Mao Yan: Painting and poetry-writing have reduced a bit more of the barrenness in my life

TEXT:Mengxi, trans. and ed. by CAFA ART INFO    DATE: 2023.11.10

1.jpgExhibition View

In Mao Yan’s solo exhibition, which just opened at the Song Art Museum on 23 September 2023, curator Cui Cancan did not adopt the usual practice of presenting the artist’s case in a chronological manner. Instead, nearly 100 works were selected from the artist’s 26 years of creation as a kind of “section” to showcase Mao’s creative thinking at different stages of his career and also his exploration of new artistic languages in recent years.




5.jpgExhibition View

The exhibition attempts to show how Mao works among various series as a painter who has always been slightly understated and mysterious. What is interesting is the chemical reaction that may be triggered by their juxtaposition and comparison. As curator Cui Cancan sees it, the artist has been “working in the midst of ‘digression’ and ‘out of mind’, and repeatedly going between ‘obsession’ and ‘de-obsession’ in a see-saw struggle” [1] in recent years, which gives rise to a new step of understanding and the value of discussion revolving around the painting.

27.jpgBesides No.4, 68.5×46cm, Ink and Watercolor on Paper, 2020


Broken Teeth No.6, 30×40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2023

Regarding the new solo exhibition and the latest creative series, CAFA ART INFO had a dialogue with the artist Mao Yan.


Mao Yan, (b. 1968), graduated from the Department of Oil Painting, Central Academy of Fine Arts. Now he lives and works in Nanjing. 

Q: What is the new series that this solo exhibition presents? In recent years, there has been a shift towards abstraction in your paintings. What development incorporating the shift can be found in the new series?

Mao Yan: Actually, it’s not a shift or a transformation. It’s just that since 2015, I wanted to try a new series of creations, which is completely separated from my previous creations in terms of the formal language, the basic idea and the logic of creation. At that time, I was sure that I wanted to try the abstract and conceptual approach, and the idea was very clear. It must be parallel to my previous figurative paintings.


Untitled, 36×27.8cm, Oil on Canvas, 2011


Untitled, 36×27.8cm, Oil on Canvas, 2011


Untitled, 36×27.8cm, Oil on Canvas, 2011

At the end of 2021, I decided to resume oil painting. As I had  paused for two years, a period of recovery was required. During this period, I began some small-scale experiments, turning small abstractions of ink and watercolour into oil on canvas, which became the third series in my abstract creation. With new feelings, experiences, and insights accumulated, I took the next step and enlarged the images. More than ten pieces were then created.

34.jpgPencil on Paper, 26×17.9cm, Sketch on Paper, 2009

35.jpgPencil on Paper, 26×17.9cm, Sketch on Paper, 2009


Andy, 46×61cm, Watercolor on Paper, 2010

37.jpgAndy Fairgrieve No.2, 110×70cm, Oil on Canvas, 2010

Meanwhile, the figurative series was being created in parallel. Before, it was a matter of either/or. This was also the first time I created figurative and abstract works at the same time. I found that the language treatment of two in my creations gradually converged, or even connected, which made me less attached to the principle of abstraction. In fact, I don’t have too much deep thinking or burden about abstraction. Rather, I mainly consider as to whether I can accept a certain way of working. For me, the process of creating abstraction is full of fun, and I personally feel that I have not encountered too many obstacles when switching back and forth between abstraction and figuration.

In principle, I don’t paint even one painting more than necessary now. When each work is about to be completed, I must know what I want to paint for the next one, and it must be something I particularly want to paint, whether it is a character or an image. Compared with the past, I may be more rational and prudent when it comes to creation.


Fish Head for Goya, 90×130, Oil on Canvas, 2012

39.jpgXiao Ming No.2, 36×27.8cm, Oil on Canvas, 2013

40.jpgXiao Dai, 130×90cm, Oil on Canvas, 2013-2014

Q: If you believe that your abstraction is more consistent with than different from figuration, and that both belong to a certain kind of figurative abstraction, what would be the driving force that gave rise to these two artistic visions?

Mao Yan: I’m still in the process of figuring out and advancing the works in my abstract series at this stage, so there’s no point in explaining too much just yet. I can only say that I am pushing as far as I can, and I can even say that it is a bit dangerous. It is more or less risky for an artist who already has a stable and mature style to add a new line of creation.

