One of the most dynamic and experimental Chinese painters in the international art scene, Yan Pei Ming is particularly known for his epic size paintings of iconic figures, Mao Zedong, Bruce Lee, Obama, and his father and self-portraits. His expressive style and controlled palette reflect a connection to the aesthetic and cultural climate of China as well as the influence of 20th Century American conceptual art. His canvases are typically mono- or bi-chromatic and painted with large brushes (sometimes a broom), in either black and white or deep shades of red. With a mastered economy of marks, he delineates his compositions with broad, sweeping gestures and visible drips, resulting in images that dissolve into near-abstraction at close view.
Today, we talked to Yan about his life and his art.
Summer 2010, Paris
Selina Ting [ST] : How do your studios in Paris and Dijon function?
YAN Pei-Ming [YPM] : Nowadays, I rarely go to the Paris studio. I prefer to work here. It’s very quiet. I have been working here a lot in the last 13 years.
ST : How do you find Dijon?
YPM : Most of the artists prefer to live in Paris. I am a very quiet person. I don’t need to live next to the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. I prefer the tranquility of Dijon. The work of an artist evolves with the environment where he works.
ST : Dijon is nevertheless the periphery of the art world. Don’t you feel isolated here?
YPM : I am a very lonely person. But that doesn’t matter. I work a lot in my studio. I can go to Paris when necessary; it’s only 1.5 hours of train.
ST : Why did you settle down in Dijon when you arrived France?
YPM : I came to France as a student. At that time, I attended a language school in Dijon and later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. When I graduated, I rented a studio with some classmates. We started to paint there, and gradually settled down in Dijon.
ST : What brought you to France at a young age?
YPM : I came to France to learn painting. It was in 1980, I was 20. China was just opened to the world and I was among the first group of Chinese to leave the country. I was the youngest artist to come to France as well. I wanted to leave because at the time, the atmosphere in China… well, for someone who wanted to study fine art, France is the place to go, lots of fantasy, lots of expectations. The artistic ambiance, the ecology, the theories, the exhibitions, etc… Just like you, why did you come to France? It’s the life for an adventurer!
ST : Did you start painting before you left China?
YPM : I left China after my high school. I’ve never been trained in any fine art school in China. My art training started in France. Before that, of course, I learnt to draw and paint by myself, like all the others.
ST : Did you learn Chinese painting as well?
YPM : Yes, a little bit… 5 months before I left for France.
ST : Why 5 months before?
YPM : Because people said you have to know a bit of Chinese painting, especially when you are leaving the country.
ST : Does it serve you in any way?
YPM : I think not. But I started some watercolour these years, black and white, large format.
ST : How did you feel when you just arrived France?
YPM : People of my generation… we have to be independent financially. If you managed to do so, you stay as you wish. Otherwise, you go back home.
ST : So how did you manage it?
YPM : I worked while studying in school, like everyone else. I worked in a Chinese restaurant in Dijon. It’s still here, but the owner changed.
ST : What was the greatest shock when you were new to France?
YPM : At that time, all I wanted was to be admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, to obtain my diploma. After graduating from the school, I just wanted to have a studio and to concentrate on painting. When I had substantial works and feeling ready, I sought opportunities to exhibit my work. Step by step… there is passion in every different step.
ST : What you learnt and saw at that time must be extremely different from what you knew previously about art.
YPM : At that time, I frequented the European art circle. There is an art centre in Dijon. They showed a lot of American and German artists, French artists as well. And I saw a lot of new things in Paris.
ST : Who were your close friends at that time?
YPM : When I first arrived, I was alone. There was only me. Towards the end of the 1980s, Huang Yong Ping, Yang Jiechang, and the others came to France and I became very good friends with them. Before that, my artists-friends were mainly Europeans.
ST : Such as?
YPM : Daniel Buren is a very close friend of mine. There are also Sarkis, Bernard Frize, Olivier Mosset, etc… Now everyone is busy.
ST : While 30 years ago everyone were working hard to gain a place in the art world.
