YU YOUHAN, Circle 1986-8, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 198 × 199 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Early Abstraction In China 1978–1992

Yallay Gallery
China Hong Kong

Boasting nine of Yu Youhan’s abstract canvases from the 1980s and early ’90s, the group exhibition “Early Abstraction in China 1978–1992” at Hong Kong’s Yallay Gallery is seemingly a thinly veiled solo exhibition for the renowned painter. A number of avant-garde works by compatriots from his native China (such as Huang Rui, Li Shan and Zhang Wei) as well as from neighboring Korea (including proponents of the Tansaekhwa art movement such as Ha Chong-Hyun and Lee Ufan), who all forged their own language of abstraction around the same period, help to contextualize Yu’s artistic queries on the eve of his subsequent turn into Political Pop.

The show also veers into the late 1990s and the new millennium with paintings by Ding Yi, who was Yu’s student at the Shanghai College of Arts and Crafts (now the Shanghai Art & Design Academy), works by another Tansaekhwa artist named Yun Hyong-keun, and most delightfully, two of Yu’s more recent departures from figuration. Showing lacquer and mixed-media wall works that incorporate urban debris is the youngest participant in the show, 40-year-old Zhang Zhenyu, who was selected by the exhibition’s curator Jean-Marc Decrop for his unique voice among young Chinese artists tackling abstraction today.

Entering the gallery, one is immediately confronted by the looming Circle 1986-8 (1986), a two-meter-by-two-meter piece that is an exemplar of Yu’s most celebrated series of abstract paintings. Executed in a brooding grayscale, the canvas features a rhythmic arrangement of brushstrokes, which appears as though applied by one whose mind was in deep, philosophical thought. To the right are two elegantly framed, smaller acrylic-on-paper works that are mounted on canvas and from the same year, which offer more color in the form of blues and reds. Directly behind on the other end of the gallery is another large piece, entitled Circle 1988-3 (1988), in which a colony of short, white brushstrokes forms a circular cluster against a black background. Anchored by some of the finest examples of Yu’s “Circle” series, the exhibition invites the viewer to construct imaginary narratives linking together diverse artistic practices occurring in East Asia during the 1980s and early ’90s.

HA CHONG-HYUN, Conjunction 85-66, 1985, oil on canvas, 40.5 × 85.5 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong. 

The 1980s was a fertile period for fledgling artists in China, which witnessed the rise of various regional art movements, underpinned by many manifestoes and declarations of strategies to mobilize society through art. The death of Mao Zedong in 1976,  coupled with the downfall of the Gang of Four in the same year, allowed the nation to crawl out of its international isolation, gain access to cultural materials from abroad and rehabilitate its artistic development. During this time, Yu was preoccupied with modernizing his paintings. He experimented with a host of abstract styles and ultimately settled on his “Circle” series, which he began in 1985. Ruminations on nature, society and human intellect—heavily influenced by Chinese philosophy—were all subsumed into the circular expanses of short, staccato lines. The ancient Daoist canons Tao Te Ching (“Book of the Way”) and I-Ching (“Book of Changes”) attempted to articulate the universe and distill its inner workings into neat diagrams and numbered schemas of dots and lines, which Yu then transliterated into compositions that express the flux and the change found in all matter. In a similar vein, the Daoist notions of wuwei (non-action) and ziran (natural) are materialized in Yu’s “Circle” paintings, in which the artist paints the dots and lines in varying lengths and thicknesses, fluctuating the direction of their flow and allowing the excess paint to drip, as if yielding himself to the unseen forces of instinct or impulse.

DING YI, Appearance of Crosses 95-B31, 1995, pastel and mixed media on paper, 49 × 69 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong. 

The intention behind the brushstroke is foregrounded in many other works in the exhibition, none more so than the Tanseakhwa artists’. Ha Chong-Hyun’s Conjunction 85-66 (1985) comprises a canvas covered in paint with alternating horizontal and vertical strokes. In With winds (1989) Lee Ufan has focused all of his brushstrokes, seemingly applied in a crazed rush, on the painting’s lower right corner. A few of Yun Hyong-keun’s works, each named Umber-blue (all 1991), reveal broad, careful columns of paint that appear to be victims of gravity. Perhaps unfinished, or simply minimalist, these pictures are studies in painting methodology that are testament to the artist’s presence and the labor he endows.

Elsewhere, a selection of Ding Yi’s paintings from his “Appearance of Crosses” series tells of his obsession with the “+” and “x” symbols, which are maddeningly repeated on the canvases. Executed between 1995 and 1996, these works represent the artist’s forced transition from using a ruler to compose the symbols to applying his brushstrokes freehand, which began in 1993 when he incurred a crippling back problem. They form an interesting contrast to one of Ding’s early pieces from 1985, where depicted within swathes of paint are globules that resemble cell-like organisms.

YU YOUHAN, Abstract Composition, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 158 × 142 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong. 

The most satisfying juxtaposition of works is between the aforementioned “Circle” paintings by Yu Youhan and two later works executed by the artist in the late 2000s. Possibly an homage to geometric abstraction, Abstract Composition (2007) is a work on paper that is covered in acrylic lines, which are mostly gray, but with healthy doses of green. Another work, Abstract Composition (2008), reveals a more recognizable connection to Yu’s earlier “Circle” paintings and suggests a lingering penchant for Daoist philosophy.

Assembling works from distinct coordinates of time and place, the exhibition at Yallay gives way to a sublime tour of early contemporary abstractionist investigations that took place in East Asia.

Early Abstraction in China 1978–1992is on view at Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong, until February 28, 2015.

Denise Chu is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.