Mao Yan, Madam, 2022 © Mao Yan


Excavating the Present: Temporality and Presence in the Recent Works of Mao Yan

By Dr Katie Hill

Published Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024

“I want my paintings to convey temporality within the realm of painting itself, an intimate, aesthetic sense of the passage of time and progress of life, governed purely by the paint and the canvas, not propelled by the progress of society at large[1]” Mao Yan

Mao Yan (b. 1968) is widely known for being true to painting, he is a real ‘painter’s painter’. With a concerted practice of more than thirty years after graduating in 1991 from the Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing, Mao has spent seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades tucked away in his Nanjing studio, constantly producing. His work is admired for its beauty, its technical agility, and its durability, one might even say its classicism. His figurative portraits are instantly recognisable for their distinctive bluey-grey palette and ethereal sensibility. Considering this modern master, how do we assess the work of such an artist in the clamour of the contemporary art world in the 21st century? As we observe this recent body of work, it is useful to pause and think about his intention of conveying temporality and the question of the subject in and of oil painting in the present day, a medium that is above all, heavily laden with history. What is it that informs these aspects of his work? Many commentaries on his work note peacefulness and spirituality but, despite their propensity to create an ethereal atmosphere, such generalised notions could be a disservice to his works. The intensity of his painterly gaze, mirrored in the gaze of his subjects, exudes emotions, character, states of mental being, creating a psychological force that is often disconcerting and uncomfortable.

The range of work in this exhibition include many in his usual theme—that of portraiture, in some ways arguably pushed further than ever in its current iteration. Luminous subjects loom into our view at various angles, their gaze often the focal point, their bodies in postures showing a strong sense of physicality and a connection of mind and body in assertive expressions of selfhood. Additionally, there are the abstract works that Mao has developed more recently—bearing in mind that ‘new’ for Mao Yan can still mean more than eight years. For him, the act of painting is a slow burner, and he is in it for the long run. The abstract paintings are more enigmatic and appear caught between two modes, so it is tempting to treat these works as figurative images, not abstract ones. Ultimately, they do not blot out form, but create illusionistic moments through sharply drawn fragments that have a concrete sense of tangibility.

Mao intentionally engages the field in a quest to reveal what painting is and how its subjects can reveal something about the world. The profundity of his work lies in the pure act of painting itself and the respect he affords it as a mode of bringing something or someone into the world. What we are looking at, and there is a concerted pattern in his earlier work, is an intentionality; a purpose that reflects back at us, the viewer, as much as it reflects back at the painter himself, as pointed out by Donald Kuspit in his 2015 essay on Mao Yan.[2]

Figurative work can bring forth centuries of painting’s legacy in which the artist’s brushstrokes can reveal traces of preceding works; just as in the tradition of Chinese ink painting, of reading a landscape via the brushstrokes as markers of subjective experience, as in the case of the greatly admired Chinese ink painter, Huang Binhong, in the modern period. The familiarity of seeing is drawn from recognition of all the things we have seen, of a visual memory accumulated over time. Faces, people, characters, whether on a bus, passers-by, people we know, family, relatives, friends – these all inform our viewing of a painter’s depiction of their subject. Memory, therefore, is a crucial aspect of both the making and the viewing of paintings.


Mao Yan, Master Hongyi and Mariewicz, 2021 © Mao Yan

The small canvas depicting Master Hongyi laid in monk’s robes on a bed in a confined space, is an extraordinary work that appears to encapsulate the history of modern painting in China. Hanging at an angle is a depiction of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), an artwork that represented a radical turning point in the development of modern art. Malevich’s famous statement, from his 1927 book The Non-Objective World, reads: “In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.” The dramatic juxtaposition that Mao uses in this small but incredibly potent work, is both an artistic and a philosophical one. Just as the painter-turned-monk has turned away from the external world to the spiritual one, the reference to Black Square—which was notably exhibited just before the onset of the Russian Revolution, in 1915—represents the move to free art from the representation of ‘reality’.

Mao’s painting has a dream-like quality: the muted tones; light and shadows enhancing the atmosphere of time and place; the figure resembling a reclining Buddha in his final moments before passing on to the afterlife. The abstract square adds a surreal element, strangely hovering over the sleeping figure as the internal and external worlds fuse in what could be a dream, whereby the history of abstraction and inner truth come together away from the ‘dead weight of the real world’, in a simple image of a sleeping man. This could be the central work of the whole exhibition, as it brings together all the elements of Mao Yan’s approach, centring on the pioneering art educator who taught Western art history and music in Shanghai (Li Shutong), who later turned to a life of pure spirituality as a Buddhist monk taking the name Hong Yi.


Mao Yan, Broken Teeth No. 2, 2021 © Mao Yan

One of the stand-out larger portraits in this new body of work is Madam (2022), a striking portrait of a girl in a black dress with a direct frontal, gently challenging gaze, leaning into view, her face angled sharply over her right shoulder, resting her chin towards us. Her milky arms, face and slightly arched back rise out, the pallidity set off by a pink tinge. Her face is delicately drawn, her fresh features showing her youth, in contrast to the pose, which is mildly coquettish and self-conscious. She leans out of the black chair against a mottled, pale grey ground and the sharp line that cuts off the image in the lower register shows thin drips of paint, a compositional device that appears in several other works, acting as a frame within the frame. The work captures vulnerability and strength simultaneously—her face dominating the picture, her large eyes and round forehead displaying an intelligence and sensitivity that are echoed in her physical posture. Two further portraits of young men hold the same qualities of luminosity and enigma, their figures looming, their context uncertain, featuring intriguing focal points such as white gloves and a transparent dome as props to the subject. A small portrait Young Man in a Hat No.2 (2021) emphasizes the large, comfortable armchair in which this petite figure is enveloped, his gaze intent on something out of view to the left, his languid arms and hands showing a state of concentration in his slumped posture. Just above his face, a set of three black rectangular forms diminishing in scale create a strange diagonal of geometric shapes disrupting the naturalism of the scene but also enhancing it. Are they real? Do they echo the Malevich Suprematist forms of the early twentieth century? Mao’s painterly language leaves us guessing, but the works suspend the viewer in the tension of the unknown.

