Yaya Yajie Liang’s paintings are brightly coloured depictions of imaginative figures, animals, objects and gestures. Liang explores sensations and psychological ideas such as control, power dynamics and dreams. Liang’s abstract paintings are informed by traditional Chinese painting techniques and philosophy that incorporate metaphorical signifiers and investigations of the Rhizome Network Theory. Liang’s paintings expand beyond the canvas, representing a metaphorical exploration of the mind, thought processes and human nature.
Summer Palace, 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 170 x 220 cm, © The Artist
Can you tell me about the three works that are in the current exhibition?
I submitted two large paintings and one small work. The context between all three are very different. With the work, Summer Palace I wanted to capture the sensation and rhythm of summer rain. The movement of painting is very important to me, and I wanted to recreate a sensation. It is not a stable image, and your eyes dance around the painting.
You mentioned that your works all feed off of each other. Do you create motifs, gestures and characters that are repeated in different works?
I explore related motifs, and the expression is an important part of my painting method.
This specific piece reminded me of works by Christina Quarles. I see abstract figures in a surreal landscape. There is a lot of movement and different gestural explorations.
There is a dialogue between the figurative and abstract elements that I paint.
During the painting process, how do you decide upon different elements to engage in that dialogue?
Nothing is planned, and there is no precise conversation. I just start from one point which leads to another. Temporality is an important concept in my painting.
Clarice Starling, 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60 cm, © The Artist
How do you create different representations of objects?
The figures and objects that I choose are quite dangerous to me in some way. I’m fascinated with fetish, texture, surfaces, and the inner and outer world.
What is it about the fetish that interests you?
The body is an important concept for me. Not only the body in terms of humans or animals, but also in terms of our soul or a body of knowledge.
You mentioned network systems and connecting different elements in your work in a system.
Since I paint and write for my degree, I’m trying to bring a kinship between the soul and the image. I don’t want to be reduced to representing the soul as a figure in the painting, but I want to use the soul as a body to reshape the painting process.
You mentioned the Rhizome Theory. What is it that interests you about that?
It’s a network that has a different centre. It’s non linear and in the Rhizome network you can use knowledge modes to connect to different cells, images and figures. Instead of having one directional thought process, where one thing leads to another in a consecutive order, the Rhizome network allows you to have different thoughts and ideas that can be accessed all together in one network. The painting is a visualisation of the different dispersed ideas.
Ask Before You Bite, 2021, Oil on canvas, 190 x 235 cm © The Artist
Your work deals with a body of thought, or a collection of ideas expressed within a network.
In this painting, I tried to capture the sensation between lovers. I’m fascinated with how people fall in love and the desire to name another subject and to categorise people in a certain position. The power dynamics between people in relationships is interesting to me. I try to capture this sensation in the work. I try to push the colour to its limits. I always use very bright colours which adds to this dream space. I moved from the representational world to the perceived world. In the perceived world, you can observe all of the elements, reflect, and deconstruct the space.
It seems that your work has some autobiographical elements and personal investigations. Does this relate to your identity as a Chinese artist?
My background is in Chinese traditional painting, and I always felt like a stranger in the Western world. Chinese philosophy is quite different from Western philosophy. In Chinese philosophy, we always emphasise that we are just one point in the universe and we don’t have to concur. The landscape is just a reflection of your mind, not a literal representation of a landscape in the natural world. With traditional Chinese painting, working on rice paper, there is a feeling that you can always extend your drawings endlessly. It gave me a sense of expanding the space on the canvas. This is part of the reason why I tend to keep the white space of the canvas.
Do you have Western references that show up in your painting now that you live in London?
I’m fascinated with Breugel’s work, because it gives me the feeling of how a landscape can become a body full of details. I feel a connection between Bruegel’s work, Chinese painting and different philosophers. The landscape is imaginary, and there are different elements from the representational world. Growing up in a very traditional Chinese family, I always dreamed of going outside of that world, to Hollywood or somewhere very Western. However, when I actually moved to this new world, I felt that I was still an outsider. I felt like I was living between these two worlds. It can be very unsettling, especially also the fact that I am queer, and didn’t come out until I was living in the UK. I felt like my nationality and sexual identity reduced me to feel like a non-human animal at my core.
How does queer identity show up in your work?
It’s more of a personal feeling for me. The way I live and work as an outsider to the dominant culture. I’m a stranger who is disrupting and breaking down the dominant language that is already established by society and a hierarchy.
Can you tell me more about your work, Clarice Starling?
This painting was inspired by a scene from the film, The Silence of the Lambs. I saw the movie when I was a child and it really scared me. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of the story, but as I grew up I began to have experiences that reminded me of this movie. There was a connection between humans and animals and the silence of love.
Both of these paintings have related motifs of connection. It’s not a romantic connection like the previous work, but a connection of friendship between humans and animals. It depicts our recognition of each other and the power dynamics in these relationships.
Are you saying that humans have a kind of animalistic nature and that is what you are depicting, or is it the relationship between humans and animals?
In the movie, Hannibal is a killer and asks why this girl wants to save an animal’s life. She says that she wants to save them, because they are screaming and they are afraid of being killed. This kind of represented humans. We all have something like that. There is a connection to this animality that I’m fascinated with.
In the painting, the figure is embracing the animal, it is quite warm.
They hug and rely on each other. The relationship between humans and animals is all based on control. The human is always the owner, but I feel like animals can be a companion.
Does that relate to what you were saying about the need to possess another person when in love?
You’re trying to explore, pave the road and escape the cliches of the soul given to us by society.
Do you mean societal norms and constructs?
Why are humans at the top of the hierarchy? We have to do everything to protect Earth, but humans are always at the top. I want to reshape this hierarchy and break it down. In order to do that, I have to explore the metaphorical landscapes of the mind and thought patterns. This breaks down the literal power of humans.