YPM : They already had their place in the art world. I was at the starting point of my career. Daniel Buren was my supervisor when I attended the Institut des hautes études en arts plastiques de Paris in 1988.
ST : Do you still remember your first exhibition?
YPM : The first relatively formal exhibition that I participated was in 1988, « Ateliers 88 » in Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Before that I was mainly showing in Dijon and around in the region. My strategy was to encompass the city from the region! Hahaha… Later in 1991, I started to work with the Parisian Gallery Anne de Villepoix, where I had several solo shows. I worked briefly with another gallery called Galerie Durand-Dessert, it was one of the most famous gallery in the 1980s. It’s now closed. Now I have two galleries, one in the States, one in Italy. Some years ago, I had 7 to 8 galleries and it was very tiring to work with so many galleries. Now I prefer to be quiet.
ST : You have been painting portraits all the way?
YPM : Yes. I started painting portraits when I was in China. In general, in China, we start with portrait when we learn to draw or paint.
ST : Was it also because of your special preference or sensation towards the human being?
YPM : Art is about man. It speaks to people. Portrait is like a mirror, it reflects to us who we are, what we are. My work always orients towards human beings, it’s the centre, the fundamental element of my work. If you ask me to do abstract painting, I can’t handle it. I am interested in human beings.
ST : Is this the first time that you paint Picasso?
YPM : Yes.
ST : Why Picasso?
YPM : Because Picasso is the greatest artist of the 20th Century. It is also for a new series of portraits on artists that I’ve just started. I painted Giacometti two years ago, I have painted some self-portraits as well. And here is another portrait, this is Olivier Mosset.
ST : I didn’t know Olivier Mosset so well but my impression of Olivier is someone gay and cheerful, very energetic. I have never seen this melancholic expression on him.
YPM : I would of course modify a bit on my painting, to get the melancholy out of him.
ST : Why the melancholic aspect?
YPM : It’s more interesting, melancholy, sorrow, sadness…
ST : Why did you choose this image of Picasso? What’s there that attract you?
YPM : It’s a picture of Picasso in the late 1960s. I found it from a magazine’s cover. I put it aside, and after some months of looking at it, I started to feel something in it.
ST :What is that something in it?
YPM : There is the spirit of a bull-fighter in Picasso.
ST : His eyes are particularly sharp in this picture, and his lips, sort of in-between the spoken and the unspoken.
YPM : Picasso is a very cunning artist.
ST : Compare to Matisse, you prefer Picasso?
YPM : Yes. Matisse is very elegant, very French. His composition, brushwork, colours, everything is very refined and rational. Picasso didn’t care about all these. He is very instinctive; he put colours on the canvas without much reflection.
ST : The colour and brushwork are your most distinctive and immediately recognizable elements.
YPM : Yes. If you don’t have your own thinking, it’s very difficult to form something distinctively yours.
ST : Who would you paint next?
YPM : I don’t know. Maybe myself.
ST : How is it like painting oneself?
YPM : Artists are narcissists. Self-portrait is an eternal theme in art. I think almost all the painters have painted oneself at a certain point.
ST : Is there a self-critique, self-examination when you paint yourself?
YPM : My self-portraits are always very gloomy, tragic. There is kind of silence, but there is proud as well.
ST : What inspired you to paint yourself in a state of imagined death?
YPM : That of course is completely imaginative. It’s the theme of Mona Lisa’s funeral. Mona Lisa is an iconic portrait in Western art history. I want to tell my own story through her. I started with a story in art history, and my personal story, to go back to the very fundamental thing of mankind, the father-son relationship. Besides, death is an eternal topic in art.
ST : What does the figure of father mean to you?
YPM : A son’s feeling towards his father changes all along his own life and that of his father. When you are little, your father is strong, authoritative to you. When you are an adolescent, you find him stubborn, old fahsion, oppressive, etc. When your father becomes old, you may have very different feelings towards him. These feelings can be found in all kind of inter-personal relationship, but that between a father-son is the most intense. I wanted to take my father and myself to represent the relation between all the fathers and sons in the world, i.e. the tragedy of a father witnessing the death of his son. In Chinese we say “White hair attending the funeral of the black hair”, that’s very very painful, very sad story.
