Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun is a leading figure in Chinese contemporary art pushing the limits of satire with his hysterical portraits laden with stark social commentary.

Yue is famous for his portraits of cackling figures that reference archetypes of the laughing Buddha and the devil. Having sold upwards of 3.7 million USD, Yue is one of China’s most expensive living artists. Although Yue is predominantly a painter, he also works across sculpture and printmaking.

Highlights
  • Work in collections inc. the Denver Art Museum, the Shenzhen Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  • Solo show, The Road at Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011
  • Solo show, Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile at Queens Museum of Art, New York, 2007
  • Group show, Year of China at the Museum of Contemporary Art Marseille, Marseille, 2003 - 2004
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In his work, garish pink figures wear symbolic costumes and often appear in large groups like an army or a crowd of protestors. With his pop and surrealist-inspired aesthetic, as well as traditional motifs lifted from across Chinese and European iconography, Yue reinterprets traditional and modernist painting into his own form of contemporary satire.

“I’m actually trying to make sense of the world, there’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do”

While the compositions have an absurd feel, Yue rejects this notion, saying that his work is not absurd, but instead portrays how he sees reality. Through his comical yet unsettling style, Yue explores the threats and freedoms of modernity, collective identity, individualism, communism, and capitalism.

 

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Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c. 1660
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Yue Minjun, The Milkmaid, 2002.

In the series, Landscapes with No One, Yue recreates classic European paintings in a completely different style to his trademark laughing figures. The Milkmaid (2002) is an almost perfect copy of the Dutch 17th century painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. However, the milkmaid herself, who, in the original painting, is a symbol of modesty, domesticity and erotism, has been taken out of the composition. Instead, baskets of bread sit untouched on a green tablecloth at the bottom left of the frame, and warm sunlight falls onto the scene from a window just above. As the figure is so essential to Yue’s oeuvre, the absence of the figure in this work, and the series as a whole, is unusual. As a result, Yue subverts the canonical history of art, questioning the societal foundations on which this history was built. 

 

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Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995.

Many critics have labeled Yue as one of the leading figures of Cynical Realism: a movement of artists known for their cynical socio-political satire of contemporary China. While Yue personally refutes the label, it highlights the relationship between the personal and political in his work.

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Yue Minjun, Armed Forces, 2009.
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Yue Minjun, The Sun, 2000.

Growing up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and living through the  aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, had a profound effect on Yue. As a result, the artist uses his practice as a personal space to reflect on these difficult histories, along with the powerlessness that is often felt in the face of them.

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Yue Minjun, Fighting, 2009

Yue’s artwork is a bitter sweet reminder of the role of art within society to challenge normative modes of discipline and control. Restlessly questioning the world via his paintings, Yue makes an important mark on contemporary art history, and reinstates the importance of art in our ever-changing world.

IN THE STUDIO WITH
Yue Minjun
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