Yang Mian Exposes an Essential Truth for Our Era
Britta Erickson / 林似竹
“The danger is not that machines are advancing. The danger is that we are losing our intelligence if we rely on computers instead of our own minds. On a fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves: Do we need human intelligence? And what happens if we fail to exercise it?” [George Dyson, science historian][i]
These are crucial questions for our time, and they apply not only to information gleaned via computers. We need to remain alert, questioning the reliability of all information sources. We are bombarded by information. It is a defining characteristic of the twenty-first century. Rarely are we beyond reach of advertising billboards, magazines, newspapers, radio, and television. But it is the Internet that has become most ubiquitous. Anyone moderately tech-savvy is at a loss when the Internet is unavailable. We rely on it for news, from international events to “junk” stories about popular media icons to timely updates on our friends’ lives. When conducting research, the first stop is no longer a primary source or a library: it is the Internet, which may be last step as well as the first. While in theory many understand that such easily gained information may be false, its very accessibility, combined with its ubiquity, allows it to infiltrate the subconscious. The media are seductive. And if this is true of text, it is much more the case with images. This effect has been studied and is called the “pictorial superiority effect”: information associated with a visual image has a recall rate many times higher than that of verbal information. Photographs can be particularly seductive: it takes a special effort to question their validity.
Yang Mian has set himself the task of questioning the reliability of the image and, consequently, the power of the media. In addition to being an artist he is a profound thinker: before embarking on a new series of works he chooses his target carefully and reasons through his approach. When both target and approach are resolved to his satisfaction, he proceeds. Then, when he has worked his way through to a logical ending point, the series is complete. A break in his oeuvre may follow, as he contemplates the next target. For the decade from 1997 to 2006 Yang Mian produced the Standardseries, examining the standards of beauty promulgated by the media, and most particularly the unattainable standards of female beauty spread through advertising. He noted changes in trends from year to year, and expressed them through pastel tinted paintings of current beauties rendered in a blurry fashion completely counter to his artistic training in realism, finished with a slash of vivid color. Following a hiatus from 2009 to early 2010, during which he formulated his approach to a fresh and urgent issue, he embarked on the present series, CMYK.
CMYKconfronts a subtler problem than that addressed through Standard, and the method of confrontation is also subtle. Yang Mian exposes the fact that our understanding of the past is invariably distorted by the means of transmission. As a concrete example and metaphor for this, he has painted a series of reproductions of reproductionsof famous artistic masterworks. The hallmark of this series is that his reproductions display a dramatically revealed CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key black) color breakdown, so that the color dots used in printing, and in digital images on the Internet or elsewhere, are enlarged to dominate the composition. While this may sound simple, the paintings are the result of an arduous period of experimentation, leading to a complicated production process. Yang Mian considers it crucial that his easy facility with the medium of oil or acrylic on canvas be hidden: he has no desire to flaunt his talent. Yet it is also important that he create works of art that are technically impossible to duplicate—the method must belong to him alone. Ironically, the veiling of extreme artistic facility and originality was also important to China’s literati painters, whose works constitute the subject of a portion of the CMYKseries.
A basic step in producing the CMYKseries is the selection of images. Before he embarked on the CMYKseries, few Chinese artists working in non-traditional modes had turned to Chinese art history—particularly landscape painting—for inspiration or fresh subject material. The paintings Yang Mian has copied for CMYKcover over a millennium, ranging from a probable copy of an eighth century work (Li Zhaodao Minghuang’s Journey to Shu) to a landscape by Zhu Da (1626-1705; CMYK Qing Dynasty Zhu Da Landscape), and even later in the case of European masterpieces. Having decided to include a particular historical painting as a subject in the series, he selects a digital image to download from the Internet. A Google search for images of Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams, for example, brings over eleven thousand results, many of which have nothing to do with the query. From them Yang Mian chooses an image of the painting that is not of the highest resolution, but also far from the worst. Nevertheless, the original Fan Kuan is two meters tall and the digital image is a tiny fraction of that: even the highest quality image widely available on the Internet can capture only a tiny portion of the visual information embodied in the original.
After selecting a subject, the next problem is how to translate that subject for transfer onto the canvas. This step in the process required the most of Yang Mian: this is where the talent lies hidden. The technique he developed requires a unique concentration. Manipulating the chosen image via Adobe Illustrator, Yang begins by determining the location of the black dots. While the program can help isolate the black dots, the other three colors must be located visually. There is no easy formula for placing the dots: the artist must add them one by one. His goal is for each dot to have an individual presence—that is, for them to avoid touching one another. Thus, rather than following the exact CMYK formation of the original digital image, he decides subjectively where each dot should be placed. In this, his technique approaches that of the Impressionists. This also is where the great challenge lies. To make individual judgments about the placing of up to several hundred thousand dots in a single painting is not easy.
