REVIEW James Elkin starts off his wonderful book What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) with the simple statement that "painting is alchemy," an elegant encapsulation of the process by which combining oils and pigments, applying that mixture onto a canvas, and generally getting one's hands dirty results in something as ethereal as one of Monet's Water Lilies. Elkin's words came to mind while looking at Franco-Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming's massive watercolor and oil paintings. Yan's paintings are alchemical double exposures: we are asked to view them simultaneously as palimpsest-like records of their material creation and as indexes of their subjects. Their visceral emotional impact comes from the tension between these two ways of seeing, a tension that is present in every brush stroke and paint globule.
Take Yan's portrait of our new president, painted last year. Obama regards us cautiously. His sober visage and weary gaze the products of roughly brushed, smeared and daubed blacks, whites and grays seem to anticipate the disappointment that will invariably accompany the enormous, near-impossible task before him. The spattering mist of paint droplets that streak his face and suit make the canvas look as if it has been left for the birds, so to speak. This is not the face of the Great Progressive Hope enshrined in street art hagiography. This is not a presidential portrait. This is a portrait of a man a rightfully exhausted and undoubtedly doubt-filled man who happens to be the president. The aggregated crudeness of Yan's technique is not in the service of caricature or grotesquerie. Rather much like Yan's earlier portraits of Pope John Paul II, Bruce Lee, anonymous prostitutes, and himself Obama displays the battle scars of a forceful struggle with portraiture itself.
The political resonances of that representational struggle echo resoundingly throughout this solo exhibition, and the struggle is often one of life and death. On the wall adjacent to Obama, there are four equally large black and white oil portraits depicting unnamed U.S. soldiers and veterans. Each is ambiguously titled Life Souvenir, followed by a different date. Do the numbers mark when these people returned home, or the hour of their death, or both? A morbid terminus is suggested, metonymically, by Returning Home (2008) which depicts the flag-draped coffins of the recent war dead; an image that the Bush administration so pointedly tried to remove from the public domain. A similar ambiguity suffuses the more recent "New Born, New Life" series: I couldn't help but think of the gore porn photos used by anti-abortion extremists when looking at Yan's watercolors of newborn infants emerging from murky pools of placental red. Even Obama faces a presidential memento mori in the massive watercolors of U.S. currency on the gallery's upper level, each mottled denomination bearing the portrait (in this context, rendered worthless as legal tender, while being worth quite a lot, since Yan tends to receive blue chip bids at auction) of a "great man" who has come and gone.
YAN PEI-MING: YES! Through May 23. Tues.Sat., 11 a.m.6 p.m. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut, SF. (415) 749-4563, www.waltermcbean.com