Pace Live trio Mao Yan 2

Capturing Essence

A Discussion on Contemporary Chinese Art, Portraiture and Abstraction through Mao Yan’s Lens

Dr. Malcolm McNeill and Professor Joanna Woodall
Chaired by Dr. Katie Hill

Thursday, Feb 15
6 PM
5 Hanover Square

Event Details

Capturing Essence: A Discussion on Contemporary Chinese Art, Portraiture and Abstraction through Mao Yan’s Lens

Thursday, Feb 15
6 PM exhibition view
6.30 PM talk


5 Hanover Square, London

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On the occasion of Mao Yan's exhibition of new paintings at Pace's London gallery, Dr. Katie Hill will chair a discussion between Dr. Malcolm McNeill and Professor Joanna Woodall, exploring the artist's iconic representational portraits, recent abstract experimentation, and the dynamic interplay between Chinese and Western art history embedded within his practice.

As one of the most influential figures of contemporary art in China, Mao has established a reputation for his spectral portraits of friends, hazily rendered in blue grey sfumato—a compositional device that he deems a subject in itself. Over the past decade, he has continued to delve into the expressive depth of classical painterly process, alongside technical innovation, as tools to explore the relationship between art and life.

While Mao's portraits are rigorously constructed and refined in private from photographs taken by the artist, his recent experiments have introduced a looser and richer approach to this structure. For two years, Mao focused on paper explorations, involving a multitude of ink experiments and continuous poetry writing, before returning to oil painting in 2021. This shift brought new opportunities for meaning in the medium, coinciding with the merging of Mao's theoretical interest in abstraction with his signature figuration. These converging artistic languages, each possessing different intensities within Mao’s work, intersect in Mao Yan: New Paintings.

Professor Joanna Woodall, author of the seminal work Portraiture: Facing the Subject (1997), and Dr. Malcolm McNeill, a leading authority on contemporary Chinese art, will provide invaluable insights into Mao Yan's practice. Facilitated by Dr. Katie Hill, the discussion promises to illuminate Mao's contemporary transformation of classical painting language and investigate portrayals of the self and spiritual essence in cultural and artistic contexts today.


Mao Yan

Mao Yan is considered one of China’s premiere contemporary artists. He began studying painting at an early age, mastering advanced techniques by the time he was a teenager. In 1991, after graduating from the Oil Painting Department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Mao Yan began teaching at Nanjing University of the Arts, where he began to delve into portraiture. In his article Explorations in Realism, renowned art critic Li Xianting named Mao Yan as the representative of Chinese Neo-Realism, stating that his works depict the "portraits of a generation whose emotions are gradually disappearing." Mao’s portraits eschew specific cultural or temporal signifiers, and his reduced palette of cool gray and blue tones is used as a compositional device, and which he deems a subject of the work in itself.

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Dr. Katie Hill

Dr Hill is an established curator and educator in the field of contemporary art from China and the Chinese diaspora with twenty-five years of experience in contemporary art and higher education. She gained an MA Hons in Chinese at the University of Edinburgh in 1989 and a DPhil in Art History at the University of Sussex in 2002. She runs her own consultancy, the Office of Contemporary Chinese Art (OCCA), focusing on curatorial, arts consultancy and education. She is currently Academic Lead, Asia and Senior Lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art, London, where she founded and directed the MA in Modern and Contemporary Asian Art. She is a co-author of the Chinese Art Book (Phaidon, 2013) and has written extensively on contemporary art from China, contributing to journals such as China Quarterly, the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (JCCA), Third Text, Apollo, The Burlington Magazine and numerous artists' catalogues.

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Professor Joanna Woodall

Prof. Woodall of the Courtauld Institute of Art is a specialist in European art of the early modern period. She has written widely on portraiture and self-portraiture, and issues of realism more broadly. Her edited book, Portraiture: Facing the Subject (1997) has become a standard work. Her most recent publication, the edited volume Money Matters in European artworks and literature (2022) explores ways in which the potent and elusive concept of money was embodied and visualised between 1400 and 1750, concentrating on precious coins as artefacts and agents.

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Dr. Malcolm McNeill

Dr. McNeill is a specialist in historic and contemporary Chinese art, currently working at SOAS University of London as Director of the SOAS-Alphawood Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art and Senior Lecturer in Arts Education, having previously held curatorial, research and public access roles at leading museums and cultural institutions in the UK and Asia, including Asia House, the British Museum, the National Palace Museum Taipei, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

  • Pace Live — Capturing Essence: A Discussion on Contemporary Chinese Art, Portraiture and Abstraction through Mao Yan’s Lens, Feb 2, 2024