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For this Millennial Artist, History Is in a Brushstroke

By Angela Bao

Aug. 2, 2018
Artist Yanyan Huang next to her paintings
Artist Yanyan Huang

Yanyan Huang explains how she uses her art to capture cultures and the passage of time.

“I consider myself to be a documentary filmmaker, or history painter,” says artist Yanyan Huang. “I see every gesture as embodying past, present and future—a line is a single distillation of years of practicing similar lines, a brushstroke is a distillation of years of practicing similar brushstrokes.”

Huang paints with confidence and surety, despite her young age. The bold yet muted brushstrokes, dashed across the sprawling canvases in varying shades of pale lilac, black, green, and more, conjure up a hypnotic state. They swirl and dash every which way, evoking a contradictory sense of timelessness and ephemerality. Although each piece is unique, they are all unified in theme and style. The end result is abstract canvases full of undeniable Western influence that nevertheless seem to have Chinese elements infused in them—and why Huang has exhibited all over the world, from Art Basel Hong Kong, to galleries in Rome, Italy.

“Time Pool Silk X” by Yanyan Huang in the East West Bank Collection
“Time Pool Silk X” by Yanyan Huang in the East West Bank Collection
[Yanyan is] very free, doesn’t really care if there’s a shape or not. For someone to do big paintings of that scale, you cannot have a timid personality.

-Manni Liu

It was that subtle fusion between the East and West—and the vibrancy of the artwork—that inspired East West Bank to add several of Huang’s works to its East West Bank Art Collection, which aims to collect and promote contemporary Chinese artists. “She has a very international background, yet…a lot of her strokes are very broad and almost like big Chinese calligraphic strokes,” explains Manni Liu, who helps curate the Art Collection and is senior vice president and manager of customer communications at East West Bank. “There are features that have an Eastern quality to them, yet the Western abstract style is there, too.”

When art becomes life

Huang’s multicultural upbringing greatly influences her art. Born in Sichuan, China, where her grandfather is a well known poet and songwriter, Huang was surrounded by art and culture from a young age. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and currently splits her time between Beijing, New York, and Florence, Italy. Each culture has influenced her approach to art in different but significant ways.

Huang derives her approach to painting—how each piece, down to individual brushstrokes, contradictorily encapsulates an entire history and a fleeting moment in time—from Chinese and Italian cultures. “People live and conduct their lives among stone ruins,” she says of both cultures. “They venerate their pasts as an aspirational ideal. Both of these ancient cultures are constantly looking back while retaining specific cultural traditions.”

"I aspire to a universal language of history and artistic communication. I want as broad of an audience as possible to be able to access my work."

- Yanyan Huang

“Time Pool XV” by Yanyan Huang in the East West Bank Collection
“Time Pool XV” by Yanyan Huang in the East West Bank Collection

Her time in California has also made an impression. “Hollywood and the news media give us daily, constant placebos in lieu of a sense of history and self. We have information instead of knowledge, and knowledge instead of wisdom—it is a giant, collaborative effort in myth-making and cultural amnesia.”

However, Huang acknowledges that the “upside” to California’s amnesia is that it gives people a sense of freedom from the past and allows them to create their own narratives. “California presented the challenge to discover my personal limits of freedom,” she admits, adding that it caused her to broaden her experience by watching more international films. “This was the beginning of my journey, and I was hugely inspired to travel and discover ‘freedom’ for myself.”

A philosophy of freedom

The sense of discovering freedom showcases itself in Huang’s seemingly loose, vibrant brushstrokes, which is what appealed to Liu in the first place. “Personally, that really attracts me—the boldness of how she expresses herself,” says Liu. “She’s very free, doesn’t really care if there’s a shape or not. For someone to do big paintings of that scale, you cannot have a timid personality.”

That freedom even extends itself to how Huang chooses her mediums; instead of limiting herself to just one, she plays around with a variety of mediums, ranging from silk, to traditional canvas, and ink, to gouache (a type of opaque watercolor). However, Huang “resents” oil paints because of the slowness of the oil painting process, which never allows for instantaneously capturing a moment in time. “One can make progress only very slowly,” she says about oil painting. “And once you return to the canvas, you’ve changed as a person, so you might want to change something that already took three hours. You’re then always modifying and trying to grasp the original idea—now long forgotten.”

Instead, Huang prefers quicker-drying mediums to capture each moment of the artistic process and the dichotomies that live within people and cultures. “One color or stroke laid down on the canvas represents a mood, emotion, or event, which leads to other moods, emotions, or events,” she explains. “Over time, you see thousands of gestures, which are all different moods, emotions, and events. It is history painting, emptied of specific historical situations and specific references.”

As for why Huang devotes herself to as difficult a task as capturing history and time, she explains it rather succinctly: “I aspire to a universal language of history and artistic communication. I want as broad of an audience as possible to be able to access my work.”

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