Yue Minjun - Contemporary Art London Thursday, June 21, 2007 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, New York

  • Literature

    Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, Beijing, 2006, pp. 118-119 (ill.); Q. Zhang, Yue Minjun: The Lost Self, Hebei, 2005, p. 6 (ill.)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Yue Minjun’s Free and At Leisure series depicts the artist’s signature laughing self-portrait in a variety of pastoral settings. The artist’s self-caricature, the “idol,” appears frolicking in idyllic scenery. The palette is unusually somber, awash in olives, ochre, and subdued blue; the terrain is deserted, featuring bodies of still water, wandering geese, high rushes, and calm skies.

    Of course, nothing is quite as it seems in Yue’s paintings. The presence of the “idol,” which more frequently appeared in Yue’s appropriations of historical masterpieces and cultural commentary, alludes to the unseen tides of power and iconography that run through these bucolic scenes. Yue’s “idols” traditionally signified the artist’s resigned mockery of the celebrity-driven, image-saturated politics of modern life. In his earlier work, multiples of the idol’s exaggerated grin appeared lined up in Tiananmen Square, under a nuclear cloud, toying with a miniature Chinese pavilion. The symbolic associations were numerous, universal, and for the most part unambiguous.

    By comparison, the Free and At Leisure series, at first glance, imparts no obvious context for the idols. As they gambol among the rushes, the viewer searches in vain for the immediately recognizable icon or landmark to impart context to these figures. This lack of obvious symbols represents a subtle maturation in the artist’s oeuvre: rather than relying on the usual external referents, Yue’s idols themselves have become the source of unease; their very presence becomes the source of corruption in nature. More significantly, they themselves have become the “stars,” the very celebrities they mock. The onlooker is unable to conceive of Yue’s idols independent of their status as symbols of a deindividualized, media-saturated culture; one is automatically in the position of a voyeur, corrupting the landscape by the very act of looking.

    Like the boys in the Lord of the Flies, Yue’s idols in the present lot engage in uninhibited frolic that barely conceals their darker instincts. At first glance, the two figures perched on the cliff appear to be engaged in simple fun and games. On closer inspection, their pleasingly geometric interplay reveals trajectories of unresolved tension: the arms of the kneeling idol are flung back at unnaturally contorted angles, while the standing idol appears poised to sweep his playmate off the cliff with his left leg. In a world where violence regularly visits our daily lives—in the form of terrorism, mass killings, and to young children—the heart of darkness within Yue’s pastoral work is close to home.


Free and at Leisure Series No. 12

Oil on canvas.
86 1/2 x 118 in. (219.7 x 299.7 cm).
Signed "Yue Minjun 2004" lower right. Signed, titled and dated "Free and at Leisure Series No. 12 Yue Minjun 2004.5 [in Chinese]" on the reverse.

£350,000 - 450,000 

Sold for £669,600

Contemporary Art

22 June 2007, 4pm & 5pm