Yang Shen paints his childhood fantasies. On his canvas, pupils await the arrival of US President Richard Nixon; sailors gaze out through binoculars; and the Chinese children’s song “Yifenqian” comes to life.
The 42-year-old Beijing artist grew up during a time when resources were scarce. His father taught art at a secondary school, and it was on campus that Yang discovered his dream of becoming an artist.
One day, Yang found some discarded modeling clay on campus and began shaping it into figures of animals and people. A painter who was friends with his father saw his creations and advised Yang to pursue art training.
Yang studied mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and graduated in 1996. During his college career he experimented with graffiti and recalled the delight his clay creations gave him during childhood.
“It turned out that my love for literature and comics, together with my art training, all pointed toward painting stories. I found pleasure by building a fictional world on canvas that reflects my imagination, memories, desires and thoughts,” Yang wrote in “All for Fun,” his his article on Artand.cn.
This shift in style is reflected in his 2008 oil painting series The World Without Pain. Against a somber background, the paintings illustrate a creature between man and animal, with two short ears on its head and a drowsy face. The dark imagery is inspired by real-life challenges and things that happened to his friends, he said.
“The creature deviates from the way in which rabbits and cartoon characters are normally depicted. It should be interpreted as a victim, being tied, cut, imprisoned or poisoned. But there are times when the rabbit grabs weapons and defends itself, like setting a toy soldier on fire in an imaginary world,” curator Yang Guopeng says.
In 2011, Yang started painting The Zoo series. The series contains three of his best works: “Nocturnal House,” “Sailor and Lake Monster” and “Navy and Kelp.”
“The whole series just feels like a brand new start,” Yang said. “A zoo is how people imitate nature both for academic and entertainment purposes, which is similar to painting.”
“I don’t want to be a painter who is known for nostalgia. This series intrigues me because I was able to turn the zoo into a stage where all my fantasies could play their magic,” he said.
In the Zoo series, Yang’s imagination is vividly expressed. In bright colors, or sometimes just black and white, the series features numerous icons of the 1980s. In “Acrobatics,” four trilobites are sprawled on the ground while two acrobats are performing a balancing act in the background. The series creates a bizarre atmosphere because it features scenes that would never take place in a real zoo.
Yang says he still needs to improve a lot. He believes his work will find a market if it’s good enough.
Looking back at his career, he says he hasn’t changed all that much.
“I still love making up drawings and scenes in my head. Sometimes I play with modeling clay to better understand the characters’ motion and lighting,” Yang says.
“Maybe I was a better artist when I was six. I indulged myself in the game, I didn’t care what the audience would think, and I didn’t get upset over imperfections. Because I only had one bar of modeling clay, I would remake even my best works. It was all for fun,” he said.