One of China's most recognised female artists, Yu Hong is known for her large-scale figurative paintings that depict the experiences of contemporary Chinese women. Although born into the Socialist Realist tradition, she has developed a unique and intimate visual vocabulary that often takes inspiration from her own life and the lives of those around her. Yu works in oil paint, pastels and fabric dyes, painting on canvas, silk and resin.
Two years after graduating from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, Yu organised a group show in the school's exhibition hall titled The World of Women Artists (1990). The well-received exhibition included the work of eight female painters in their 20s, and according to Yu, was 'essentially the only one that focused on women artists at the time.' Yu continued to gain recognition as a member of the New Generation artists—a term that refers to a group of young artists who broke away from the state-sponsored Socialist Realism in China. The group included Yu's husband, painter Liu Xiaodong. The New Generation Art Exhibition (1991) at the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing featured emerging artists, including Yu, and their commitment to a realistic representation of ordinary life.
Over the decades and amidst the ebbing popularity of Political Pop and Cynical Realism, Yu has continued to explore the complexities of life as a woman in contemporary China. Her female protagonists range from old to young, traditional to modern, and active to stationary; they also echo a fragment of the past or travel across time and exist in dialogue with their forebears. Initiated in the 1990s, the ongoing series 'Witness to Growth' sees Yu juxtaposing self-portraits with an image selected from the news. Riffing on ancient Chinese history, her large-scale eight-panel painting Romance of Spring (2008) duplicates the composition of a Tang Dynasty painting, but the 12 female figures in Yu's painting are decidedly contemporary in their attitudes and dress. Chinese society today is widely characterised by its rampant modernisation and rapid globalisation; Yu is both optimistic and pessimistic about such a state and often includes subtle absurdities in her paintings to reflect its strangeness. In a 2013 interview with Tate, the artist said, 'You probably got the sense of optimism and happiness because I use vivid colours but my work also harbours worries about the world and people.'
In addition to drawing from Chinese history, Yu borrows widely from Western painting traditions. As the artist once said, her 'perspective is Asian, but the human condition is universal so [the work's] themes are universal.' For the 2010 exhibition Golden Sky at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Yu decorated the ceiling with four large, four-panel paintings inspired by earlier works of art including a Buddhist cave painting and Italian Renaissance ceiling frescos. In the works, Yu painted her figures against a golden background reminiscent of European religious paintings. (Indeed, her paintings often incorporate such gold and iridescent backgrounds.) A later work, One hundred years of repose (2011), similarly takes the shape of its panels from the van Eyck brothers' Ghent Altarpiece (1432) and uses actual gold leaf.
In 2018, Yu exhibited an experimental virtual reality project She's Already Gone (2017) at Faurschou Foundation in Beijing. In the ambitious work that consists of four hand-painted scenes, the female protagonist navigates through various events that transcend time. The narrative begins with the birth of the protagonist at a modern hospital; as she grows and moves forward in time, history reverses and takes her through the Cultural Revolution and the Ming Dynasty, ending with a shamanistic ritual during the Neolithic times.
Yu Hong received a BFA (1988) and MFA (1996) in oil painting from The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, where she became a teacher upon graduation. Since her first shows in 1990, Yu has exhibited internationally at Faurschou Foundation, Beijing (2018); Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, (2017); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2010); and Long March Space, Beijing (2013, 2006) among others. She has also participated in numerous international fairs, notably Art Basel (2014, 2015, 2016, 2018), the Shanghai Biennale (2004) and the Venice Biennale (1997, 1993). In 2013 Yu exhibited Wondering Clouds at Long March Space—a major solo exhibition that continued her exploration of human nature and individual experiences. Yu currently lives and works in Beijing.