Even just a cursory glance at Yue Minjun's "self-portraits" reveals what has made the 61-year-old painter an enduring icon of Chinese contemporary art.
After all, a manic grin plastered on rows of cloned pinkish faces, all with their eyes squeezed shut, is not the kind of image that goes unremembered.
The Beijing-based artist has long been identified as a cardinal figure of cynical realism, the movement of which was spearheaded by painters who grew up in the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Faced with China's rapidly changing economic and political landscapes during the early 1990s, they began incorporating visual satire and parody to reflect the psychological turmoil experienced within the modernizing nation.
Born against such a backdrop, Yue's cackling figures with grotesquely exaggerated expressions ― all modeled after his own face ― invite a multitude of interpretations. Some see the laughter as a transcendent reaction to life's absurdity or an ironic tool used to mock the cultural reality. Others regard it as a brief means of escape from the real feelings of helplessness.
In the end, the contorted smile encompasses "everything there is in life," the artist told The Korea Times in a recent interview at Tang Contemporary Art Seoul, where his eponymous solo exhibition is being held.
"In a way, it is reminiscent of the smile harbored by the Laughing Buddha (the Chinese incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha)."
Yue's solo show in southern Seoul brings together his iconic "laughing man" portraits alongside the new "Flower" series that were produced over the last three years following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The exhibited paintings with faces pulled into an ecstatic grin are a visual continuation of his long-standing series that catapulted him to international stardom two decades ago. But compared to his earlier, more explicitly sardonic works like "Execution" (1995) and "Gweong-gweong" (1993) ― which set auction records as they sold for $5.9 million at Sotheby's London and $6.9 million at Christie's Hong Kong, respectively ― these later portraits seem to "be liberated from the confines of cynical realism and instead contain an element of magical realism," according to the show's curator Yun Chea-gab.
Pieces such as "Hermit" (2009), "Isolated Island" (2010) and "Enjoy Myself" (2010) accordingly place the pink-skinned figures, either alone or among a crowd of doppelgangers, against a surrealistic landscape or in a void. His latest canvas works, "Fragment No. 2" and "Fragment No. 3" (2023), take it a step further, breaking the images of roguish smiles into different pieces and assembling them into a grotesque yet mesmerizing whole.
But perhaps the most striking change in Yue's imagery is witnessed in his "Flower" series ― where the blossoming lilies, begonias and hibiscus have replaced the grinning faces.
While staying in Dali in China's southwestern Yunnan Province for several months in 2020, the painter turned his eyes towards the city's vast fields of flowers to distract himself from the crippling effects of the pandemic.
"I think that when a flower blooms wide open, it's like the plant is smiling broadly," Yue said. "So, I replaced my laughing faces with blossoming florets ― but the essence remains the same."
Similar to his signature "laughing man," he explained, the flowers hide a layer of complex truth of his subjects beneath their seemingly cheery surface ― like in "Hibiscus Moscheutos" (2021), where the faces of three women with polka-dotted swimsuits are entirely concealed by hibiscus flowers in full bloom.
Curator Yun noted that Yue's solo exhibition, which opened on Sept. 5 to coincide with the sophomore edition of Frieze Seoul, could in a way contribute to "a more balanced presentation of Asian values and cultures" in the city's art scene where "the appreciation for Western art and aesthetics remains a dominant attitude."
"In my eyes, Korea has become a much more globalized and culturally receptive society, perhaps more so than China, Japan or even the United Kingdom," the painter said. "And I believe that the general audience here will be able to understand what I am trying to say with my paintings quite well."
He added that his wry smile ― whether in the form of face-splitting laughter, self-mocking grin or blossoming flowers ― will persist "until the world that I know now undergoes a change for the better."
"It looks like that time has not come yet. I cannot put down my brush until then."
"Yue Minjun" exhibit runs through Oct. 14 at Tang Contemporary Art Seoul.