‘Perhaps we can say that magical realism is actually the normal state of Chinese culture, because there is no so-called “realism” in our tradition.’
Born Beijing 1973. Lives and works in Beijing
Yang Shen studied in the Mural Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1996. Influenced by an eclectic range of popular culture – comic books to propaganda posters, science fiction movies and pulp fiction to mid-century modern design magazines – as much as by twentieth century western figurative painting and Chinese art history, his canvases depict uncanny events taking place in public spaces including parks and plazas. Yang loves Tintin, 1980s animated films, and the novels of Kafka, Mo Yan and Bulgakov: his paintings might also be described as a form of magical realism, a world of memory and imagination. As a child of the 1970s, growing up during the early Reform and Opening period, the world must have often seemed as bizarrely inexplicable as the scenes that emerge from his brush.
Acrobatics (2012) presents an impossible scenario: two children perform acrobatic balancing tricks while their little dog balances a stack of different toys on his nose. They are performing this circus act in what appears to be a courtyard: tufts of grass grow between its pavers, and there are two buildings with blank blue curtains that seem to be painted with a design of marbled meat. In the foreground, bizarrely, the paving is littered by trilobites (extinct marine arthropods), almost as if they have just crawled there to die. The work suggests the impossible juxtapositions of a dream, and the myriad competing activities that take place all day long in any Chinese park. Two works feature sailors who could have stepped out of a Soviet propaganda poster. In Ducks Mocking Sailor (2016) the central figure sits pensively amidst a loosely painted, tilted park landscape. His waist is ringed by two lifebelts, and his flag, attached to a bamboo pole, is a lacy bra. No wonder the two black ducks at the bottom left, painted like characters from a children’s cartoon, laugh hysterically, wings flapping and orange beaks agape. Another uniformed sailor stars in Sailor and Monster(2016), this time painted in shades of lime green, viridian and blue. He is seated on a bollard, an oar resting on his shoulder, with a willow tree-lined lake behind him. The smoke from his cigarette rises into the sky as a mushroom cloud, a theme of death and destruction echoed in the skull at his feet. In front of him a hideous orange sea serpent thrusts its head out of the lake, with a tiny submarine gripped in its jaws. Yang says he is doing something serious in a humorous way; his major concern is the destruction of nature and the insatiability of material greed. The artist, he says, must be ‘a messenger, a communicative fighter’.