LOS ANGELES — Things are not what they seem in Culver City’s Carmichael Gallery. At first glance, the inscrutable smiles in Beijing-based artist Yue Minjun’s self-portraits express mirth or merriment. The artist’s face, frozen in laughter, is constant throughout the gallery’s series of lithographs — the crinkle of his eyes, the white of his teeth, the sheen on his forehead. These features give away nothing, although one might detect irreverence, sarcasm, madness or pleasure, sometimes all at once.
Yue’s wide-lipped rictus is a riddle couched in the language of pop. Behind the toothy smile is either a holy fool or a wise man, a trickster or an iconoclast.
In “Smiles are the soul’s kisses,” three of Yue’s likenesses wear black Speedos, their bodies lying at rest. This motif is repeated in other prints, although the artist’s poses run the gamut from disciplined stillness to acrobatic horseplay. “A smile from one heart radiates to all hearts” depicts Yue in lotus position and with multiple arms, resembling a Hindu god in meditation, while “One smile will lead to another” portrays him as an unbridled Tarzan, swinging from branch to branch.
Because the titles of these prints are uniformly uplifting and saccharine, it’s easy to assume that the artist’s laughter is underpinned by sarcasm or dark humor. In some cases, the lithographs do provoke an unsettling feeling of despair tinged by the exaggeration of Yue’s smiles. The ringed planet foregrounded by a cacophony of laughing faces in “Smiles make the world go ’round” and the flight of pink balloons over a parade of identical, horned faces in “A smile is worth a thousand words” suggest the beauty and terror of utopian dreams.
In other prints, however, one sees the artist as wise man and ascetic, the smile on his face conveying more pain than pleasure. Yue has said in the past that his intent is to express what it is to be a modern Chinese citizen. For those of us outside China, the content of Yue’s laughter may be opaque, but it is not unknowable. In “Smile and the world smiles with you,” Yue’s trademark expression is juxtaposed with portraits of two Western pop culture icons, Tintin and Garfield. Here, the artist cheekily stands in for the East, using the extralinguistic expression of comics to invite the viewer’s laughter or amusement.
Also featured in the gallery are street artists Mark Jenkins and Aakash Nihalani, whose works, like Yue’s, are both playful and perplexing. Jenkins’s “Chrysalis” installation features lifelike human dummies wrapped in large, hanging cocoons. The dummies, fully clothed and in fetal position, resemble victims in a sci-fi horror film (or of a twisted serial killer). In another corner of the gallery, Nihalani’s sleek trompe l’oeil sculptures play with perspective and color to create brilliant, eye-popping patterns reminiscent of Sol LeWit sculptures. As with Yue’s lithographs and Jenkins’s sculptures, the viewer must do a double take and reconsider his first impressions.
Yue Minjun, Mark Jenkins and Aaakash Nihalani are on view at Carmichael Gallery (5795 Washington Blvd, Culver City, California) through June 30.
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