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Chen Yu - Multiple Identities

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

There is a unique, distinguishable trend present in contemporary Chinese art. It forces some artists to populate the spaces of their canvas with repeated, multiplied images of identical or at least very similar figures, half realistic, half grotesque. Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Wang Jinsong, Liu Wei (who, since, moved into less controversial, non-figurative art)… It’s not really difficult to find the meaning behind this formal concept. Many of their works recall the same associations - crowd, group, enforced uniformity, social modeling in practice and, ultimately, the oppressive, stifling environment. The beginnings of this particular form can origins can be traced back to Cynical Realism, a Chinese artistic movement of the late 80s and early 90s, where the country's relations of power provoke artistic commentaries from the young generation, students and fresh graduates of the Art Academies.

And yet, the viewer shouldn’t necessarily search for hints of a protest or political opposition in every print and each painting or sculpture. They are not meant to disrupt the prevailing system, instead, they express individual sensitivities of their creators, turning conscious and subconscious perceptions into material, graphic forms. Or, from another point of view, they offer a discreet, quick looks at the reality behind the official, multi-bodied persona.

Untitled 2009 Series No. 6, screen print 2012

Chen Yu, born in 1969 in Guizhou Province, China, studied engraving and printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. After graduation he worked shortly in the publishing industry as a printer but eventually moved into a solo artistic career. Now, well known and highly priced for his oil painting, he still occasionally creates series of screen prints. His favorite subjects are groups of identical, clone-like figures, often monochromatic, with one figure distinguishing itself by facial expression, gesture, gender, color of clothes or everything together. These maverick identities can be subtle or strong. They can be self conscious and assertive or contrary - doing their best to blend in but still accidentally dropping the illusion of homogeneity.

Untitled Series 2007 No. 5, screen print

When asked about his cloned representations, Yu hints at his printmaking roots.

“At first I studied screen-printing and was inspired by Andy Warhol. I realized this technique was an easier way to create artworks, so it suits my personal feelings. As it does not require brain work and you can produce many copies in a short period of time.”

In a way, it does explain the repetitions - after all, printmaking is about making multiple copies. But at the same time, it somehow dodges the question of singularities, so prominent in each of his works.

It’s hard to define the philosophical origins of contemporary China. After reintroduction of selected elements of Confucianism, it’s tempting to see it as a society modeled upon “modernized” Confucian ideas where, for common good, group consciousness triumphs over individualism. In accordance with tradition, the latter can be still allowed, but it has to be confined to selected, designated areas and, preferably, under supervision of group representatives. That is the official line, and, no wonder, it seems to be a popular sentiment as well, especially when expressed in public.

Confucius said about Zi Chan, the prime minister of Zhang: “In his private conduct he was courteous; in serving superiors he was respectful; in providing for the people he was kind; in employing the people he was fair.” An obvious question arises - how much private was Zi’s private conduct that Confucius not only knew about it, but actually wrote about it? Since time immemorial, there are two kinds of “private” in East Asia. There is a private as expressed in public, and there is another, “more private private” that is only very rarely expressed, either toward the closest family, or accidentally, by mistake.

Untitled 2010 Series No. 4, oil on canvas

The cloned figures drawn by Chen Yu are formal, official and, if we are to be honest, usually a bit dumb in their facial expressions. They play their social roles carefully, and even if they don’t look around, they still make sure not to stand out in any way. And yet in every picture, in every group, one is different.

Sometimes, one figure clearly enjoys a moment of relaxation, a cigarette stuck between his lips, little finger bent inwards, a subtle reminder of many photographs of Mao Ze Dong smoking.

Untitled 2013 Series No. 4, oil on canvas

Mao Ze Dong smoking, date and provenance unknown

Different print, different scene, identical old faces look ahead, one of them turns toward the viewer, annoyed by white liquid dripping on his head.

In a twist of meaning, when all the babies do what babies do the best - cry, only one baby stands out; distinguished by a strikingly red tie, it confidently looks forward, probably toward its bright future.

Another special case is presented by a woman wearing a bright, green dress, crowded by drone-like young salary-men, each one in crumbled, grayish suits, their faces empty and, at the same time, occupied. Purposely separating herself from the crowd, she casts a look over her shoulder with a slightly contemptuous smile directed at the viewer.

Untitled 2011 Series No. 1, oil on canvas

In some pictures Chen Yu comments more directly on generations and politics, the two always related in China. Here, older men look forward with stern, severe faces while a small vision of young Mao Ze Dong floats above them, raised hand showing the way. One person breaks the solemnity of the scene, winking at the viewer while his mischievous smile somehow resembles Mr Bean.

But he also quotes Confucius, who described his idea of an everlasting bond between country and family: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right!” Chairman Mao was never a fan of the old sage and his version of legalism largely managed to enforce the unity of thought. After the harsh sixties and early seventies, all has changed and now, the humblest peasant is entitled to his or her opinion. Is it just that somehow, most of these opinions are kind of… Bland. Is it worth painting it? Yu apparently thinks it is. There is nothing wrong with common, we all have a bit of common inside us, and a bit of uncommon.

He presents himself as the follower of Qi Baishi, a celebrated, early contemporary Chinese painter, who, through his unusual, eccentric approach carried classical Chinese painting into modern era. Like Qi Baishi, Chen transforms ordinary into extraordinary.

But he also quotes Confucius, who described relation between country and family: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”

“We must set our hearts right”. Only, which one is right? The uniform clones in their uniform indifference? Or is it the singularity of the individual?

Chen Yu’s interview for Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong, 2012:

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