When a smile is not as it seems

If you have an interest in Chinese contemporary art and live nearby New York City, perhaps you should make your way to the Queens Museum of Art before January 6th, where there is an exhibition of Yue Min-Jun’s work. His paintings have become representative of modern Chinese art. He is famous for painting smiling figures of himself but his smile is not what it seems at first glance.

In a recent sale, Mr. Yue’s work entitled Execution, painted in 1995, smashed price records for Chinese contemporary art at a Sotheby’s auction in London this past October. Purchased by a British banker in 1996, for about US$30,000, at an art gallery in Hong Kong, the painting sold for about US$6 million at the Sotheby’s auction. Perhaps the back story to the painting’s provenance enhanced the marketability of the painting. Because the painting deals with Tiananmen in 1989, it was considered politically sensitive at the time it was sold. The art dealer had originally not planned to sell the piece to protect the artist, the story goes, and finally agreed to sell it on condition that the painting not be publicly displayed for 5 years and be shipped directly to London. Its recent display during the auction is the first time the painting has been seen in public.

The recognition that Mr. Yue’s art, and other contemporary Chinese artists, have been receiving has certainly raised the profile of modern Chinese art. Whether the upper class lifestyles that high prices for modern Chinese art allow successful artists to live ultimately enhances or corrupts the ability of Chinese contemporary artists to continue to make great art remains to be seen. But what the Red Cat Journal really wants to know is: what do those smiling face really mean, anyway?

For more on Yue Min-Jun, his exhibition, and interpretations of the meaning behind his smile, read this New York Times article.