition from the bottom edge.
“As someone who has been drawing in straight lines for so long, I find it soothing to depict bodily spaces, delineated by curves—although I still put in sharp and edgy ‘shields’,” Yang remarked. “There are textural and essential differences between sculpture and the human body, but they both become static in paintings. This overlaps with a characteristic of painting itself: to create dynamic projections on a static plane, then let this small square return to silence again.”


The Artsy Vanguard 2021

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Ophelia Lai
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Bodu Yang. Courtesy of Bodu Yang.