YAN PEI-MING, Exécution, Après Goya, 2008, oil on canvas, 280 × 400.7 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

YAN PEI-MING, All Crows Under The Sun Are Black!, 2012, oil on canvas, 280 × 400 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

YAN PEI-MING, Moonlight, 2011, oil on canvas, 280 × 400 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

Black Paintings

Yan Pei-Ming

David Zwirner
USA China France

The latest works of Yan Pei-Ming—known for his large monochromatic portraits of political figures and celebrities—is currently being featured in his second solo show at David Zwirner gallery in New York. The title of the exhibition is inspired by Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings,” a posthumously titled series of wall paintings, which consists of haunting visions that portray the darker sides of humanity. Many of the paintings in the current show depart from Yan’s signature work of singular, well-known media figures, instead referencing broader, social and political issues.

Among the five paintings on view is Exécution, Après Goya (2008)—Yan’s interpretation of Goya’s masterpiece The Third of May 1808 (1814), which depicts a firing squad executing Spanish civilians who had revolted against the French occupation of their country. In Yan’s version, he has created an indeterminate, crimson-colored backdrop, against which the protagonists stand. The central figure of the painting—a man facing the squad with his arms raised in the air—is rendered in white and creamy yellow, while every other part of the scene is painted in red, using thick, bold brushstrokes. In removing the historical context from The Third of May—the town in the background and the crowd of onlookers from Goya’s original are erased—the imagery of Exécution becomes eerily nonspecific, as though it could be a scene of military conflict in any era of modern history.

Another work in the exhibition is All Crows Under the Sun Are Black! (2012), a near pitch black painting, which features a barely recognizable Acropolis on the horizon that fades into an intimidating mass of feverishly painted crows in the sky. The iconic monument is depicted as an ominous, forlorn structure, stripped of its historic value and grandeur. The foreboding scene seems to depict the alarming power of the unruly mob to manipulate history and culture.

The four-meter-wide Moonlight (2012), also rendered in shades of gray, shows a dinghy filled with passengers, amid rough waters, with another ship (one cannot tell whether it is friend or foe) in the far distance. Yan sees Moonlight as representing the plight of illegal immigrants, and indeed the atmosphere of the painting is fraught with tension and anxiety. The title of the piece refers to the moonlight that shines on a section of the dinghy, perhaps the one ray of hope for the refugees who float helplessly, and aimlessly, in the dark, in search of escape.

While the works in “Black Paintings” explore darker aspects of modern civilization, including human conflict and social instability, as paintings each possesses a rugged vitality that is dynamic and beautiful. Though the subjects are grave, Yan achieves a curious sense of serenity that invites viewers to contemplate each canvas, rather than wallow in the sorrow of their themes.