|Yan Pei Ming, HELP!, 2011|
Yan Pei-Ming paints in grey — never black and white, despite what is claimed by his critics and commentators. And he uses grey for a number of reasons. As Robert Fleck says in the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition HELP!, grey is about the momentary, the state of transience of the historical moment caught in the brushstroke and what it represents. Although there is a lot of reference to grand scale history paintings in Pei-Ming’s work — their size is something we rarely see in paintings this pure — they sit more comfortably within an avant-garde that dares to use grey to question, as Pei-Ming would have it, to attack. Grey has the potency and the capacity to challenge, to sit on the margins of an art world in which colours sell. And for Pei-Ming, as for Picasso before him, the grey canvas is about politics, about the press, the media images that litter our contemporary environment. Even though grey —or so called black and white — is now all but extinct in the press, the movies, photographs, Pei Ming reminds us that grey still has a lot to say.
|Yan Pei Ming, L’Autre Oiseau I-IX, 2013|
Equally as distinctive as the multifarious grey canvas, Pei Ming’s paintings are executed in thick, grey brushstrokes. The aggression of the brushstrokes echo the violence and chaos of war. In the monumental paintings in the main ground floor gallery at Thaddaeus Ropac, HELP!, 2011, Quartier Chinois de Saigon, 2012 and Char, 2013, dense, staccato-like brushstrokes in a spectrum of greys confront the spectator with the destruction and death promised by the content of the images: re-presented iconic media images of past and recent wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. The density of the paint, the sketchiness of the stroke, and thus the form it creates gives for a style of painting that approaches the uncertainty of abstraction. Up close, luscious, thick paint loses all signification outside of itself.
|Yan Pei Ming, Char, 2013|
And then as we move away from the canvas, the objects and shapes become more clearly defined, against an indefineable background, they become recognizeable, we have seen them before in the press. We know well the image of a Vietnam National Policeman, his back turned to us, his gun against the head of the Viet Cong member, in a summary execution that came to stand for the horror of war. When we move back from the canvas the magnitude of the image comes into view, the angry, abrupt brush strokes transform into historical and political narratives that rail against the familiar events. However, unlike history paintings, Pei Ming’s work takes on the warnings of the present, it is as though he paints memories made to show future generations the violence and destruction of war. This present that creates memories for the future is in the very brushstrokes so that, in Char for example, just as we are confronted by the tank that might fire in our direction at any moment, we are also confronted by a violence given energy by the paint.
|Yan Pei Ming, Colombe I-XII, 2013|
In the vestibule to the main gallery, Colombe i-XII, 2013, painted doves of peace are hung, elevated, as if they are in the sky, circling the confrontational events that await in the next room. In an ironic repetition of the doves, a series of 9 canvases entitled L’Autre Oiseau I-IX, 2013, hang opposite the history paintings in the main gallery. These so-called birds are really fighter jets, in varying stages of descent, ascent and approach, in the same turbulent and dangerous array of grey brushstrokes.
|Yan Pei Ming, Autoportrait à un Dollar F56789603 H, 2009|
On the first floor, still in grey, skulls in watercolour are placed over the top of meticulously painted American dollar bills. The bleeding and deterioration of the money and the death of the skills come together to confront us with a chaos and danger of a different kind: the death and disease of the attachment to money. The two works become even more highly charged in light of their titles: Autoportrait à un Dollar F56789607 H, 2009 and Autoportrait à un Dollar F56789603 H, 2009. The two self-portraits bring the value of the artist, in closeup and profile, to the bleeding and deterioration of an image that resembles the decay of nitrate film. The violence depicted here is of a different kind from that of the paintings downstairs, but the message we take away from their common exhibition in HELP!, is that they are of the same cultural landscape of destruction.
What a treat to find this wonderful exhibition by painter Yan Pei-Ming at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Although I am sure they must exist, I can’t think of another contemporary painter who continues to use the medium with such provocation.