Art is both an escape from politics and a reflection of politics. Artists like Yue Minjun and Ivan Navarro grew up in countries whose governments carefully monitored the behavior of their citizens, which had a profound effect on their world view.
Both of these great artists have overcome obstacles, have gained global recognition and success, although their lives and their artistic expressions are very different.
Yue Minjun is a celebrity in China, and has been an international celebrity since 2007, when one of his works sold for $5.9 million at Sotheby’s London, making it the most expensive work garnered by a Chinese contemporary artist at auction.
Born in 1962, in Northeast China, Minjun grew up in the midst of the the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a time of fear and repression for much of the population. Minjun and his family worked in oil fields in China, living a nomadic existence. Minjun had been creating drawings and paintings since the age of ten, and continued to do so even while working and traveling.
The student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to Minjun moving to a colony of artists in Hongmiao, situated in the Chaoyang district on the outskirts of Beijing, where he honed his signature style of smiling portraits.
“The laughter could be a perfect marriage with feelings.” Minjun said, in a 2015 interview, “If we have the capacity to smile throughout adversity, then our presence will become stronger, tolerant and diverse, both for the artistic culture and for the majority. The direction of my work is allegorical between human nature and our own existence. Because I have noticed that, not only in the East or in China, people are constantly facing emotional conflict.
I want to show how the individual, through painting, must remain awake, and how we need a greater understanding of the basic concepts of nature and life itself.”
Minjun is considered one of the founders of the Cynical Realism movement, that emerged after the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Cynical Realism is characterized by disenchantment with the social and political changes that were taking place in China at the time, and young artists began to present a less idealistic vision of society than artists of earlier generations.
Yue Minjun is not just a great painter, but also a sculptor and printmaker. His works evoke feelings that are universally understood and relatable across cultures, making him not just a great Chinese artist, but a great global artist.
Ivan Navarro was born in Santiago, Chile in 1972. He grew up during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Navarro’s father directed an art program at the Universidad Técnica del Estado in Santiago. He was preparing an exhibit to protest fascism on the day of Pinochet’s takeover, when soldiers tortured or killed many protestors. Navarro’s father was imprisoned for six months, but never returned to teaching.
What Navarro remembers from his childhood, was that the electricity was often shut off to keep people at home and isolated. He often uses neon lighting in his works, as well as words.
Navarro moved to New York in 1977. He enrolled in language classes, got a visa and a job restoring furniture.He would often thumb through the dictionary and keep lists of words in a notebook. “I like words that have two sides, one very ambiguous and one very objective.” he said. “It’s interesting to get better in the language and try to understand the poetic side of a word. Sometimes you get completely lost in the word you’re using.”
Navarro’s works have garnered him a world-wide audience. Ironically, Navarro was asked to represent Chile at the 2009 Venice Biennale, although he had left his country more than a decade earlier. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
The Works of Yue Minjun and Ivan Navarro at VFA
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Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle. Behind Internationally-Renowned Chinese Artist Yue Minjun’s Hysterical Laughter. Forbes. November 7, 2014.
Nazanin Lankarani. The Many Faces of Yue Minjun. The New York Times. December 5, 2012.
Elena Cue. Interview With Yue Minjun. Huffpost. February 16, 2015. Update December 6, 2017.
Hilarie M. Sheets. Man of Refraction. ARTnews. January 26, 2012.
Frank Moller. Politics and Art. Oxford Handbook. June 2016.
Ajay Heble, Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance and Critical Practice (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 78.