Popular sci-fi imageries and a sense of nostalgia permeate ‘Garden Oddity’, Yang Shen’s first solo exhibition, at MadeIn Gallery in Shanghai. In the 21 oil paintings on view, whimsical architecture, strange life forms and larger-than-life characters – be they real or fictional – occupy seemingly familiar urban sites and infect them with dark humour and unease.
After graduating from the mural art department at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Yang, who was born in Beijing, worked in a game development company in Shanghai before moving back to Beijing to become a full-time painter. The canvases displayed here date back to 2011, when he began to conceive of a new approach that formally resembles the tradition of ‘bad painting’. Yang’s style involves blending the conventions of lianhuanhua (palm-sized picture-story books published in China in the early 20th century, which often fall in the genre of speculative fiction) with the socialist realist techniques he learned while at the academy. In Reptile (2012), for instance, though the set-up in an enormous terrarium is mostly depicted with realist brushwork, Yang draws a figure under a yellow spotlight using the thin outline typical of figures in lianhuanhua drawings. This creates a sense of mystery as well as comic relief.
In Braids and Beards (2016), Yang further employs the compositional rules and sci-fi tropes of lianhuanhua to weave a narrative. At the centre of the canvas is a scene from The Blue Lotus (1934–35), the fifth volume of the popular Belgian comic The Adventures of Tintin (1929–76), in which the hilariously incompetent detective duo Thomson and Thompson visit China during the Republican period dressed up in Qing dynasty clothing. In the bottom left corner, Yang depicts a Fu Manchu-like figure (a fictional villain first introduced by British author Sax Rohmer in 1913), while the upper right part of the canvas contains a scene based on an illustration that appeared in the French daily newspaper Le Petit Journal in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion – a time when the Western media frequently demonized Chinese troops and exaggerated their own victories. The three scenes appear over another layer depicting what seems to be the figure of a woman sitting on a bench, as if these daydreamed scenes all played out during a lazy afternoon in a park.
While Braids and Beads explicitly tackles orientalist tropes in popular fiction and news media, most works here are subtler in reference and tone. Nevertheless, underlying these seemingly comic and nonsensical scenes is a sense of paranoia and delirium that, although dramatized, feels uncannily timely. This existential dimension is hinted at in the exhibition’s Chinese title. Combining two chapters from the 16th-century Chinese play The Peony Pavilion, it translates directly as ‘having a nightmarish dream after visiting a place’. This place, or yuan, can be a garden, a park, a courtyard, a zoo – any public space where lives convene. Yang casts his subjects into a range of such communal sites: in Acrobatics (2012), two childlike gymnasts perform in a playing field infected by long-extinct marine arachnomorph arthropods; in the titular work, Garden Oddity (2016), we see people run around a park in panic, trying to wipe out some enormous reptiles; while, in Three Dreams (2013), a couple leans toward one another by a lake, each lost in their own fantasy. Yang’s nostalgic use of historical aesthetics and references evokes a sentimental sense of the present, in which people linger in a precarious public sphere, dreaming.
Yang Shen: Garden Oddity was on view at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai, from 23 March until 29 April 2018.
Main image: Yang Shen, 'Garden Oddity', 2018, installation view, MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai. Courtesy and photograph: the artist and MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai
First published in Issue 197