Home About Theme Exhibitions Programs Collection Books & Media Contact

Yan Sun – A True American Master

George W. Korńye, Director of Galerie Korńye, Dallas, TX
Essay for the book, "Yan Sun - Cross Culture . Cross Century"

This special publication is being compiled during an ever expanding and tumultuous period in a new generation of not only aspiring artists but an expanding interest from individual collectors, museums, institutions, and corporate collectors both in the American and International markets. This is not to be confused with the proven and lasting scholarship of the history of "Fine Art.” It is the highest form through academic studies reflective of cultures, historic events, and of the genre subjects before the advent of imagery through photography when legends, fables and stories interpreted in those categories were interpretations without historic proofs except through the written or spoken word. Those mysteries have stirred the interest of scholars for the past generations to capture and display in museums of the work, for the young and old alike to view under that umbrella of common human interest and bonding of cultural intellects.

One can never forget or diminish the disciplines that are required to build anything of lasting quality and anything of this value. For an artist, it starts with a desire springing from a talent with, but without encouragement and thorough training of basics, such talent, most likely, will be atrophied or misdirected. The basics such as drawing, draftsmanship, composition, materials, observations, and inner interpretations are vital to the process. Unfortunately there is much evidence that social and market promotions of abstract pictures adulterates the true discipline of rigorous training when fame can be a quick promise of commercial prosperity to be abandoned for next seasons style.

Yan Sun is a true master by any critical definition. His passion and possession of thorough “Old World training” in pursuing BFA degree at Northwest Normal University and MA degree in Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts in China led to subsequent additional degree training in the United States. Upon completing his MFA degree at Texas A&M University-Commerce, Texas, he was recruited to become a professor of Fine Arts at Muskingum College, Ohio where he currently shares his abilities and inspirations with the current generation of aspiring traditional artists, much as it has been for centuries from master to student and beyond in the truest tradition of all the classic arts. Such is true for dance, classical music, literature, and master sculptures and artisans of all categories. This perpetuation of century old traditions of dedication and discipline keeps the progression of civilization, in the classic sense, on a high and grand path for generations yet to be. The questions remains “How many of us can leave such a noble legacy?”

The ingenuous realism of Yan Sun doesn’t relate to deliberate fanciness and fineness; rather, it upholds the plain beauty of the Nature. This realism manifested itself in the Coal Miner Series, first shown in the senior show as a significant component toward his BFA degree. This early 1980’s series depicted coal miners in various aspects: their hard working environment, their generous and forthright characteristics, as well as their longing for a happy and desirable life. The Coal Miner Series had founded Yan Sun’s realism, a style that is remarkably expressed by close observation and detailed depiction of everyday life. To the surprise of many people, the artist did not run into these coal miners by accident, but instead was one of them. For almost seven years, this artist was living and working as a coal miner at a coal mine in Northwest China. Therefore, the whole experience and the inspiration for his art were simply the artist’s own life.

In Coal Miner Series–Woman Coal Miners (Figure 211), viewers see over-worked women who are doing rough work to make a living. Coal Miner Series – Generation after Generation (Figure 208) depicted two coal miners of two generations in a monumental style. Recuperation (Figure 209) represents a scene in a hospital where injured workers were being treated. The life for the coal miners was simple and hard; the faces and hands of them were dark and coarse; and their bodies were worn-out. However, the artist had found in them a simplicity that moved him, a modesty that influenced him, a forthright spirit that affected him, and a strong will that touched him. It was a beauty that was in the character of people he saw everyday. Yan Sun had created over a hundred sketches and paintings for the birth of Coal Miner Series, and his final touches were done at the coal mine. This series emphasized the overall feeling of simplicity and clemency, and it used a tone that is natural and straightforward. The viewers could almost smell the grime and mildew of the tunnel, as well as the pleasure of those coal miners as they mined the twinkling black gold.

Yan Sun was born in a family that belonged to, according to the Chinese political classification during the Cultural Revolution, the “Five Black Categories.” At the age of 14, he became one of the youngest of the “young intellectuals” who were sent to the countryside in 1968. In the village, Yan had experienced almost all aspects of farm work, from growing wheat to raising pigs. He was allowed to leave the village after three years of farm work and was assigned to be a coal miner. Every day, he was on the working face, being busy among the pillars and timber. Many of his friends died from accidents and gas explosions. When asked about his life of underground mining, Yan summarized it as

To find light in the darkest corner; to see colors in the dreariest place; and to be expectant at the most hopeless time. — Yan Sun

