Neutral Nostalgia

Chinese Artists, Painting

The Artist Whose Paintings Capture The Cycle Of Destruction & Renewal In His Hometown – Yuan Chongyin

Yuan Chongyin captures the spirit of cityscapes. Inspired by the rapid development of his hometown, Shanghai, Yuan explores the never-ending cycle of destruction and renewal, challenging his own wavering response to the rapid development. Painting is his tool for introspection, helping him to understand the place he calls home, “As an artist, I paint to ask myself: What is a city? What is my relation with Shanghai?” What begins with ambling emotion, ends with objectivity neither distinctly sad nor happy, but accepting of change.

For those who are familiar with Shanghai, the lilong (里弄) house, is instantly recognizable in his series ‘Inside Out’. Although they are a key motif of Shanghai’s identity, Yuan states that he is probably “the last generation to live in a lilong”. Yuan grew up in a quintessential lilong community: tight-knit with shared amenities and little privacy. People were forced to live ‘cheek and jowl’. Often squeezing in multigenerational families in a single room, swarming homes were infused with the sights, smells and sounds of the neighbors around them. The vivacity and chaos of this lifestyle are evident in Yuan’s dynamic treatment of the paint, intermingling and layering pure color into miscellaneous shapes. The composition is crowded yet ultimately harmonious, with everything in raucous accordance.

The buildings may still exist today, but the essence is lost. What remains of the lifestyle is left in the half-destroyed rubble of lilongs dotted around the city, abandoned and awaiting their coup de grace. Yuan somehow manages to paint both realistically and abstract, as if he is rummaging through evidence in the ruins, yet distorting the material by his immaterial past. All forms are on the verge of tangibility yet never completely realistic. This is evident in the distinctive grid structure of his compositions dividing the canvas like a cross-section of the house, complete with window frames and toppling walls. Yet within this frame, there is a pandemonium of splatters, prints, and blocks. This vividly illustrates the haphazard mess of the broken lilongs and Yuan’s own scattered emotions towards what once was his home.

What we see is a marriage of the real and imagined, a peephole into Yuan’s romanticisation of the destruction sites. When painting, Yuan envisions families in their homes going about their every day lives, living in the lilongs “you could see into the windows of their homes, but never the whole picture.” So not only do the derelict buildings personally affect him, but also provide a rare opportunity to see into other past lives. The rickety walls that divided the intimate from the public are shattered, spilling the secrets of generations onto the streets. Yuan sees this exposure not as a mournful wreck but as a “temporary exhibition.” This gleeful, fleeting voyeurism is captured in the way in which he fills the canvas from every corner and of the divided space with a mask of swift, expressionistic strokes.

“As soon as a destruction site starts, the internal side of the walls are appearing on the street, like a cake being cut.” It is like a cake not only through the tension between internal and external, but also the abundant layering which builds the texture of his canvases. Yuan describes ‘Inside Out’ as “how I explore, taste and narrate this city.” Pure color washes over the background, divided by lines, blended with smaller swatches and topped with splatters. This process also resembles the way in which metropolises, especially Shanghai, are developed. Both the canvas and the city are contained spaces, the present must be placed on top of the past, constantly building and rebuilding over the same spot. We do not know necessarily what lay beneath the present state, yet ultimately traces remain. In ‘Inside Out 2’ a rustic, grey ‘Shikumen’ archway peaks through the fresh and brighter swatches of paint, as if Yuan is still picking out the colors to paint the walls of a new home.

Despite the traceable forms and lines that make up the painting, color is undoubtedly Yuan’s dominant instrument of expression. Although he does not have a plan when painting, he will always start with color. For Yuan, the way to truly characterize a period in time is through the color palette. Color is a cultural phenomenon. Although the outside of the lilongs are all similar, Yuan chooses to look at the distinctive palette of the inner walls: white, light blue, light green, sand, and maroon. “These colors exemplify the economical and industrial situations at that period of time.” Those living in the lilongs would only have access to such a select range of paints and furniture that although their paraphernalia may differ, the way in which their houses were decorated was the same.

The large majority of Yuan’s paintings use the same colors to create nostalgia, with some utilizing more somber shades, and others more lively, displaying his skill in evoking a wide range of emotion through a limited palette. This creates a striking contrast to his previous series ‘Colors of the City’, which speculates on the vibrant colors of present-day Shanghai.

When color is omitted, Yuan’s primary articulation of the city spirit is through lines. In his early sketches of cities around the world, Yuan defines the scene not by the people who populate it, but by the lines which shape the space before him. Sharp angular forms create a concise rendition of the post-industrial world, scattered with scaffolding, washing lines, cables and train tracks. Through the simplicity of lines, Yuan connects each city, showing how remarkably similar and small the world is when delineated. in ‘Pompidou?’ A mundane, industrial block, dominated by a steeped stairway is satirically enlivened by color to be the infamous museum in France. Even the archaic winding streets of Firenze can be likened to the urban sprawl of Shanghai when seen from the above.

Yuan’s dexterity as an artist lies within his keen eye for detail, and ability to simplify expression. Yuan paints and sketches Shanghai with the casual precision that only someone with a real familiarity of it could, drawing our attention to the arrangement of color and shape, which define the environment around us. Consequently, despite Yuan’s devotion to abstraction, he cannot help but to graphically depict the lilong. He captures the spirit through a variety of methods, whether through lines and color, or focusing on a specific detail, yet always exposing the source of his inspiration. Yuan mirrors the movement of the city, moving forward with new colors and layers without fully erasing the past. His work is a journey through past and present emotions, layering and layering to reach a neutral articulation of nostalgia.

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