Yang Mian plots the black dots, then the blue or cyan, followed by red and finally yellow. The next step in the process is to blow up each segment of the digital file to check that the dots all are separated from one another, making minor adjustments as necessary. With the final digital model complete, the laborious physical process of transferring it to canvas begins.
A popular technology for advertising signage serves to create stencils, one for each color. The digital file for a single color is sent to the special printer, which punches the dots out of a sheet with a sticky backing. One by one, the four stencils must be adhered to the canvas and the colors applied through the uniformly sized round holes of the stencils. While the industrial printer solved a major technical dilemma, it also created a problem. Yang had to try many different kinds of canvas before he found one that could stand up to the trauma of having four sticky sheets applied and then removed, and that also would not subtly alter the colors. In addition, he experimented with oil paints and water colors before concluding that acrylic served the process best.
At first glance the CMYKseries paintings appear to have been produced by a highly rational, scientific process. But not only is the precise placement of the dots subjective; the exact colors do not adhere to standard CMYK tones. Ironically, Yang works with a faulty palette. As the blue has a tendency to recede, he has manipulated it so as to alter the tone or emphasis of an image, resulting in three separate blues in the series.
The original flash of insight that led to the CMYKseries came to Yang Mian while he was teaching a painting class in 2000. He wished to discuss Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror, and needed to make a slide. The image available was quite small, such that when he projected the slide he made from it, the CMYK dots were readily apparent. According to Yang, “When I put it into the projector, I was amazed by the image on the screen: that was a chaotic mess of magnified color pixels. I thought that effect was quite fascinating; it was an accidental gain.”[ii]He thought there must be a way of using this to create a work of art, but he left this kernel of an idea to germinate for many years before taking it up.
The shortcomings of studying the history of art using reproductions become particularly obvious in a classroom setting. In a slide lecture—or Powerpoint lecture—every work of art discussed is projected with the same dimensions. An Ordos bronze is the same size as the Great Buddha of Bamiyan; a Song dynasty album leaf is no smaller than Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams; an artist’s maquette is identical in size to the finished sculpture or building. Minor and major works assume equal significance: nothing is privileged by scale, placement, lighting, or any other visual factor. Images in books and on the Internet are subject to very similar distortions, and this is where people commonly glean their knowledge of art before they have the opportunity to encounter original works. In China, such opportunities are particularly rare, as no Chinese museums present a view of world art, nor do many display a comprehensive history of Chinese art.
Seeing a group of Yang Mian’s CMYKseries paintings together fully reveals Yang Mian’s process as a supreme equalizer. Each painting, no matter the size, condition, medium, drama, or familiarity of the original, is of absolutely equal quality. The successive filters of camera, Internet, and Yang Mian’s process have conspired to equalize. This equalization both gives and takes. It enhances the scale and accessibility of the image, while imbuing it with a powerful new message and transferring it to the realm of contemporary art. At the same time, however, it takes away the original value and meaning and completely obscures the hand of the original artist. The result is such that, for example, a worked based on a Buddhist thangka 时轮金刚has no more meaning than another based on an anonymous Northern Song painting of flowers and a cat 富贵花狸图轴. Nor do they differ much in spirit from CMYK Manet—The Guitar Player. The most salient distinctions involve the composition, including the weight afforded the different colors.
As mentioned before, the equalization of imagery is most apparent when the works are viewed in a group. For this reason, Yang Mian has conceived of this project as culminating in an exhibition. With the first floor of the Shanghai Art Museum in mind as the venue, he created works for each wall space in the vast main hall as well as the entrance hall. Framed by the elegant neoclassical columns dividing the exhibition hall into bays, each CMYKseries painting can be considered alone, or viewed as part of a group, its stature enhanced by the museum’s majestic architecture and restrained palette of off-white walls and ceiling and limestone floor. Although there is a side-project of CMYKseries paintings based on Western major masterpieces, the Shanghai Art Museum exhibition features exclusively Chinese art-based works.
Given that vision supposedly makes use of half the brain’s resources, it is no wonder that visual images exert a large impact on our thought processes. A single visual image can embody and express a great deal of information, and to analyze that information and its reliability can take more effort than the viewer is willing to expend. But if we are basing our knowledge of art history, or history, or current events on images, it is essential that we probe beyond an easy surface understanding. And only if we take the time to probe beyond the pretty surfaces of Yang Mian’s paintings do we finally arrive at this hard nugget of truth.
[i]George Dyson, “Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive,” The European, 17 Oct 2011. <http://theeuropean-magazine.com/352-dyson-george/353-evolution-and-innovation>
[ii]Dialogue between Yin Yan and Yang Mian.
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