Yue Minjun, ‘Backyard Garden’, 2005, Phillips

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From the Catalogue:
Immediately humorous and instantly recognisable, Yue Minjun’s laughing characters have become internationally iconic and celebrated as a pinnacle cornerstone of contemporary Chinese art. Backyard Garden, painted in 2005, is exemplary of Yue’s signature satiric self-portraits, depicted in his seminal realist style and intense colour palette. A leading figure of the Chinese Cynical Realism movement, the present work depicts a solitary figure, bent double laughing, both arms and legs supported by the rocky riverbank. Conveying a sense of unbridled emotion, Yue’s protagonists confront the viewer with their intense display of feeling, forcing the onlooker to delve deeper into the moment of hysteria presented before us.

In the present work, Yue’s figure, with his raw pink skin and bared squared teeth, plunges the viewer into an uncanny microcosm whereby we are suspended in a familiar yet unrecognisable overly-hyped reality. Even though we usually associate laugher with mirth, in Backyard Garden the figure’s laughter has become almost too much to physically bare. Reduced to a primal state, bent over on all fours, the figure has crumbled, doubled in laughter, his frenzied howling has almost turned to an unbearable state. The relentlessness of the figure’s laughter has transposed his grin into a grimace, his convulsive joy has left him crouched in pain. This ambiguity emphasises the farcical nature of the scene; Yue’s character has become ridiculous, his laughter bitter sweet. The dichotomy between laughter and sorrow is bridged in the present work, rendering a deeply psychological and emotive reading of the unrestrained figure’s plight.

A defining member of the Cynical Realist movement, Yue’s canvasses convey a critical examination of China’s cultural history through his subtle and nuanced visual signifiers. The rocky surface of the backdrop bears cultural resonance through its comparable aesthetic with the traditional Gongshi (Chinese Scholar’s Rocks), the rocks admired in Chinese literature, traditional art and philosophy which often adorn back gardens. Behind these stones a large expanse of water peacefully laps behind the figure’s episode, conveying the dream-like, transitory nature of the scene. The heady sun overhead beats down on the figure, adding a sense of claustrophobia and intensity to the composition, burning the figure’s already scorched pink skin. As the title implies, the viewer is afforded an intimate glimpse of a private scene, away from the peering eyes of the public. However, the juxtaposition between the rock surface and the swimming pool-like background confuses the viewer, presenting competing locations and jarring the recognisability of the scene. Drawing upon traditional Chinese references, Yue incorporates elements of the vast wealth of Chinese culture, which have been embraced and conversely challenged at varying times during China’s history.

The sanitisation of personal identity during The Cultural Revolution in China and the erosion of free speech is addressed in Backyard Garden through the figure. Baring a resemblance to the artist himself, the figures in Yue’s paintings have become the artist’s caricature, a painterly alter ego. The repetition of the same figure throughout his practice alludes to the systematic degradation of individual free speech. The figure’s iconic laughing face conveys a cynicism of the system which has become ridiculous. Suffering from a sense of apathy, the only reaction Yue’s characters can muster is laughter, trying to make light of the deeply complex history which has had a tremendous effect on Chinese citizens and culture. Despite using himself as his main subject, his aim is not to create a self-portrait. As stated by Yue: ‘A caricature could express so much more humanity, and having decided that this would be my ultimate subject, why not create a caricature of myself to convey the stories I wanted to relate to.’ (Yue Minjun, quoted in Karen Smith, ‘Yue Minjun by Himself’, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, exh. cat., He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2006, p. 20).

Thrusting the viewer into his jubilant scenes of unrestrained hilarity, Yue’s distinct painterly voice prompts all viewers of his work to question the relationship between laughing and crying. Often characterised as polar opposite states of being, Yue seeks to close the gulf between the two, making the onlooker question their own reactive emotions. The compressed face and animalistic stature of the figure indicates that he has been overcome with emotion, however the viewer is left guessing as to what the source of his amusement is. Yue’s realist paint application, as well as his incorporation of a traditional Chinese backdrop, is an ode to Chinese history, drawing upon political posters and, conversely, traditional watercolours. Seemingly at odds with the cartoon element of his characterisation, Yue incorporates a complex web of connotations in his vibrant paintings, masterfully conveying the vast enormity of his country which is comprised of a rich tapestry of history, culture and individual voices and stories. An internationally celebrated painter and leading artist of his generation, Yue Minjun remains one of China’s most progressive voices, as exemplified by the present lot.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'yue minjun 2005' lower right; further signed, titled and dated '"Back Garden" Yue Minjun 2005 [in Chinese]' on the reverse

Shenzhen, He Xiangning Art Museum, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works: 2004-2006, 3-11 June 2006, p. 46 (illustrated)

Private Collection, United States (acquired directly from the artist)

About Yue Minjun

In his oil paintings, Yue Minjun often inserts himself in iconic moments in art history, painting exaggerated self-portrait figures in candy colors. The figures bear wide smiles with gaping mouths as they enact poses from the works of Caravaggio and other artists from the Western canon. Transforming himself into an icon, the artist has said, “was not meant as a self-portrait in its traditional sense, but something more like a movie star acting in different roles.” Surrealism was an early influence on Yue, who shot to the top of an explosive Chinese contemporary scene as a member of the Cynical Realist movement, his serious political criticism and social commentary hidden behind the mask of his smiling faces. In another series, Yue turned his practice on its head, recreating famous Western and Chinese socialist paintings as empty settings with their subjects removed.

Chinese, b. 1962, Heilongjiang Province, China, based in Beijing, China