The smile on the flamingo-pink face of the man exposes straight, white teeth. It is captivating, almost forcing you to stare.
The man appears in every painting, his eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. The brightness of his face starkly contrasts with the background, making the smile stand out even more.
That smile, which has become the trademark of Chinese artist Yue Minjun, is on display from now until January 2008 at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows Park. It marks the artist’s first full-scale solo exhibition in the United States.
Minjun, who has been called one of the four cornerstones of contemporary art in China, said he’s looking forward to hearing what American artists and art professionals think of his work.
If the reactions of those who have seen the exhibit are any indication, he seems to be causing a stir.
“This is quite a statement,” said Marianne Giacalone, a docent at the museum, who gives tours to children’s groups. “At first I thought it was happy-go-lucky, but there’s more here than I expected.”
She then pointed to a painting in which two men are standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. One man holds the other above his head with his arm. Both are smiling widely.
“Do we have to go through that acrobatic dance to achieve liberty?” Giacalone asked. “It's very striking and symbolic.”
Astoria resident Betsy Smith said she initially saw fun and happiness in the subjects’ faces. But by the end of her second time through the 34-painting exhibit, her opinion had changed.
“It’s ironic the way he’s portraying everyone in a cynical way,” Smith said. “As individuals, you see deep inside. You can actually see through these people.”
Those underlying messages are part of the reason Tom Finkelpearl, the museum’s executive director, decided to exhibit Minjun’s work.
“For any arts show, there's the artistic reason and there’s the community reason,” he said. “(The smile) looks so much like it’s about happiness, and it is at one level. But to see overblown huge smiles in one place, it’s psychologically complex.”
On top of that, because Flushing has a large Mandarin speaking population, it seemed like a good place to show Minjun’s art, Finkelpearl said.
“Yue Minjun is a very interesting contemporary Chinese artist with good connections to local Chinese and Taiwanese people,” he added. “(His art) is both local and international.”
However, Finkelpearl made sure to point out that this exhibit isn’t just for those groups of people.
“I don't want to overemphasize that this is just for the Chinese community,” he said. “It’s not. It’s for everyone.”
In an effort to further this point, the museum asked people to submit pictures that answered the question, “What’s behind your smile?” The pictures could be drawings, photographs, or even magazine clippings, and had to come in pairs, with both a fake and a real smile represented.
The submissions the museum received are currently on display in the elevator that leads to Minjun’s work. This gives people the chance to think about what a smile truly represents before they even get to the exhibit.
Making people think and energizing the community is what Finkelpearl said he hopes this exhibit does.
“To see so much (of Yue Minjun’s art) together in one place is a revelation,” he said. “It makes it complex.”
“Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile” is on display at the Queens Museum of Art, until Jan. 6, 2008. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Suggested admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children and senior citizens. For more information, call (718) 592-9700 or visit www.queensmuseum.org.