Chambers Fine Art is pleased to announce the opening on February 26 of Yan Shanchun: West Lake. Born in 1957 in Hangzhou, Yan graduated from the Printmaking Department of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Fine Arts) in 1982, and thus belongs to the generation of artists who were the first to graduate after the academies were closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Hangzhou is commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in China, located in an area of considerable wealth and culture. It is centered on West Lake, a source of inspiration for poets and painters for hundreds of years. Even when he was not living in Hangzhou, memories of the famous lake and celebrated viewing-points never left Yan Shanchun and they became the inspiration for much of his work. Now that he lives and works in Hangzhou he can see the lake whenever he wishes although this is less important to him than his memories of it and its unique position within the history of art in China.
Yan is also well versed in ink painting, traditionally the most highly-regarded medium in China, used equally for painting and calligraphy, as well as classic Chinese poetry which aim not to describe but to evoke through carefully observed details. That being said, Yan wears his learning lightly and the paintings and works on paper are memorable for the manner in which they reveal so much while remaining self-effacing and reticent. Each painting results from the application of multiple layers of pigment, concealing memories of the famous landscape that hover in the background and appear only intermittently. Faint touches of color emerge through translucent veils of white and sometimes along the edges of the canvas, but play only a minor role in the orchestration of the multiple layers and shades of white paint. On occasion he works from more than one side of the canvas, creating a tension between horizontal and vertical drips that provide visible traces of the artist’s working process.
That is not necessarily the end of the extended period of creation as he also likes to complicate the spatial dimension of the works by applying thicker layers of paint applied with a palette knife that partially conceal the shifting veils beneath. At first glance the paintings appear to be pale and bleached, lacking in material substance, but as the observer absorbs the evidence of the artist’s creative procedure and relates the hints of colored surfaces to forms from the real world, they assume a legibility as surprising as it is brief. As in certain works by Cy Twombly, the pale, scuffed surfaces allude to a surprisingly wide range of cultural and historical themes.
Although Yan is fully cognizant of the long history of abstract painting in the West, he has been less concerned with rivaling these antecedents than in modifying their example to enrich the valued tradition of Chinese literati who cultivated the arts of calligraphy, painting and poetry in seclusion. That privileged life-style is no longer possible but in his detachment from the goal-oriented atmosphere of the contemporary art world and in the development of his own quiet poetic sensibility equally attuned to poetry and the visual arts, he may be considered a twenty-first century equivalent of these legendary polymaths.
Accompanying the paintings is a new group of copper plate etchings, a technique that Yan finds to be particularly congenial. Using a mixture of sulfur and olive oil to produce recesses in the copper plate, and printing on Japanese ganpishi paper, Yan creates prints that he describes as having “a luminous, silver-print photography effect, lending the image a heavy, metallic feel similar to how I feel about the West Lake: clear, remote, tempered and classic.” Like the paintings, the etchings are inspired by West Lake but the focus is on evocative details rather than a broader view of the expanse of the lake. In order to appreciate the subtleties of the printing process, Yan encourages the viewer to handle the works in person in order to “read” rather than simply see them.