Mao Zedong at the Jinggang Mountains, 2006. Oil on canvas, 257 x 376 cm.

Among the eleven oil paintings that make up this exhibition, there were none of the artist’s trademark “smiling rascals”; in fact, there were no human forms at all—the name of this group of paintings is “Landscapes With No One.” Yue Minjun has of course not completely switched to painting landscapes; he has painted some deserted scenes that, as the viewer could easily detect (whether by dint of the “collective memory” hinted at by the critics or certain details in the paintings), originally did contain people. “Landscapes With No One” is a parody of a series of famous works drawn from Yue’s own artistic memory. The vast majority of the “originals” are classics of PRC art history, from Mao Zedong at the Jinggang Mountains to Founding the Nation and With You in Charge, I Am at Ease, as well as two famous Western paintings. While these are imitations from composition down to details, Yue’s paintings are really directed toward the people at the focus of these great works, even though he has excised them from the canvas.

Parody is a rhetorical form at which Yue Minjun excels, and his “smiling rascals” are often read as embodiments of the national character and have appeared in several major tomes of world art history. But this time things were different. Yue’s prior parodies are all reflections and re-enactments of the outside world, and in the end represent a branch of Realism. But “Landscapes With No One” has nothing to do with these, leading the viewer instead through a process of arranging and ordering the complex relations of classic images, historical memory, identity, viewing, reproduction and dissemination. When we take into account Yue’s status as a “market indicator” for Chinese contemporary art, this series clearly does represent a transformation of sorts. However, these paintings largely predate the current economic crisis and market depression; this show was actually a belated coda to more than a decade of work made possible by the lifting of market pressures. Of the paintings on display, the earliest was the 1996 work Taking Luding Bridge by Force, and the latest two, based on Chen Yifei’s Ode to the Yellow River (1971) and The Seizing of the Presidential Palace (1976), are from 2009. The bulk of the work was produced between 2002 and 2006.

Intriguingly, there are two other prominent recent works that involve research in classic images—Zhang Dali’s Second History and Miao Xiaochun’s The Last Judgment in Cyberspace, both produced at roughly the same time. Were some curator ever to put these three series together for comparison it would itself make for an interesting show. Zhang in his Second History collects and combines different versions of news photographs to reveal a popular ideology in visual culture; the artist does not “make” anything in a traditional sense. In Judgment, Miao uses the latest digital technology to replace the figures in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment with 3-D renderings of himself in an investigation of the change in the viewing experience from single-angle and two-dimensional to multi-angle and three-dimensional. Yue lies somewhere between these two positions and also questions the notion of a shared visual experience. Compared to Zhang’s solemnity and Miao’s radicalism, Yue managed, in this show, to present a sorrow and emptiness, hard to define, penetrating from beneath his ordinarily sly surface.      Hu Yuanxing