ST : What about the figure of Mother? A mother witnessing the death of her child, i.e. the Pietà, is also a classic theme in Western art.
YPM : I will paint the Virgin Mary next year. There will be an exhibition on Virgin Mary next year.
ST : Have your ever painted your mother?
YPM : No.
ST : Why?
YPM : Perhaps it’s not yet the right moment. Perhaps next year.
ST : Have you painted other female figure other than Mona Lisa?
YPM : Yes, I did, only a few though.
ST : Such as?
YPM : Marilyn in her death bed.
ST : Why?
YPM : Because she was the most beautiful, most sexy woman in the world. She is always presented as a very vivant, attractive woman, by Andy Warhol, etc. So i present another version of her.
ST : Would you paint female artists?
YPM : I guess yes.
ST : Funeral represents the past, the return to the origin, the starting point?
YPM : The funeral of Mona Lisa is to bury Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa is a mystery, like death itself.
ST : Why are you so obsessed with death?
YPM : Because i am afraid of it. But I can’t avoid it, so I invent it.
ST : Is the direct confortation with death a way to liberate yourself from the fear of it?
YPM :Well, more precisely, I am not afriad of dying, but i am afraid of no longer living.
ST : Is painting a proof your existence in the world?
YPM : What I am interested is the presence. I have been painting all my life, I love painting, I am the happiest when I work in my studio. That’s the only reason that i paint.
ST : What do you wish to attain in your life?
YPM : Nothing. I don’t care about what happens after I die. It’s for time and history to judge.
ST : What about Mona Lisa? What do you wish to accomplish through it?
YPM : There are many artists who have painted Mona Lisa but they’ve never shown with Mona Lisa. I am the first artist to show my own version of Mona Lisa in Louvre. This makes a difference.
ST : So you conceived the series of painting specifically for the exhibition?
YPM : Yes, yes, of course. Every exhibition has new theme, with new works. It’s always like this in the last 30 years.
ST : Are you preparing any exhibition at the moment?
YPM : I have an exhibition in Beijing, in Ullens Art Centre (UCCA), Childhood Landscape, until the 10th October.
ST : All new work?
YPM : Yes, portraits of children. They are the orphans from a hospital in Beijing. The staff in UCCA prepared a lot of information for me. There are about 34 children, I painted their portraits on flags…
ST : On flags, not canvas?
YPM: Flags, silk flags. There is a ventilation system to make the flags flying at the centre of the exhibition hall.
ST : It sounds more like an installation.
YPM : Yes, it is an installation.
ST : Where comes the idea of such a presentation?
PM : It’s the space. The gallery of UCCA is huge, 72 meter long, the ceiling is several meters high. It’s not easy to master the space with paintings, even if they are big format. This is a very simple, minimalist way of managing the space. Besides, the flags allow visitors to see the paintings from both sides. They are almost transparent, so to highlight the beautiful space of UCCA as well.
ST : To paint children in your style must be a very different experience from painting politicians and artists.
YPM : Yes. It is very different. I have painted children before. Every time I painted a child, I felt like a confirmation of life, they are the new generation. The orphans that I painted… their life is very tragic, they were the abandoned, very sad story.
ST : What is colour?
YPM : Colour… I have used colours before. But most of my paintings are black and white.
ST : Why?
YPM : Because black and white create a world of one’s own. An artist has to find and create his own world. Besides, black and white suit my artistic language. I am a very simple person. These two colours are very direct and true, simple.
ST : They are closer to the emotions that you wish to express.
YPM : Yes.
ST : Because in portrait, the persona is more important than the details, that’s why you economize the colour, to simplify it, even rendering it abstract?
YPM : I am more interested in simplified, minimalist things. Because in portraits, when the colour is taking away, it becomes another world, it creates a distance between the representation and the reality.
ST : Do you see the world in black and white?
