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Yan Feixiang: Being or Becoming?

How can someone represent that distinction between outside and inside? Do we represent it with a line on a map? Should it be bold or porous, straight or twisting? Would a contract be better? When has someone “crossed the line”? Is the line even a solid, tactile thing, available for examination and description?

My first meditation on Yan Feixiang’s work was through this line of thought: where does one of his objects end and the other begin? Where does the object make the distinction that it is itself and not the other? It is a question of identity, which is a central theme of Yan Feixiang’s work. He is questioning who he or someone else is in relation to others. To pinpoint what Yan expresses in these abstract forms, we need to examine the works themselves.

The centerpiece of his exhibition Limitless is P-05. It consists of a large, inky-black spot. It is as if we are looking at a sea of white paint across which Yan has pulled the black spot, disturbing the milky-white. The white, into which extend fine black tendrils, begins to merge and enter the black as single cells. The black, like a macrophage, absorbs the white but does so without malice. In time, the two shades will merge. In Chinese, this profound blending is called Yun, 蕴. We can also imagine pthe black and white as representative of people, ideas, emotions, intentions, or what have you.

“Yun is a blend, of the universe, what is right, what is wrong, what is happiness, what is depressing, all of that on that thin line. There is no clear line of what there is. This also has to do with the difference between Eastern and Western culture. In Eastern culture the blending tends to not be as rigid… Each thing expands into each other but is still itself and the other thing. There is a movement in the expansion.”

In other words, the real and the unreal are expressed as two different orders of reality, with no absolute real or unreal. What we believe to be an unmitigated truth is also relative. Yan visualizes this possibility in his art: the boundary between the real and unreal is blurred and the distinction between the two phenomena of realities is natural yet tricky to grasp. It is the nature of life.

Look beneath the surface layer of black and white: texture is consequential to the forms. The uncertain borders are complicated through the accumulation of up to seven years spent on a single painting. A day painting adds new life into the work, which lives alongside or on top of previous days. Yan’s strokes are strong and short flicks of the forearm similar to calligraphic techniques. The flicks create vein-like structures that circulate throughout the canvas and coalesce into an epicenter. These clearly living structures, the Black and the White, they tell us they are living through their amoebic movement. They want to live and they live in harmonious competition with each other, but at the border that makes one unique we find that it is woven into its partner. We find that the creatures are not distinct any longer.

Yan’s work starts as a single point on the canvas and continues to retain that nucleus throughout the entire creation of the work. As it is the origin, the nucleus pulls our eyes to it; maybe it helps us stabilize ourselves when looking at these imposing paintings. The nucleus may be our home in the painting from whence become brave enough to venture towards the mysterious and elusive borders. The nucleus, the border, and the spaces in between become metaphors for something bigger but less intelligible, if we let them.

Yet, Yan’s work is not meant to reflect a reality in which we live, for reality is too fluid.

“To me, (modern) abstraction is similar to Chinese shanshui paintings, even though you do not see the similarities obviously. It is the emotion and meaning behind it.” Layer upon hidden layer, the artwork contains the weight of time; the borders of the objects are broken in three dimensions. Like shanshui, Yan’s paintings do not reflect a place he has ever visited or a thing he has ever seen. All of his inspiration, he says, comes from within him. The ultimate expression of the painting is a subjective emotion, not a real thing. You can see something in the work that Yan and I do not, but that you can see or feel anything at all is what Yan paints. I cannot describe what we see, as soon as I try I miss the point of it.

“My work starts with something and ends with nothing. Emotion [is] there, stealing from my heart, from my passion, from my experiences, spontaneously irrupting from my veins and manifesting as truth about life.”

His work started at a single point, like eyes opening the morning, and so will his work end that way. Hopefully each of us will have such a peaceful end.

By Peter Hagan

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