But I also have adequate self-confidence. I just respect my own ideas and choices, without considering too many other factors. I fully understand and accept both recognition and questioning. In fact, it is the self-questioning that makes me feel the need to explore deeper instead of dabbling. Once I make my choice, I won’t be happy with just a little try. This is actually a kind of self-appeal, and that’s all. Even when just writing a word, simple questions as why write it, and why write it in this way deserves self-reflection and self-tracing everytime, not to mention the creation.

41.jpgYoung Man, 110×75cm, Oil on Canvas, 2017

42.jpgWoman with a Mirror, 130×90cm, Oil on Canvas, 2017-2018


Ink Cans on a Sofa, 130×90cm, Oil on Canvas, 2017-2018

Q: I’ve noticed that you started writing poetry in 2014 and then took up a new painting experiment in 2015. Is there a correlation between the poetry-writing and the abstract tendencies in your paintings? Painting seems to impact on your poetry, as some of the imagery in your verses seems to reflect your creative process.

Mao Yan: Writing poetry is a process of self-tracing through very limited language and more compressed words. The process may be meditative and fantastical sometimes, enhancing whimsy and the power of feeling for things that are just a flash of a thought. For example, after I started writing poems, I also began to pay special attention to my dreams every night. Before, I woke up and I pondered over them for a short while only. Now, I try to understand what they mean and where they come from. If I don’t pay attention, a lot of things in my life would fade away. Writing has helped me create a new awareness of memory, which allows me to retrace my experiences, feelings, and deepest emotions. My thinking has become richer and more lively.

In addition, it also made me feel that at this age, I still have a very strong desire to learn and to describe, both of which have changed me in a very good way. I am now much quieter than before and have begun to enjoy being alone more. After a few years of writing poetry, some chemical reactions have begun to occur between poetry-writing and painting; some things are slowly blending in.

Indeed, some of the poems come from feelings I had when painting. Before, when I finished a painting, that was done. Now, I can use the writing to retrace the consciousness. But there is a difference between the two. In painting, I don’t believe in any inspiration at all. Painting for me is the accumulation of deep thoughts. In contrast, I long for inspiration in poetry-writing. In fact that inspiration does exist, and it excites me very much. Sometimes, when something suddenly pops up, I really can’t wait but rush to write it down. This kind of excitement brought by inspiration doesn’t exist in my paintings.

44.jpgNo. 68,8×6cm,Clay Sculpture

45.jpgNo. 69, 37x6cm, Mixed Media

Q: Interestingly, “Master Hong Yi and Kazimir Malevich” seems to suggest that there is a place in your works where other artworks and ideas meet painting. What other works have been influential in shaping your own aesthetic world?

Mao Yan: Regarding the work “Master Hong Yi and Kazimir Malevich” itself, I had the particular desire to paint the image of Master Hong Yi’s passing more than ten years ago, and it wasn’t until the end of the year before last when I started to paint it. The appearance of Kazimir Malevich may have something to do with the Russo-Ukrainian war, as Malevich was an art master born in Kiev, Ukraine. I felt that there was a kind of “emptiness” in the scene of Master Hong Yi’s passing. His joys and sorrows and Malevich’s supremacist, dead, black squares gave me a special feeling, and I believed they fitted together well. Later, an artist friend of mine shared his feelings and said that the white wall behind Master Hong Yi’s passing had been waiting for Malevich’s black squares for many years.

46.jpgMaster Hongyi and Mariewicz, 30×40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2021

Earlier, about twenty years ago, I read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and I was very excited by the density and delicacy of his language, his very subtle and sensitive descriptions of memories, and his ability to capture the subtle ups and downs of emotions, which has also had some influence on my paintings. The changes in my works in recent years are indeed related to my intensive reading of poetry in the past few years, which has made my mind a little more active and richer than before. Now I am gradually adding something to my works. What exactly should I add? In fact, it is similar to the state of writing poetry, as in which words to use, what concepts to borrow, and what tone to use for implementation. Whether I write or paint, it all happens in the same field. What I can say for sure is that I don’t feel as empty as I used to, or the level of barrenness has been reduced a little bit more.

Text by Mengxi, trans. and ed. by CAFA ART INFO


[1] Article of curator

About the Exhibition

Poster.jpgCurator: Cui Cancan

Duration: September 23 - December 20, 2023

Venue: Song Art Museum

Image Courtesy of the Artist.