YPM : Hahaha… not yet. I am not yet colour-blind.
ST : You have done some paintings in red and white before. Why did you choose red instead of other colours?
YPM : Because red is the strongest colour. It is the first colour that enters into the vision. It signifies danger, alert.
ST : How would you response to the statement of “the death of painting”?
YPM : I think it’s not possible. Because every artist has his unique feeling. It’s a matter of material. I like to paint since young, and this would never change… Painting is born with the birth of mankind. I don’t think painting is dead.
ST : What are your comments on today’s art scene?
YPM : Contemporary art has been diversified into many different media, style, etc.. I am very open. I see a lot of exhibitions. Of course, photography, video, etc., have been influenced by painting. Some decades ago, we spoke of different schools. Now, it’s all about individual sentiments, personal interests, personality, media, etc.
ST : Is the art market affecting you in a certain way?
YPM : No. The financial crisis has no impact on me, even before the crisis. I am not interested in the market. My life is very simple. Look at my studio… it’s always the same simple studio in ruin! Em… an artist has to be like an artist.
ST : Which means?
YPM : An artist has to know what he wants, what he needs. This has nothing to do with the market.
ST : Do you know how many paintings you have produced so far?
YPM : I guess there are several hundreds pieces. My assistant is working on the documentation, the recent works are all registered but the older ones are not yet done.
ST : Do you remember at which period that you liberated yourself from the anxiety and uncertainty of young artist?
YPM : I have never separated myself from it. I question myself everyday, my work as well. This is a motivation to work harder and to go forward. But at the same time, I am certain with myself. I know my direction and where I am heading to. Everyday I am in a bad mood. I am a very melancholic person. All that I am interested in is the human tragedy.
ST : Is it related to your experience? Your life?
YPM : No. It’s more interesting to be melancholic. What’s the point of telling a happy story? Tragic film is far more exciting and touching.
ST : Do you listen to music?
YPM : No. There is a radio in my studio which I listen to daily news.
ST : Painting is almost a meditation for you.
YPM : Yes.
ST : What about cinema? Do you like cinema?
YPM : Yes. I like cinema.
ST : What are your favorites?
YPM : Such as Hitchcock… something mysterious, tragic. Also Woody Allen, he has very good scripts, amazing dialogues, very little, though. He works on images and dialogues. I also like the films of Chaplin.
ST : Silent films as well!
YPM : Yes. He didn’t need language, just his expression, techniques, bodily language. In the age of silent films, he acted out the dialogues when nobody could hear hm.
ST : Just like your painting, talking to people without using the voice. What is Obama telling us here?
YPM : Obama brings hope to the world. But he can’t change the fate of everyone. He only gives people hope, and perhaps inspiration to change one’s fate.
ST : Thank you very much!
About the Artist
Yan Pei-Ming was born in 1960 in Shanghai, lives and works in Dijon, France.
Yan Pei-Ming’s most awarded solo exhibitions include Childhood Landscape, UCCA, Beijing (2009), Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (2009), Yes, San Francisco, California, U.S.A (2009), Yan Pei-Ming with Yan Pei-Ming, GAMeC, Bergamo, Italy (2008), Life Souvenir , Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, U.S.A (2008), You maintain a sense of balance in the midst of great success, David Zwirner Gallery, New York (2007), The Yan Pei-Ming Show, Galleria Massimo De Carlo, Milan (2007), Execution, Musée d’Art Moderne, Saint-Etienne (2006), etc. The artist’s many prestigious group shows include The unhomely, Phantom Scenes in Global Society, 2nd Biennale International of Contemporary Art, Seville, Spain (2006), A propos du Lingchi (supplice des 100 morceaux), with Huang Yong Ping, Musée Denon, Chalon-sur-Saône, France, Moi – Autoportraits du xxe siècle, Musee du Luxembourg, Paris, France (both 2004), New Zone-Chinese Art, Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland (2003), The Venice Biennale, Italy (2003 and 1995) ; and Lyon Biennale, Lyon, France ( 2000 and 1997).