Essay and Interview


An interplay of poetic scenarios
Ursula Panhans-Bühler

           Yang Jinsong first found his distinctive personal narrative voice in pictures painted around 1998. The artist and his wife begin to appear together in double portraits within various surroundings. They might fill the whole canvas, gazing out from a little plastic mirror, from the dial of a monstrous old alarm clock, or from an oldfashioned TV screen. Their huge heads would be bent towards each other intimately, if with a slightly melancholy air. The couple would be positioned in the middle of their private life. You could see the kitchen, a bathroom or a bedroom, and look outside through the window. They would be surrounded by the scattered household objects we all accumulate. There may be kitchen or bathroom utensils, pill blisters, overflowing ashtrays, dirty dishes, toys, lamps, a telephone or a computer, electric wires – all these trappings of our modern consumer culture seem to acquire a life of their own, magically.  The artist and his wife would appear isolated in their intimacy, sheltered by a reassuring net of horror vacui, which would also link them to the world they come from with a cornucopia of allusions.

          In May 2000, Yang Jinsong makes a first foray out of this sheltered world when he transfers the location of the duo to a couple of green gourds swinging freely on a light gray canvas. Following Gulliver, proportions are reversed here: the pair now look out from the huge gourds, large enough to be a natural alternative to China’s modern skyscrapers,  through tiny windows like TV screens. Insular mountains and Chongqing landmarks complete the picture- small, connected by vines, and now uncrowded. Between 2001 and 2002, Yang Jinsong experiments with interchanging the big and the small in many of his pictures. The gourd as a representational frame for the couple is replaced by lotus seed pods on high stems, or by half a pumpkin with bright yellow flesh, lying on a dark red table, or by a traditional painter’s palette, with the fused couple peeking out of the thumb hole, surrounded by an improbably blue sky over a minutely detailed city. In other paintings, the pair’s joined heads grow up toward the edge of the canvas, a light-colored splotch in the middle, reducing the domestic surroundings to a subdued layer of incidentals. Yang Jinsong develops a virtually endless narrative flow, grouping many little things around a central motif in ever new and different ways, exploring the relationship between surface and depth.

                  Right from the start, Yang Jinsong’s paintings have shown a pronounced feeling for melodious color schemes. Earlier works mostly emphasized graduated hues, with pointed contrasts between light and dark: by now, the pictures are enlivened with spots of strong color in a self-assured manner, and one can surmise that occasionally interest in a color pattern guided the distribution of objects on the canvas or within the scene- the color concept thus determining the order of things within a given composition. Just as the one shade of the large facial areas used to dominate the picture, there may now be a single large monochrome- a green easychair, a marroon table, a gray-blue communal sweater- to play a main part. Such a chord is struck by the light-colored egghead of a self-portrait from 2001, filling the canvas, crowned at an angle with a funny miniature portrait of his wife She Cai as if with a novelty egg cup; all of this surrounded by a vibrant jumble of accentuating shades, and positioned effectively to banish any impression of an enclosed space, despite the interior setting.

         Yang Jinsong is an accomplished draughtsman of shapes, as evidenced by an impressive double portrait of his parents from his student years at Chongqing’s Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. But with an acute sense of how fragile the human condition is, he avoids exact line-ups in his later works with soft contours, and exact spatial projection through changing diagonal views and chaotic positioning. This sense of the fragile is also furthered by a deliberate lack of physical weight; things drift over the canvas rather than conforming to strict rules of the vertical and horizontal as imposed by gravity. This sensibility tenderly leaves objects to their own devices, following their eccentricities and escapades with refined humour. Therefore, color is neither smooth, so as to give them an impenetrable mask, nor does it exhibit the artist’s prowess too much with personally eloquent brushwork. Rather, it follows the various morphological movements of the objects’ surface, their quasi-magical breath and its manifestations, with varying eloquence.

                Following an increasingly assured sense of the possibilities a single, dominating subject and a single, pointed color (occasionally a single, dominating color contrast) offer, the pictures from 2002 and 2003 risk ever-larger formats, as if the huge new atelier in Beijing’s suburbs dictated canvas sizes. However, some of them had overpowered the capacity of the couple’s apartment in Beijing even before the move, so it’s not quite clear which determined the size of the other. At any rate, the sizes of naturally grown elements and manmade objects remain inverted. Giant lotus leaves provide not only a hilly landscape, but also a dominating green, flanked by a gray, misty vista, where a big modern city appears like a fata morgana on the horizon. The lotus hills are enlivened by Jinsong and Shecai, camping out, instead of snuggling under a blanket in their bedroom; a few objects are scattered throughout the valleys. In other pictures, the red of half a water melon spreads out like an artificial lake, dammed only by the white margin, and complimented by the green skin, and the margins of the painting, where daily untensils show shades of gray. The latter also make tiny spots of color within the melon lake, while the fused couple rises from its depths.

