Yuan Yuan is a Chinese artist known for eerie, realistic paintings of derelict, abandoned interiors. Born in Zhejiang province, he studied oil painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, graduating with a BFA in 1996 and an MFA in 2008. The Academy was an influential institution for Chinese modern art, as its founder Lin Fengmian sought to reinvigorate Chinese painting with foreign influences. In contrast to the closed conservative nature of Chinese society at the time, students such as Yuan had their eyes opened to Western influences through what they were taught, as well as the numerous foreign periodicals available in the library.
In a detached, highly realistic style, the artist portrays run-down or abandoned architecture, from derelict industrial spaces, civic buildings and apartment blocks, to decaying grand halls, palaces, hotels and ocean liners. The artist, who is meticulous by nature, carefully and deliberately works up every little detail. In most of his images the atmosphere seems damp and humid, as is characteristic of Yuan's native Hangzhou. There is also a sense of melancholy and claustrophobia. Enclosed spaces—including small rooms, narrow alleyways, old apartment block stairwells and subterranean tunnels—feature heavily in his recent work.
The full scope of this artist's subject matter can range from an entire room or corridor to a single element that piques his interest. Yuan is particularly fascinated by the tile and mosaic patterns on walls and floors, lining pools and showers. In paintings such as Swimming Pool (2011) and Castle (2011) they are the sole subject, with all nearby elements cropped out. Windows, too, are a point of intrigue, whether in the haunting stained glass windows of Flow III (2011) or the industrial skylights of Elgin Station (2012). In 2012 the artist produced a series of oil paintings featuring lone windows. Some, such as Calm Weather (2012) and Rearwindow I (2012), present a perspective looking out from the interior while in others, such as Cottage Window II (2012), the perspective looks in.
Yuan's imagery is mostly based on real places. However, blurring the lines between illusion and reality, Yuan sometimes adds imaginary elements, manipulates certain details or merges elements of different places to create a new composite space. He prefers to create his own systems of spatial arrangement, developing a highly structured and ordered image according to the geometric details of the architecture.
Yuan cites the influence of several Western artists in his work. He admires British land artist Richard Long's ability to go where others cannot, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres' introduction of private sentiments into public consciousness. Alongside these foreign influences, however, aspects of traditional Chinese painting can be found. He creates the effect of wet surfaces by applying multiple layers of diluted pigment—a technique used in classical Chinese painting.
The artist's fascination with dereliction stems from his interest in connecting the individual and the collective with notions of time and change. Abandoned places, to Yuan, are secure and free from the pressures of living. At the same time, they are public spaces that anyone can enter and visit. It is not so much their state of decay that interests the artist as the residual traces of what they used to be, and the histories, both private and public, they contain. In scenes devoid of human figures, people are represented by signs of activity. This is done very intimately in Untitled (Bedroom) (2012), Privacy (2016) and Shared Dream (2016) with disturbed bedding, clothes and other personal belongings flung about the small rooms to indicate the transient presence of their occupants.
By offering a fleeting glimpse of an abandoned place's former glory, Yuan conveys a sense of passing time. This invisible subject is a particular fascination, given Chinese society is in the midst of a transition to new patterns of living while still engaged in ancient traditions.
Yuan had his first solo exhibition, The Blind Man and The Elephant, at Xiaoping Gallery, Shanghai, in 2008. The following year he painted Youth Union For Over-seas Chinese, one of his few works to feature human figures. In the image people (rendered in colour) occupy the foreground while behind them youths (in black and white) are shown diving into a swimming pool, collapsing past and present tenses together.
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