Focus on: Yan Xinyue
Yan Xinyue’s work portrays the tension in everyday life in the context of rapid urban development. She manipulates objects and subjects into different painterly forms - reality and fantasy are mixed on the same canvas, and the dynamic and the tranquil are blended - revealing the conflict between being a part of society and being an individual. The irony and humor in her paintings invite viewers to escape the solemnity of reality and enter a universe of imagination and possibilities.
Sans titre – For this viewing room, we’ve chosen to present drawings and preparatory works. What place do they occupy in your practice?
Yan Xinyue – I always paint an image that is already generated in my brain. When I observe what’s surrounding me, it already feels like an image - like a painting in my brain. It’s all combined with colors. I can already envision the brush work.
Whereas my drawings are very quick, very raw, and I like that. It’s like a pictorial interpretation that goes deeper and deeper. I do the drawings in this way and I transfer them later onto the canvas. The drawings are the first step and the paintings on canvases are the second step.
ST – Your recent paintings seem rooted in everyday life, especially these scenes at the window. However, they always reveal elements explicitly related to magic - with the little fairies, for example. How do you express these two elements?
YX – My works are always focused on urbanization, and life in the metropolitan city. I think of painting as something that can address that reality and, at the same time, it brings its unique language. So in the paintings I always try to find something that could make the audience feel a connection to reality, while at the same time the medium of painting brings a little of something from outside reality. Something which is still traceable, like a color or a brushwork - maybe it doesn’t mean anything in the painting, but it maybe represents some lights or some dust. It all comes from the surroundings. I always try to bring different layers and different times in the canvas.
ST – In these paintings there’s always a cropping mechanism, a framework. You’re using the windows and building façades to showcase other people’s lives. Could we talk a little about the element of voyeurism in these works?
YX – Yes. I would say I always place myself as an outsider. First of all, as an artist, I observe my surroundings, so I necessarily place myself as an outsider within a culture. Especially, with my situation in Los Angeles, I’m an outsider to this culture.
So in this series of paintings there’s always a distance between myself and the surroundings. And I would like to emphasize this sort of parallel position. So I bring out this element, especially with this window series.
If there’s a figure inside, I’m always featuring their environment surrounding them, the architecture, and the dirty street corners surrounding them. The figure and the environment are equal in my painting. So in this way, it brings a sense of viewing the whole thing as an outsider. I don’t really emphasize any one thing, it’s all equally important: birds, buildings, figures. Some of them aren’t transparent - it’s very much a portrait of it all. And the detail of the building is really strong. In my painting I equalize it all.
ST – When we encountered your work, your palette was composed of neons and bright colors, often coming into strong contrast with each other. For this new series, muted colors and shades of grey seem to dominate the compositions. Yet you have just moved to California, the land of light and space! How do you explain this paradox?
YX – In my previous work, I always focused on the mental situation of the human being under the false circumstances of urbanization. So it always derives from the mental sphere. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of loneliness. For example, the suitcase represents a feeling of longing, from a traveling lifestyle. This series was created after I moved to Los Angeles. The sunlight here, it actually makes you realize there’s a lot of grey color under the sunlight. The light is really bright, and the grey becomes its own bright color. It’s very beautiful. It’s all I can see all the time. So I decided to use this element as a breakthrough of my color palate. In this series, in addition to the grey color, there’s very blue windows. So there’s still a big contrast. When I paint grey, there’s also bright purple colors or bright blue colors.
This is something in my painting - there’s different layers of energy shifting in between. From brushwork, from time, from colors.
ST – You used to paint water-drops and traces of humidity, but in this new series of paintings you’re keeping the marks of your brush’s splashes and drips on the canvas. What made you change from merely representing brushstrokes to actually showing them? What made you show all of the traces of your brushes - the hand of the artist?
YX – For me, it’s still within my logic of painting. Before, with the water drops, when you look at the paintings, you can feel there’s a different scale of energy. People would think the water drops are very time-consuming. When people see the water drop, time is condensed. But with the water drop background, it’s very fast painting, it’s very decisive, almost like drawing. So there’s a contrast between that. And I continue this contrast in the new series. Maybe there’s no water drops, but there’s very time-consuming rendering of the cracks in architecture, or decorations on a wall, and there’s also something very fast and decisive. So there remains this contrast inside the work. It continues, but I’ve used different visual elements to address it.
I guess, in this new series, there still remains this pure pleasure of depicting something, as a painter. To depict this dirtiness on the street. As a painter, there’s a joy in depiction. Sometimes, when I see the buildings, the most attractive thing for me is a water drain, or a certain grey color, and it feels like it would be hard and rigid to depict. But I wanted to turn it into a random magical view - to view their elements. So you can feel the energy. My observation point remains similar.
ST – What are your two biggest inspirations - in high culture and in pop culture?
YX – Can I say multiple high culture inspirations? Just one? If I have to say painting, I’d say Goya. Or Fra Angelico’s frescoes in Florence. In this series, it’s probably Fra Angelico. I take a lot of references from Italian fresco paintings in this series. Maybe not in the past. For pop culture… I don’t know. I just watch a lot of old things.
Yan Xinyue (born in 1992, China) lives and works between Los Angeles and Shanghai. She graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Art Antwerp (Belgium) with an MFA in painting in 2018.
Yan Xinyue’s exhibitions include Capsule Shanghai (2020); Harper’s, Los Angeles (2023); Public Gallery, London (2023); Sans titre, Paris (2022); Present Projects, Hong Kong (2021); For Seasons Project, Zurich (2021); Kunstpodium T, Tilburg (2019); Capsule, Shanghai (2019); A+ Contemporary, Shanghai (2019); De Brakke Grond - Flemish Cultural Center, Amsterdam (2018); Cité internationale des arts, Paris (2017) among others.
Images © Gillian Steiner