           In another picture, a bright red slice of melon with the familiar couple icon separates a close-by area with a jumble of things in slightly subdued colors from a pink vista above, where suburbs appear in matched shades; a whitish passenger plane rises into the sky, a gray military helicopter cruises along the upper edge. Large and small: with a little yellow bulldozer and a pink helicopter in the foreground, and the aircraft above a pink sky, Yang Jinsong seems to confuse toys with “real” things, as if the spheres of  the playful and the serious are not as different as the rigid borders between a poetic children’s world and a soberly economic and military adult world would suggest. The artist, on his part, with his representative dual icon, has left the expanded inner world of the private apartment and rearranges established order with his narrative associations. All man-made things appear small in the face of nature; his natural-artificial landscapes, mountains, and valleys charmingly stand in the way of civilization, without betraying the latter.  Everything remains a question of proportion, and individuals cannot determine that; an artist, however, can play with it in ever new, thoughtful and humorous ways.

             The paintings from 2004 continue this game and enrich it with new variations. Now, for example, narrative elements from nature and civilization frolic in a massive hot pot, half drowned in the thick red soup; they are decidedly not the usual pre-cut ingredients. A whole pig’s head, a factory with a couple of smoking chimneys, a cellphone, a lone Ionic column from a new suburban villa- and here the artist can even dispense with his duo- selfportrait, with a Beijing opera scene appearing on a TV screen instead. Cigarette butts float in the broth, instead of accumulating under the communal table.

             In many pictures now, a single subject dominates a gray background, and more often without the artist’s icon. There’s a monstrous ashtray with even more monstrous, prematurely extinguished Marlboro cigarettes, or a primitive electric heater with a domineering red coil labyrinth, or a monstrous glass with a green tea leaf landscape and a green tea sky above, on which a three-deck steamer “proves” its navigability. There is also a craggy mountain range of sunflower seeds in a high glass jar, the landscape being dotted with things large and small, including a veritable filled bathtub, a bassett hound, and cigarette butts and lipsticks to determine scale. Things are floating about so lightly that they could change position any time.

              The background is now sometimes articulated as a heavily clouded sky, in one case bright red with a few pink touches, and sparingly decked out with a small artist duo in the center, a duel between a bulldozer and a retreating demolition site, and a lonely passing plane to validate the cloud region. Green islands drift in water as landscaped hills with sparse tree cover, or in a sea of clouds, or as lotus islands or rock ships in wavy waters that shorelessly fill the canvas.  Poetic escapes into an isolationist world always take little symbols of civilization with them- smoking factory chimneys, construction sites, power poles, airplanes and helicopters- all of them minute, which is certainly a humorous reflection of the fact that while one cannot escape them, their meaning may be taken from a different perspective: self-mockingly, the private refuge of a landscape ambiance finds itself in a monstrous washbasin, the small usurping the place of the big.

                Thus, the only figure to keep its picture-dominating size seems to be the cat. It appeared early in Yang Jinsong’s works, e.g. in the parents’ portrait, but then it was just a domestic cat in proportion, sauntering by. In another painting it sulked in the background, and sat on a sofa in yet another- always in natural proportion to its surroundings. In October 2002, it took a mighty leap into a painting, landing in front of a Huangjueping Street scene in Chongqing, showing a profile, sticking up its behind, and staring defiantly at the onlooker. An erect tail challenges smoking factory chimneys in the background- this female cat with fat teats, otherwise thin and energetic, is dominating the scene. After this, the cat quickly subverted the rules of Yang Jinsong’s composition. It became a main subject in the following years, dominating mostly light gray or ochre canvases, with the images scattered around it undergoing a transformation process. The cat itself changed into a baroque presence, to use a European term. Wild brushwork ruffles its coat, and with a white patch on its breast to suggest authority it faces the viewer, ochre-brown or even bright red, with large yellow eyes, as if being the mistress of an electrified, shining energy.  In other paintings, it luxuriates on its back while a terracotta figure tickles it with a long pole, or it stretches as if to catch a tiny jet plane passing overhead. When curled up, its surface sometimes bears similarities to the bold characters found in Chinese calligraphy, or to mountain formations of traditional Chinese landscape paintings; the dynamic brushwork covers the foundation only partially and retains a life of its own, while producing an impressive feline outline.

                 The cat also seems to bring elements of Chinese drawing traditions into its surroundings, in the way a charcoal-drawn landscape painting is evoked, or when autumn branches stretch into the picture, or when a Chinese temple in an idyllic valley is suggested, or when a gorge with a boat is drawn into its depths. These graphic-optical evocations of tradition are complemented with the familiar trappings of civilization, such as excavators, planes, helicopters, trucks, factories with smoking chimneys, electric wires with power plugs, coke bottles, cigarette butts, etc., but also with natural feed, such as mosquitos, carrots, or (this time, tiny) bits of water melon. In a newer painting, dated November 2004, it simply seems to curl up in the face of a saccharine- sweet pink mushroom cloud rising in the sky; the same pink glow also emanates from factory chimneys in yet another cat painting.

            A white cat with pink ears seems to try to catch a helicopter, ignoring the difference between a natural and an artificial insect. – In short, the cat appears to be a counterpost to Yang Jinsong’s other paintings. It doesn’t share in the fragility and tenderness other scenes inscribe, but serves as an invincible imago of nature itself, despite being domesticated. This would usually make it difficult to escape the common “kitty kitsch”. But here it succeeds, because Yang Jinsong manipulates the scale of  more important things to its advantage. A tiger could not have done it, being naturally dangerous, but this domestic cat can truly become larger than life.

            I think we can look forward to seeing Yang Jinsong’s work develop within this polarized tension.

                                                   Ursula Panhans-Bühler
                                                   (tr. Jacqueline Winter)