Mao Yan: New Paintings | PACE

Mao Yan’s paintings are united by their colour palette of dusty blues and greys - as well as the formidable skill involved in their construction. The Chinese artist’s subject matter varies widely: psychologically intense portraits on one end of the spectrum, abstract works of shard-like shapes which he calls “broken teeth” at the other. In this wide-ranging show at PACE, there are a couple of anomalies too: a couple of cute painted cats, and a lone landscape of the view outside Mao’s studio (second picture, below).

Sfumato is the name of his go-to painting technique, in which differences between colours are shaded in such that they transition gradually, not suddenly. This adds to the prevailing sense of what I called “dusty” above. What we see on these canvases is mediated, formed through a misty veil, withholding rather than assertive.

Mao Yan, ‘Man in Windbreaker No. 2’ (2023) Man in Windbreaker No. 2 (2023)

My favourite of the portraits at the PACE show is pictured above. The male subject’s billowing white clothing, skinny forearms and widow’s peak seem eaten away, and sometimes overlaid, by the bluish background. We lose our sense of the layers of man and environment as we look closer. But his gaze, picked out in greeny-white pin pricks by Mao’s brush, holds the whole together.

It’s a still, intense point that the clouds whirl round. Just as the dark shards of broken teeth are fixed in place, in the abstract works.

Mao Yan, ‘Reflection in a Night Scene (Studio)’ (2021) Reflection in a Night Scene (Studio) (2021)

Or, in the single landscape on show, in the contrast between the sharply delineated, electric-lit studio shelves reflected in the glass, and the murky trees and sky that are really out there, behind the glass. We cling to the focused detail as misty uncertainty creeps in from elsewhere.

The artist would approve of our finding such clarity in his works. “Even in abstract paintings, the artist’s subjective consciousness has a clear intention, which is the code of the language chosen by the artist and the strength found in his painting lexicon,” Mao has said.

Maybe it’d please him to know too, how much I think his paintings benefit from the technical skill enabling him to pick out the fading or coming sun against these trees, all in blurred variations of blue-grey. Or the blue-grey mist enveloping that intensely staring man’s windbreaker.

Mao Yan: New Paintings is at PACE (London). 19 January - 09 March 2024