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September 21, 2019

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‘The Last Sunset’ finds artist at war with contemporary art world

NI Youyu’s artwork often evokes a spatial and temporal illusion which makes it hard to guess the age of the artist or the age of his works.

You’ll get the same feeling when you come to his latest exhibition “The Last Sunset in the Museum,” currently being showcased at Perrotin Shanghai through October 20.

Ni is intent on avoiding temporal marks in his oeuvre. Instead, he imbues his artworks with an abstract trace. He asserts that he is not keen on the conceptual and insists his creations don’t belong in the “contemporary art” genre.

Born in 1984 in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, Ni graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Shanghai University. He was winner of the 2014 Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA) for Best Young Artist.

Reflective and contemplative, his work explores themes relating to nature, time and traditional art.

The 35-year-old has kicked against the mainstream for several years and prefers to work in a “primitive technique” mode.

Many of his creations go through a long process with some taking as long as several years to complete.

Ni finds it impossible to work “on order” or produce a piece of work according to an exhibition theme like many of his peers.

It was in 2009 that Ni began his experimentation with “Washing Painting.”

It happened haphazardly: After years of training in traditional Chinese painting, the artist tried teaching himself to paint on canvas. Yet his unfamiliarity with the material meant he had to repeatedly wash off the unsatisfactory images he had created.

In the process of such continual correction, the canvas was left with a textural effect akin to wulouhen (屋漏痕) — a Chinese calligraphic stroke that likens the trailing of ink to rainwater trickling down through the crevices of dilapidated walls.

With varying quantity and force, the water flows would cut against or wash out acrylic paint at different degrees of moisture. It was both controllable and uncontrollable, additive and subtractive.

Sensitively catching the detail, Ni starts to focus his experimentation on this technique. Sometimes the water flows act like a brush. At other times, they behave like an etching knife. They fuse with the brushstrokes on the canvas to forge traces of texture and patina similar to historical weathering. Such a technique manifests a complex yet distinctive effect while viewing at different distances.

Viewers are left with different visual experiences. From afar, one might mistakenly see a traditional ink painting or woodcut. However, closer up, one might notice how the brushstrokes are imbued with an Expressionist touch, which perfectly echoes the artist’s belief that the essence of painting is deceptive.

“The Last Sunset in the Museum” is a continuation of the artist’s solo-exhibition “Concrete Waterfall” at Kunstverein Konstanz in Germany in 2017. It features the “The Last Sunset in the Museum (2019),” the largest painting to date by the artist in the series, along with 20 smaller works presented in antique frames.

Using 16th-century Italian artist Ferrante Imperato’s lithographs as a blueprint, the works show the artist’s intention to trace back to historical origins.

Similar displacement in time and space is also reflected in the gallery.

Set up in a dim museum hall, with the resplendent antique frames exhibiting a series of scenes classically composed and suffused with historical metaphors, you feel as if you are paying homage to masterpieces by Rene Magritte, Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

Many of these small-scale paintings were completed by Ni in the bathrooms of various apartments while traveling and living in Europe from 2017 to 2019. He would collect antique frames from different countries and then make the portrayed content according to the ratios and decorative styles of the frames.

Postmodernist painters emphasize discarding the frame to redefine painting, but Ni is obviously against it. The result? The golden picture portrait plus the resplendent frames conjure up a “classical” ambience in the space, very much like a late-19th-century salon.

The “Ancient Archive Specimen” series is another representative string of works by the artist on show at the exhibition. It is an important connection between the artist’s paintings and installations.

He gathers all kinds of ancient prints, which he colors, cuts and collages onto canvas, combining acrylic, oil paint, lacquer with pastels and many other materials.


Exhibition info

Date: Through October 20 (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am-7pm

Venue: Perrotin Shanghai

Address: 3/F, 27 Huqiu Rd


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