“I always have to betray my work. I can’t imagine doing the same thing for thirty years,” said Yan Pei-Ming of his new works.
Born in Shanghai in 1960, Mr. Pei-Ming is among the most respected artists of his generation. His monumental, often monochromatic paintings of ferocious animals, famous people from history, and icons from our past are world-famous.
I met him on the occasion of his new solo exhibition, which opened on Thursday, at the Milan premises of the MASSIMODECARLO gallery.
Titled “Wild Game,” it features a body of new and never-before-seen works. This is the latest of a number of solo exhibitions with the Milan gallery, a collaboration that started in 1998, but it is the first project for this venue.
“I designed it for this space. I like to do different things for each exhibition,” he said while smoking a cigar in the courtyard.
“In this case, this space inspired me a lot,” he revealed. “Have you seen the restroom?” he asked me enthusiastically.
The gallery has changed location several times and it pushed him to engage with peculiar venues, very distant from the white cube, he said.
Throughout his career, Mr. Pei-Ming has held exhibitions in former venues of the MASSIMODECARLO gallery, including the 18th-century Palazzo Belgioioso, a stone’s throw from La Scala, and the Via Ventura warehouse on the eastern outskirts of the city.
“There are galleries in Paris that have never changed location for 60 years. Massimo likes to change,” meaning Massimo De Carlo, the gallery’s founder.
In the rooms of Casa Corbellini-Wesselman, an architectural jewel designed by Piero Portaluppi in the 1930s, the artist presents a series of paintings of various sizes illuminated by unusual colors for his production, like shades of lilac, light green, pink, and sky blue.
The show is filled with references to Western art history. His series of Mona Lisas is particularly famous, and one of them, I’m told, has been acquired by the Louvre Museum.
In the main hall, a picture of an ox carcass – a popular subject in art, from Rembrandt to Francis Bacon – faces Pei-Ming’s version of the portrait of Innocent X.
It is a reinterpretation of Velazquez’s depiction of the 17th-century pope that the artist has envisioned with his fist up and his arm exposed by a rolled-up sleeve.
His work, for him, is a constant challenge, a new one every time, he said. “I always have to betray myself. To betray my work.”
A pair of paintings of tigers descending from the mountain are placed opposite each other in another room. They are symbols of strength, manifestations of power, elements that often recur in Pei-Ming’s work, and a tribute to the new lunar year.
He chose the colors thinking of the arrival of Spring and this particular place, he said. The green directly echoes the colors of the marble in the room and the fireplace in the corner, he told me as we walked through the exhibition.
In the same room, the artist decided to include a painting of Shanghai in the morning. The Oriental Pearl Tower is clearly visible through the dense air of the early hours of the day.
It is the second landscape in the exhibition. In the first room, a painting of the facade of Milan’s cathedral captures a view of Piazza Duomo with the statue of King Vittorio Emanuele II in the foreground.
“Shanghai is my city, and Milan is Massimo’s,” he said. “There is a bit of myself and a bit of Massimo in this exhibition.”
And he means it literally: among the paintings on display, there are a large self-portrait of the artist and a portrait of Mr. De Carlo.
“Mine is bigger, as a reminder that the artist is more important than the gallery,” he said with a smile.
He also said he is satisfied with the result, and he believes the exhibition has turned out to be exactly as he imagined it.
“Do you like Milan?” I asked him. “A lot. Italy in general.” He also replied he loves the food, and he likes Italians. “Very intelligent people,” he said.
The Duomo church in Milan particularly impressed him, he added. “Master craftsmen worked on it for generations, and they never saw it finished. Today you can’t do that anymore. Everything is instantaneous, fast. Who isn’t always on their phone? This has, also, some negative implications.”
– Yan Pei-Ming’s “Wild Games” is on view at MASSIMODECARLO (Via Lombardia, 17) until April 2.