White Hot Magazine
Huang Yan: Taoist/Artist/Businessman
Myriad are the makers and collectors of art. There are those for whom art exists solely as a tradable commodity. Some elevate art as a vessel of spiritual nourishment, or value it as a medium for cultural and sociological commentary. Still others, of course, stand by art’s worthiness purely as a form of self-expression. While these views on art are almost commonplace, rare is the artist who can successfully appeal to all of these perspectives through a balance of his artistic work and commercial approach. Huang Yan proves himself to be one such artist and as a result he’s attracted the widest spectrum of collectors.
Huang Yan is first and foremost a Taoist. “It is through Zen,” he says, “that art continues to fascinate me”. Beginning his career as a poet, Huang Yan rose to international notoriety through his ongoing project of painting classical ancient Chinese style landscapes on unlikely mediums such as human bodies, ox bones, busts of Mao, and most recently on flowers, musical instruments, and the uniform attire of communist old .
Considered a conceptual artist, Huang Yan does not execute the painting, his wife does; he conceives the idea and photographs the end result. It is the photograph itself, rather than the painted object, which becomes the finished artistic piece. With a clear artistic process behind his work the central question then becomes, “Why present the photograph of the object and not the object itself as the finished piece?”
Before postulating an answer it is vital to take a deeper look at the individual components of his artwork. The landscape on the body/object is powerful in its simplicity. Huang Yan writes in History of the Landscape, “the most authentic representation of the philosophy of the ancient Chinese literati is the classical landscape”. The landscape itself comes to symbolize ancient and the intellectual values of the erudite class. Painting these landscapes on his body or on objects of modern culture then becomes an avant-garde revisionist exercise of rebirthing a traditional art form in a modern context. By choosing to have the painted landscapes on human skin or commonplace objects he marries the elite symbolism associated with landscape juxtaposed against mediums of the working class. He plays a new card in the old game of representing the relationship between nature and man: nature on man’s skin and man’s creations.
The resulting photographs of these painted bodies and objects are crisp, clean, and large. In each, the painted object or body is isolated against a black or white background and brightly lit. Up close, tiny details in the landscape are visible: little houses dotted around the mountainsides, animals near streams and grazing in fields, meditating figures, peasants at work, and wrinkles in the skin upon which these scenes are painted. But from a distance the object or body itself has the flat appearance of an advertisement.
Huang Yan chooses the photograph rather than the actual object as the finished piece for a few reasons. For one, it is a further critique of the commercialization and commodification of art: removing ownership of an art object by one degree of separation is a satire on the concept of ownership. Secondly, he believes there is transcendental power in a symbol. It is not important to have the actual thing itself; to have a symbol of that thing is enough. This duality adds an extra layer of meaning to his artwork. It is both an attractive decorative image as well as a symbol with deep cultural roots changing with the demands of modernity. Finally, there’s the business appeal: if he can sell an edition of ten identical photographs, with ever increasing pricing for each successive piece and simultaneously propel his art to a wider audience why shortchange his notoriety by only selling the single original object?
All Images courtesy of 798 Avant Gallery.
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Charlie Schultz was born in 1982 and raised on an equestrian farm in
central Pennsylvania. He graduated from Bard College in 2005 and
currently lives and works in New York City.