Born in Changsha (1955), China, Yi Kai showed an affinity for art and drawing at an early age. But at 15, after completing middle school, he was drafted into the People’s Army in 1970 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. For 9 years he spent the remainder of his youth building railways in the countryside and creating art propaganda for the People’s Republic. In 1979 Yi Kai joined a pool of 4000 hopeful applicants, hoping to be one of the 35 students chosen to attend the Art Institute of the Army of China in Beijing. Not only did he get accepted but was ranked as the top applicant for his admission year. After 4 years of study, Yi Kai earned his BFA in traditional Chinese painting and stayed on at the institute for 2 years as an instructor. Though trained as a traditional artist, as China opened to the West in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, he became influenced by Western, and particularly American culture, that would become a hallmark of his future works. In 1985, Yi Kai returned to school earning his Masters in Fine Art from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. But shortly thereafter, a tide of change would sweep through China and change Yi Kai’s life in a dramatic turn. In the midst of a growing clamor for freedom of expression, thousands of students and supporters, Yi Kai included, marched in the summer of 1989 on Tiananmen Square.
But when the government brutally cracked down on the protesters, killing unarmed civilians, Yi Kai knew it was time to leave. With the aid of the Midwest China Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he had been previously invited as a visiting artist, Yi Kai packed his paintings and set out for the United States. From his arrival at San Francisco in 1990, Yi Kai set out for Minneapolis where, though he only had a cursory knowledge of English, he gained a reputation as an innovative artist whose work bridged the cultural materialism and freedoms of America with the art and politics of his native China. For more than 20 years, Yi Kai developed his talents and style, migrating from the traditional paintings of his education in China to the abstract and colorful works that reflect the influence of American values that have reached all corners of the world. It is this constant evolution of creativity and freedom of expression that drive Yi Kai’s ever changing experiments in style and that has placed his work in numerous private, business and museum collections around the world. Today, Yi Kai makes Southern California his home where he continues to explore the influence of American and Chinese culture on his art works.
From my childhood to today, more than five decades later, art has always played a primary role in my life. From painting portraits of Mao in my teenage years during China’s Cultural Revolution, to painting political propaganda posters in the Chinese army when I was 15 years old, to painting Tibetan peoples during the period of economic reform, to my 30 years of living and creating as an immigrant in America – art has shaped every aspect of my identity. Through these experiences, a pattern of observing life, learning skills, and artistic creation have become a daily routine. Those of us who were born in China in the 1950s have experienced extraordinary lives.
The political suppression of the Mao era, the poor material life, and China’s endless pursuit of capitalism in recent years have been jarring experiences against my own journey of building a new and very different life in the United States. These life experiences across different cultures, social systems, races and ethnic groups are reflected in my artistic process. What I think about most is how to use professional artistic methods to faithfully reflect my life experiences and learnings, while finding resonance with a diverse set of audiences. During the past sixteen months of the pandemic, we could not go outside and engage with the world around us. The only way for me to stay active was to paint and paint some more. Surprisingly, the subject that came to my mind was people.
Human beings interact with one another to form culture and society, which is an essential difference between humans and animals. The most important principles in the interaction between people are sincerity and trust. One of the most terrifying problems of modern society is the loss of trust between people. But in order to survive, we still have to interact with others and seek out mutual dependence. This conflict of maintaining connection in light of distrust gives birth to the many masks that change constantly from person to person, from time to time, and from place to place. My mask series is based on this uniquely human phenomenon. I created a collection of 50 images inspired by this idea of masks in the past 16 months. These 10 images are from this collection, all of which were created in 2020 and 2021.
My approach to an artwork is to first observe, think about a moment’s connection to life at large, and consider what it means to express this experience. When I have an idea, there is a draft drawing. The creation of each work is only allowed to be 70% certain. How to complete the remaining 30% is left open-ended. This approach allows me to maintain a creative mentality towards solving the problem of the picture. I never fully copy my own work. From the beginning to the end of a work, I will explore every possibility and continue to deny myself easy solutions, completing the work in this contradictory state. I have been immersed in the arts for decades, living and working from China to the United States. My work is based on my observations and experience of life, augmented by my own insights. The theme of creation is different in each period of my life. Still, the most common subject of my work are people.
The style of my work is based on lines and shapes instead of light, shadow and three-dimensionality. My use of color is based on the traditional Chinese concept of “coloring according to category” supplemented by the Western concept of using “ambient color.” The layout of the picture is based on the “scattered perspective” of traditional Chinese painting and is free from rigid structures. Perhaps the most unique attribute of my work is the combination of free brush strokes characteristic of Chinese calligraphy and techniques found in American abstract expressionism. In summary, my art is informed by my life experiences and sensibilities. The creative process is a constant pursuit for new meaning without violating my own principles.