It was in the coal mine where Yan Sun met his first art teacher, Deng Sanzhi, a former art editor of a publishing house who now held the job of a custodian. Yan Sun wanted to learn art so eagerly that he asked Mr. Deng to be his teacher. However, Mr. Deng was in the darkest time of his life like numerous other Chinese intellectuals who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and did not intend to teach anyone art. Mr. Deng used himself as an example to explain to Yan how hard it was to be a real artist and why he was unwilling to teach him. Although Yan was very disappointed, he kept visiting Mr. Deng. One day, he made a visit to Deng’s apartment, but no one was in. So Yan left a note on his door, expressing his desire of learning art. The next day, when Yan stepped out of the dark mine tunnel and adjusted his eyes, he was surprised to see Mr. Deng, waiting for him. “You can paint. You can be a real artist,” Mr. Deng told Yan Sun emphatically. Later, Mr. Deng explained to Yan Sun why he changed his mind to teach him and why he believed Yan had great potential in art. The only thing that made him confident was the note Yan left on his door, because it not only expressed a strong will of learning art but also the character and gift of an artist. Since then, the happiest time for Yan Sun was to go to Deng’s apartment for private, informal art classes after a day’s hard work of the coal mine. It took half an hour to Deng’s, but the distance never deterred him from fulfilling his dream.

The efforts of Yan Sun and his teacher were not in vain. In 1977, universities in China restored the entrance exams after ten years, and Yan Sun became one of the first group of college students after the Cultural Revolution. During the four college years, Yan Sun received rigorous training in Western painting and therefore read a lot about Western art. Among the Western masters, Yan especially appreciated Holland artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), Italian artist Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610), Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Jean-François Millet (1814-75), as well as British Henry Moore (1898-1986). During the summer time, Yan would draw and paint from real life, especially the villages and the coal mines that he was familiar with. The land and people there had already become an important part of his life.

When he continued his education in the graduate school of Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, he followed Professor Wang Ziyun in an in depth study of Chinese art history. According to Yan Sun, “Chinese philosophy emphasizes the oneness of inner feeling and external observation. The coupling of reality and subjective feeling makes awareness and judgment possible. Chinese philosophy places emphasis on finding the source inside the human mind. Artists steeped in Chinese philosophy must pay particular attention to the cultivation of mind in order to acquire this mental ability while engaging in art creation.” Therefore, while attending in Texas A&M University-Commerce for his MFA degree, Yan Sun seemed particularly interested in representing philosophical ideas. The cross-cultural background played a significant part in Yan Sun’s artistic style, a style that demonstrates both the fantasticality seen in modern Western art and the mystery and tranquility unique to Eastern art.

In 1990s, Yan Sun had created a series of paintings characterized by their black backgrounds. In these paintings, some seemingly unassociated images appeared in one space, and they have composed of a bewildered, fantastic, and helpless loneliness. Burning in the Wind: The Memory Fragments (Figure 12), A Journey in Space (Figure 25), and Pool (Figure 28) are among the most manifesting examples. We can almost imagine the strong relationship between such a quality and the artist’s situation in that time period. It was not that the artist intentionally distorted or contorted the images; his goal was to seriously examine and visualize his dream, thoughts, and emotions. In order to accomplish the visualization, he had created an artistic conception that is supported by interweaving and inverting time and space. Also, it is corroborated with a strong, mysterious contrast of brightness and darkness. Yan states:

As the products of inspiration between mind and nature, my artworks are composed of three main issues: Life · Time · Space. Nature not only gives me a sense of existence but also the meaning of life. Life has associations with time and space. LIFE means being alive in general, and it also means the life of the artist and the life of the human being. TIME is history, and it bridges past and present. Time means moments in real time, as well as psychic time which can bring moments completely separated in real time together simultaneously. SPACE is my dream. Space is not only real space; it is psychic, illusionary, and unlimited space. Although my paintings are two-dimensional, they are not representative of the three basic physical dimensions. That’s why I prefer the black background. The black background functions as the changed psychic and dream space within which there is unlimited potential of happening. The elements that appear in that space do not necessarily occupy the same time frame or physical space. (Yan Sun, 2003. Life · Time · Space—Yan Sun’s Paintings, Hayden Museum of American Art, p. 1.)

An art professor who now teaches both Western and Eastern art history, as well as studio art, Yan Sun continues enriching his aesthetics, and at the same time, creates artworks that represent his ideas of contemporary art. The subjects of his paintings range from dream-like scenes to views of everyday life. Yan Sun’s strong aspiration of representing spirit and humanity has been revealed in his still-life paintings. No matter if it is deliberate arrangements or free placement, the viewers can always feel the sharp confrontation between good and evil, as well as justice and immorality. In some of Yan Sun’s paintings, such as Peaceful Emotion (Figure 219) and Eternal Love (Figure 229), the glint and flash of cold steel is apparent. However, they only set off the humanistic values more visibly through religious pictures, depicting the hymnal, violin, and drawings by children. This is a philosophical thought about eternity and moments; and this is an attempt to use images to reveal invisible activities in the psychic world. Yan Sun often paints skulls, objects that have been infused with religious meanings. Not only the artist saw them frequently in Tibetan areas in China, he also observes their use in Texas and in Indian tribal areas. He uses them to represent the theme of life and death.

