Yue Minjun, ‘Hometown’, 2005, Phillips

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From the Catalogue:
‘Some may think these faces are my self-portrait, and many people think that these faces are absolutely absurd. In fact, those who think that these faces are funny are just part of my ordinary audience; those who are more professional and more cultural will find that what I paint is not laughing faces, but the extreme end of the spectrum of laughter – that is to say, ultimate sorrow.’ – Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun’s fixed grin is an icon of contemporary Chinese painting. His exploration of laughter and humour permeates his oeuvre, lending his work an instantly recognizable quality, elevating the laughing motif to one of the most significant symbols in contemporary Chinese art. One of China’s leading Cynical Realist painters, nothing is quite as it seems in the esteemed artist’s large canvasses. A dynamic example of Yue’s psychologically complex paintings, Hometown, painted in 2005, is sleek and highly aesthetic in its execution. With its three cartoon-like protagonists leaping across the picture plane, the hysteria is infectious, drawing us into Yue’s uncanny microcosm. A key canvas from the artist’s Hats series, which he commenced in 2004, the present work references societal tensions within China, as well as raw human emotion, namely joy and sorrow.

Yue’s Hometown depicts three laughing, ruddy faces with scrubbed, pink skin and perfectly square teeth, their bodies rendered to the point of absurdity, which draw upon Minjun’s own image in a self-referential remodelling. The quiet scenery in the background is paradoxically peaceful; the river seems calm, the sunset sky is coloured blue and pink and in the distance there is a boat, bobbing serenely at anchor. The title refers to the famous painting A Memory of Hometown by late artist Chen Yifei, who passed away in 2005, the same year the present work was executed. Chen’s painting depicts the ancient Double Bridge in Zhouzhuang, one of the earliest river towns in China which gained even more notoriety for its close proximity to the nearby industrial complex of Kunshan City, a centre for science and technology factories. A potential reaction to the death of Chen, Yue’s Hometown shows the Double Bridge, while figures wearing Nokia hats levitate above the still water, creating tension in the suspenseful moment. Symbolic of the noisy intrusion of industry on a peaceful, ancient way of life, Yue expertly suspends us in a moment of juxtaposition, our view maintained by the competing energies at play.

As well as confronting contemporary societal and industrial concerns in China through his joyous visual parodies, Yue’s Hometown also expertly explores the very extremes of the human condition. The three boyish figures appear to be engaged in jest, jumping in the water, their laughter infectious. On closer inspection, their interplay reveals much deeper tensions; the cloned figures are uncomfortably close together and the tangle of their bodies creates an uneasy mass of limbs. Their gleeful irreverence and scrunched faces are almost violent in their excess, their laughter on the verge of tearful sobbing. Laughing until they cry, the soaring figures embody deep sorrow as well as mirthful abandon. Yue’s figures fling themselves freely through the air, expertly traversing the old and new in Chinese culture.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'yue minjun 2005' lower left; further signed and titled in Chinese and dated '2005' on the reverse

Shenzhen, He Xiangning Art Museum, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works: 2004-2006, 3 June – 11 June 2006, p. 71 (illustrated)

Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
Private Collection, Beijing
Private Collection, New York

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