CMYK: Experiments in Metapictures and Visual Archeology Lu Mingjun
In a symposium discussion, I once cited a well-known fable told by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus to divide artists into two types: foxes and hedgehogs. The fox knows many things, and the hedgehog only knows one great thing. Thus, the fox does a lot of little things, while the hedgehog only does one big thing. Of course, matters are never this clear-cut, and many artists have both fox-like tendencies and hedgehog-like attributes. Yang Mian is no exception, but I would rather classify him as a hedgehog. This was the starting point for my overall evaluation of two different stages of his work, which span nearly ten years. As Yang himself has noted, for the last decade, from his early Standard of Beauty to his more recent CMYK, he has only experimented with these two series, but they grapple with the same issue: the questioning of and reflection on the generation of images in an era of pictorial replication and dissemination. If the former series was more declarative, then in his later CMYK series, Yang delved into the internal structures of pictures, revealing from their depths how images and their dissemination in the age of mechanical reproduction occupy and regulate our everyday experiences. More importantly, Yang’s work also conceals an awareness of methodology, namely, an experimentation with metapictures and visual archeology.
Before structurally analyzing Yang Mian’s works, I think that the vast majority of people believe that they are simply printed pictures, or replicas of Neo-Impressionist paintings. This intuitive perception often stems from simple formal analysis or stylistic judgment, but this judgment also happens to highlight its own limitations. Needless to say, Yang’s works of this type can only be truly investigated through visual archeology, and the meaning of the series stems from his entire process of visual interrogation, and not the resulting design or style. In other words, because his works are experiments in metapictures or visual archeology, our interpretation of them must follow this logic or pathway. Approaching from the perspective of visual archeology, we discover that the structures of Yang Mian’s works are not at all complicated; he chooses extremely low-resolution printed pictures, often overlooked in our everyday experiences, then enlarges and reproduces them on canvas. Little did we realize that so many hidden issues of contemporary visual and cultural politics could be revealed by this seemingly simple logic. Like Yang, we are surprised to discover the secret behind CMYK, namely, that all of the images we have encountered since we were small are comprised of four colors: CMYK. CMYK is a common way of printing colors, in which the “C” stands for cyan, the “M” is magenta, the “Y” is yellow, and the “K” is black. These four colors clearly make up the basic palette of Yang Mian’s work. All of his printed picture sources are different, but after enlargement on a computer, they are all reduced to CMYK dots in those four colors. When we look closely, this may seem to be the simple overlapping of colored dots, but together, they systematically comprise the picture that the artist is recreating. To take a stock phrase from phenomenology, Yang intends to “return to the image itself.” He attempts to show us that all of the images that we encounter everyday—whether in books and magazines or in TV and advertising—are actually rendered in CMYK; it’s just that we can’t perceive it with the naked eye. In his work, Yang wants to starkly present these invisible internal structures to the world. We should make a simple classification of the pictorial sources on which Yang Mian relies. Generally, they can be divided into two types: the first is ancient Chinese painting, which is further sub-divided into landscapes, birds and flowers, and figures, and the second is classic Western painting, which is further sub-divided into (Neo-)Impressionist works and non-(Neo-)Impressionist works. Although he used the same method with different source images, different kinds of dialogues take place between the resulting visual effect and the original source. For example, when printed pictures of an ancient Chinese landscape painting and a classic Western painting undergo Yang Mian’s CMYK treatment of replication and enlargement, the issues they bring to the fore will not necessarily overlap. Both represent internal inquiries into the printing, replication, and dissemination of pictures, but when they are traced back to their respective originals, a dividing line appears in the production of meaning. Furthermore, there are many differences between the printed pictures of (Neo-)Impressionist and non-(Neo-)Impressionist works. As I have noted, Yang Mian’s excavation method is an experiment in metapictures, which are pictures of pictures. In his work since 2008, his pictorial sources have most often been ancient Chinese landscape paintings such as Li Zhaodao’s Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Shu, Guo Xi’s Early Spring, Li Cheng’s Wintry Forest on a Level Plain, Huang Gongming’s The Remaining Mountain, and Zhao Mengfu’s Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains. Interestingly, the source for his replications were versions printed in publications, not the original works of painting. They came from catalogs or art history textbooks, and with perhaps a few exceptions, Yang Mian has never seen the original works. Of course, whether he has seen the original or not is unimportant here, because the series is based on the printed pictures, not the paintings. As a result, he does not strictly adhere to the original dimensions of his source image in his recreation and reconstruction process; he often increases the dimensions to highlight the pictorial texture—the CMYK characteristics—of the printed source. Thus, we can discern varying degrees of detail in the source picture, but when we look at the enlarged CMYK version, all we can vaguely identify is a general outline. What’s interesting is that the source picture and Yang’s image are essentially equivalent; it’s simply that the latter is a copied and enlarged image. If the printed picture of the painting is a narrative, then Yang’s CMYK is undoubtedly the re-telling of that story. If we add the original painting to the equation, then the narrative in CMYK is a text that has been translated three times over. Bizarrely, when we attempt to examine certain details in the enlargement, we also discover that, the more the picture is enlarged, the less distinct those details become. Thus, this creative process both focuses on the limitations of the naked eye and highlights the constraints of the medium of printing. Of course, in addition to being unable to see the details, the limitations of printing are also reflected in variations in the original caused by the uncertainty inherent in CMYK, namely variations in formal elements, including color. Variations in form, such as flattening or elongation, are easy to see, and if you have some art historical knowledge, it’s simple to tell which is Yang’s work. (Of course, this is not