An Archaeology of Buried Subjects

Mao Yan’s palette is distinct—it is muted, grey, blurry with undertones of merged colours lying below the surface and glimpses of pinks or oranges peeping up from underneath. Light is affected through the pale tones in patches or swirls, creating glimpses of lucidity in the depths, and centring the eye on certain points through the melting away of the surrounds. Surface texture adds a liquidity and materiality to the works. Mao speaks of acts of ‘digging’ or ‘carving out’, which helps an understanding of his abstract works as excavations of something—mostly submerged—but partially seen in sharp, jagged forms that are cut into the mottled surface. The idea of ‘broken teeth’, he explains, are not teeth as such, but cogs or elements of something broken. Why, then, use the word ‘teeth’? The metaphor of the broken body helps trace the process towards these works from the figure towards the abstract, that cannot help but evoke half-submerged forms that could potentially be pieced together: a skull, circles, a coherent shape that allows us to make sense of the world via our own bodily existence.

Formally, these abstract canvases seem to express a tension, capturing the liminal point where surface meets the underneath and the stretching point between figuration and abstraction, in which the language of visuality cannot quite be reconciled in these two modes of conflicted but existing reality. As Jacques Rancière states: “‘Ideaism’ and ‘matterism’ contribute equally to forming the visibility of an ‘abstract’ painting—not necessarily painting without representation but painting that oscillates between pure realization of the metamorphosis of matter and translation of the pure focus of ‘internal necessity’ into lines and colours.”[3]

For historical perspective, it may be helpful to consider the earlier period when Mao Yan was studying art in the late 1980s, the decade when a huge amount of knowledge was avidly being absorbed in Chinese intellectual circles, and contemporary art was still emerging as a field on its own terms. The decade of cultural ‘catch up’ after the Cultural Revolution led to the rise of pioneering conceptual works such as Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (1987–1991), and Huang Yongping’s pulping of texts in The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987). Artists grappled with the overwhelming surge of knowledge from both classical Chinese and Western philosophy and literature, questioning whether it could really contribute to cultural and ethical advancement as they searched for a contemporary idiom. As a painter, Mao’s turn to portraiture was one response to this situation in a decade of prolific development in mostly figurative narrative painting when artists’ rigorous training in realism gave them a strong technical platform for exploration into surrealism, hyper-realism, and cynical realism. It may be possible to understand Mao’s focus on portraiture drawing from the classical canon of oil painting as a turning point for painting in China, whereby a pure painterly focus cut out the noise and absorbed layers of history in its making, whilst concentrating on the subject itself—the subject of, and in, the present. Using his unique painterly language of surface and depth, light and shadow, each of Mao’s works thereby creates a mark on its present, timelessly preserved for the future, explored by Sontag in the context of photography as an act of recording that holds potency in the act of making.[4]

An urge to understand and delve deep into the Other might explain Mao’s obsessive depiction of Thomas, his longstanding muse and close friend. Searching for ways of fully describing a person in paint, to literally draw out the relationship between the interior, psychological or mental state using the subject’s appearance—how a person presents on the outside—is a challenge. Therefore, Mao’s search to grasp this dynamic of the inside and the outside appears as primary drive in his work. Balancing bodily form, posture, skin, facial features, physique and so on, with what drives us, has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries and significantly, largely lies outside the tradition of Chinese art. To contextualise this point, in Mao’s own words:

“During that time in the ’90s, many Chinese artists were ardently searching for symbols, concepts, and gestures to announce themselves as “Chinese artists.” That was their primary preoccupation, but that was not the case for me. I’m not concerned with that. I deliberately chose a figure who was not clearly linked to the mainstream Chinese art scene. This allowed me to fully focus on the pure language of art and painting for myself.”[5]

In China, there is a centuries-old tradition of reverence towards the past that can be painfully stultifying and conservative. Despite the classical inference of his imagery with possible echoes of Goya, Delacroix and other European canonical masters, there is a solitary brilliance in Mao’s attention to the very idea of presence, particularly in today’s terrifying, divisive world splintered by wars and corporate abuses. In the words of Rancière in the context of Dutch painting, “what occurs on the canvas is now an epiphany of the visible, an autonomy of pictorial presence.”[6] Mao’s intentional consciousness of painting can be viewed as a kind of radical freedom, a notion proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialists. His artistic resilience in concertedly seeking the simple yet profound expression of being is no mean feat. It is the very epitome of mindfulness, the contemporary iteration of Buddhist meditation, of emptying the mind: slow breathing in the present; a method and approach that cuts through the fast, image-led culture of instantaneous sharing and posturing.

  1. Emily McDermott and Mao Yan, “Lost in Time”, interviewmagazine.com, 11 March 2015. (opens in a new window) https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/mao-yan-pace
  2. Donald Kuspit, “You, Me, Us: Mao Yan’s Portraits” in Mao Yan (New York: Pace Gallery, 2015), 4-11.
  3. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London: Verso, 2007), 86.
  4. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).
  5. McDermott and Mao, “Lost in Time”.
  6. Rancière, The Future of the Image, 77.
  • Essays — Excavating the Present: Temporality and Presence in the Recent Works of Mao Yan, Feb 28, 2024