Yan Sun has long been fascinated with various cultural traditions, especially those of Tibetan and Native American Indians because of the mystery of their religions, their genuine devotion, and their lively, touching, and colorful artworks. He had traveled to and lived in Tibetan areas. Yan loves to see the artistic and historic displays of American Indian in museums and also likes to visit Indian tribes in Oklahoma and New Mexico. Some Indian festivals, such as the “Red Earth Festival,” have now become a rich resource of the artist. The legacy of American Indian inspired Yan Sun to create a series of American Indian portraits. Yan Sun tried to probe into and represent the spirit of Native American India culture through this particular art form. It is apparent that he has devoted a great passion and amount of time in this area.

The depiction of people and scenes are powered by the skilled techniques and perceptive observation of life. Yan Sun’s paintings Remembrance (Figure 30) and Blue in Red Earth (Figure 193) pay an homage to American Indian culture in a special way. These paintings represented the mystery of the culture. However, with the infusion of emotion and celebrating colors, they are imbued with human kindness and beauty of life.

Yan Sun’s landscape and marine paintings evoke the feeling of being a part of nature and its beloved images of forests, snow-mountains, rivers and lakes, and its evening glows. Among these paintings, Wonders of Water (Figure 151) and Morning Reflection (Figure 155) are expressions of how the artist is sentimentally attached to the Nature, as are Winter Creek (Figure 133) and Tranquility (Figure 143).

The ballet and music paintings of Yan Sun form a significant part of his art world. The artist believes that the best paintings are the visualization of artist’s subjective feeling. In paintings, such as The Land of Snow (Figure 31), Ballet Skirt (Figure 39), and Before Dancing (Figure 42), the viewer can realize how the artist captures some unimportant moments in order to give expression of beauty in everyday life. The paintings impress with a gentle, quiet tone. The rhythm moves along the softness of color, comfortable in contrast, peaceful. By focusing on the artistic conception Yan Sun achieved that simple and unadorned harmony which is a prime trait of his art.

Imaginative, though realistic, the art of Yan Sun has gained great attention and fame as he shows a continuous development throughout his career. His paintings are honored with many international, national, and regional exhibition awards on every stage. Yan Sun believes that an artist “has a large world in which to experience life; and every artist also has a small world in which to discover himself. An artist makes a long and difficult journey in a network made up of reality, dream, transience and eternity. And an artist expresses the spirit through art.” For Yan Sun, “Art is the revelation of one’s spirit through one’s talent.

Each of these plateaus is a set of visual stairs towards examining the intellectual and artistic growth of his ever evolving band of followers, and each has been examined under a critical eye. The “Old World” Masters were intense teachers of their entries through each phase of development until they were assigned through their guild to a patron. This was the privilege of being accepted in the master’s atelier and only those who were dedicated were able to accept these rigors.

In Yan Sun one can only observe that he might well have been a prized pupil in the Eighteenth Century and Nineteenth Century, when academic and early Impressionist art evolved to the highest plateau. Since those patient years the world has evolved into a pattern of controversial art. The ongoing question being presented is “Yes, but is it Fine Art?” by definition alone art is not easily defined.

At the high level of advanced efforts the artist represented here reflects the thoroughness of academic technique or “tight” compositions of figural and Trompe l'oeil visual deception paintings. He interprets such compositions with a symbolism that requires the viewer to actually climb into the painting to capture the artist’s objective. This is very much like a difficult passage of a great symphony or creative novel. Oh, such a marvelous adventure.

Now look at the advancement to Impressionist paintings where the hand is more loose and spontaneous. Reflect closely at the basics still prevail. A foundation is essential to build anything that has lasting qualities. Note that each plateau advances the study of the subject or scene in the same manner. The Italian Renaissance artist must have the hand that pays obedience to the intellect, as well as, liberty to examine variations and/or interpretations. Most notably in landscape, it was first thought that no one could improve on the beauty of our Creator’s canvas thus it was neglected save for the interpretation for we all see beauty as the desired ideal.

For the reader, place yourself into each work herein represented with a disciplined focus to the exclusion of all that surrounds you and embrace Yan Sun’s creative genius into your intellect without attention to the clock. Visualize the artist at his easel. Are not these images you are viewing born of basic talent, imagination, and presented as an artistic feast that can make eyes tear and not by fashion or deception?

Let us realize that there is no future in the arts without the past. Let us analyze architecture in the true art sense where mathematical proportions are more valid today than ever before. They evolved from the Greek first, then the Romans, where such styles as Palladian are constantly structured into today’s buildings. It shall be so as far as one can expand their vision of space and proportion.