Yue Minjun, ‘Mushroom Cloud’, 2002, Phillips

Property of an Important American Collector

From the Catalogue:
Yue Minjun is internationally acclaimed for his distinctive iconography and implicit political commentary in his oeuvre. Considered as one of the main protagonists of “Cynical Realism”, an art movement which emerged in the 1990s in response to the transitional period Chinese society was experiencing with rapid economic growth and ambiguous political ideology, Yue frequently depicts grinning male figures against bright color palettes, which combines both pictorial and historical references. Starting from the relatively figurative depictions of himself or his friends in historical settings in the 1990s, his style evolves into repetitive use of self-portrait in grotesque poses in the 2000s.

Painted in 2002, Mushroom Cloud is an epitome of Yue’s almost immediately recognisable style. This work presents nine identical bright pink faces of the artist himself with his signature rictus grin against the background of a mushroom cloud and vivid blue sky. Drawing connotation from the disparate laughing Buddha, the artist replicated his self-portrait over and over to form a battalion of grinning frozen-faced clones in the foreground. While grinning normally indicates a joyful atmosphere, the way Yue portrays the faces in an almost jaw-breaking laughter with eyes tight shut and white teeth bared invokes the character of an obedient and literally blind follower. The repetition motif forces the audience to look behind what was delineated and ponder about what was not explicitly depicted. In the background, the contour of the mushroom cloud bears an allusion to that of the explosion of China’s first atomic bomb in 1964, marking their entrance into the ranks of global nuclear powers. The juxtaposition of the lighthearted laughter and potential severe result of an atomic bomb brings out the absurdity, thus creating an atmosphere of disquiet. Yue deliberately employs the skills suggestive of the character “red, bright, and luminescent” in the propaganda art of “Social Realism”, which were often used to advocate the greatness of labourers or heroes, and turns it into a satiric commentary on how the nation sugar-coats reality in propaganda art, offering an implicit parody of contemporary Chinese society.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'yue minjun 2002' lower right

Yue Minjun: Soaking in Silly Laughter, exh. cat., Soobin Art Gallery, Singapore, 2002, pp. 10-11 (illustrated)
Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, exh. cat., He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2006, p. 27 (illustrated)

Private Collection, Beijing (acquired directly from the artist)
Private Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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