entirely certain, because the production of art historical textbooks and catalogs is worth questioning.) Here, the hardest thing to control is naturally the color, a fact that Yang Mian’s works bear out. It goes without saying that CMYK is a standard or an ideal type, which is often associated with a specific visual reference. However, in the actual printing process, slightly off colors are the norm, because the process is constrained by the subjectivity of the designer or the printer’s color mixer, as well as by the printing machines themselves. From this, we discover that, although Yang Mian can control the colors (as I understand it, all of his colors are unmixed, pure colors), he sometimes purposely does not adhere to the highest CMYK standards in his work, and he tries his best to approach the CMYK effect of the source picture. On the surface, all of the pictures adhere to the CMYK standard, but the tones in his works are not consistent—it often happens that some works are too dark, too light, too yellow, or too green. In our minds and experiences, CMYK may always be the most reliable way of replicating and disseminating pictures, but Yang’s experiments with metapictures and visual archeology tell us that CMYK isn’t actually reliable. In other words, CMYK is just a standard for mechanical reproduction; all it does is replicate certain parameters, which can only approach the standard color to which the parameter corresponds. Absolute replication is never possible. In this sense, Yang Mian’s CMYK is more of a non-standard standard; it is a standard that can never be achieved. This issue is so complex because, in addition to everything we have just discussed, we must confront other problems: How does one replicate and convey the mood and atmosphere of a pre-modern Chinese painting? Can these inherent qualities be replicated and conveyed in CMYK? As a result, I think that, even if we are looking at a fine reproduction by Nigensha, it cannot compare to the original piece—this is an undeniable fact. The production process of CMYK printing seems to dissolve that original mood. Common sense tells us that the original painting was completed with brushstrokes, and once it’s transformed into printed matter, this artificial writing process with many elements of chance is compressed into a few fixed digital programs. Thus, even if we can still imagine some of the traditional painting spirit in the original sources of Yang’s CMYK works, then when we directly present and enlarge them with CMYK, I think that the atmosphere and spirit disappear entirely, and nothing but empty points of color remain. In all of his recreated pictures of antique paintings, he has essentially enlarged them, and a special example of this was The Procession (Chaoyuantu) at the Yongle Palace in Shanxi. He transformed the image into CMYK based on a printed source, eventually enlarging it to 380 × 1330 cm, which is nearly the original size of the wall painting. Seeing the original, then coming back to Yang’s distinctive visual work, highlights just how different they are. Although they are equallly surprising, I have to admit that the painterly qualities highlighted in the original are almost reduced to nothing in the CMYK version, but the disappearance of the painterly qualities may be one of the unique features of CMYK. I think that, when we can’t see a painting’s spirit in printed matter, we shouldn’t blame the publication; after all, it has an entirely different image production logic and method from that of painting. However, the most interesting pieces are the several Neo-Impressionist works replicated using the CMYK standard. Yang Mian recreated A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat in his own way. As a representative of Pointillism, Seurat’s original has many of the traits of CMYK color. History also tells us that pure color gradually became part of painters’ vocabularies beginning with the Neo-Impressionists. Influenced by Paul Signac, Seurat chose not to mix colors on his palette, and instead used small dots of pure color to capture the light and shadow and color shifts in nature. Of course, they chose these small dots because the retina completes the tonal effects that they wanted to achieve. Pointillism and CMYK have similar production principles, in that both stem from people’s everyday retinal experience. Once the original work is transformed into a printed image, the effect of the original has changed, and the retinal experience has already been reduced to its lowest level. Here, when recreated and enlarged by Yang Mian, the work may use a color system that is different from the original, but it undoubtedly reveals and reconstructs our retinal experience using the methods of retinal experience. As a result, CMYK eventually returns to bodily instinct and its limitations.
Yang Mian’s sensitivity comes from his distrust of pictures, which is naturally connected to the fact that his (and our) everyday experience is ruled and controlled by text and knowledge. In this sense, he chose to deconstruct and eliminate these rules in his own unique way. This naturally gives his work the critical tone of current cultural politics. On the one hand, our everyday lives are inseparably entangled with images, and pictures have become an important conduit for conveying truth, but on the other hand, pictures themselves are not reliable, and the accurate information they can convey is extremely limited. This is a paradox, but Yang’s experiments with metapictures and visual archeology are meaningful precisely because they reveal the process, logic, and power mechanisms behind the generation of these images. Despite this, I think that Yang Mian’s creative method is, in the end, work. Clearly, what he cares about is not what he paints, but rather why he must paint it that way. In particular, he is conscious of the production method involved in painting technique. As a result, he hopes that one day, this creative method will become a computer program, so that no human effort is required to paint, and everything is done in one keystroke. At that point, he believes that the meaning and value of him and his work will have already shifted. Before the program, he created a metapicture and explored a visual mechanism, and after his method becomes a program, interactions with others and the meanings they generate will become more important. This creative method may lack physical perception, but this does not imply that his work lacks an inherent motivation and drive. It’s surprising, but Yang’s investigations of pictures and visual mechanisms stem from his inner desires and impulses. He even believes that his discoveries are the result of physical awareness. Today, art is not just a kind of work; it is work with implied vitality and purpose. In the end, his experiments have established a focused standard for him. In this sense, we could not foresee that Yang’s art would take this kind of turn, but I believe that, even if he becomes a fox or a fox-like hedgehog, he will always, in his bones, be a hedgehog. Even if the style of his work changes even more, he will always experiment with metapictures and visual archeology.