Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz
Photos © John Hazeltine, 2000
Santa Cruz, CA
The following essay is reprinted with permission of the author and the Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz. It is an essay from the exhibition brochure for An Unstill Life: S.C. Yuan / Paintings, shown at the Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz June 9 - July 29, 2001.
An Unstill Life: S.C. Yuan / Paintings
by Kathleen Moodie, Curator, Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz
Si-Chen Yuan lived a life precariously balanced between the highs of undisputed talent and the lows of tormented self-assessment. Born in Hangchow, China in 1911, he lived and worked in the Monterey/Carmel area from 1952 until his death by his own hand in 1974. Although equally skilled as a graphic artist in both charcoal and pastel, it is his lush oil painting that remains for us a lasting reminder of his complicated but devoted life as an artist. His work, often produced through many arching mood swings, mapped the territory between the sublime and the prosaic. His output was prodigious and his choice of subject matter ranged from still-lifes through landscapes, seascapes, portraiture, and exquisitely composed abstractions.
Yuan's paintings appear effortless in their execution but their longevity was often doomed by Yuan's choice of inferior mounts, another indication of his tenuous commitment to the future. While painting appeared effortless, his personal relationships were difficult and his legacy remains one of a complex and oftentimes brilliant artist whose career was thwarted by troubled human interactions.
One of Yuan's strengths as an artist was his ability to communicate a wealth of visual information with swift and concise markings. The freedom displayed as he wielded his brush and palette knife struck many as his genius. Sureness and confidence in his artist's eye were in part instilled by student training with artist Xu Beihong at the Fine Arts Academy in Nanking. His early art education in China is an important component in the development of his career.
Throughout his work, Yuan fused an Eastern elegance of economic line with the robust energy of Western abstraction. We see this abstraction not only in his bold, gestural brush strokes but also in the surface rendering of the objects leaving out their light and shadow. He often treated the objects as abstracted shapes on which he intuitively placed his colors and textures, almost ignoring their sculptural qualities in real space. Yuan's style is not unlike California artist Wayne Thiebaud. Kenneth Baker described Thiebaud's paintings as offering "isolated images reduced to simple, basic forms...in clean, largely uninterrupted backgrounds; (with) luscious, full colors and thick impastos -- a kind of bas-relief modeling, rather than an illusionistic rendering of forms in depth." 
The still-lifes on exhibit are examples of the deep pleasure S.C. Yuan found in manipulating the sensual texture and sumptuous color of oil paint resulting in these exuberant and indelible portraits of flowers and fruit. However, the paintings are about more than just the chosen placements. As in a Paganini violin concerto, the music furthers the composition it highlights by bringing out the distinct qualities of the violin and the virtuosity of the violinist. In the same way, Yuan's still-lifes are about more than the obvious images, they are about the paint itself and the artist's mastery. Crafted to reach beyond the subject matter, they encourage us to consider the transactions of color, the viscosity of paint, the skill of the artist, and the joy to be found in "just looking" at painting.
1. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980
(Berkeley, 1985), 124
See "Tasty and Bitter Fruit," an article by Sarah Beserra about the S.C. Yaun exhibition.
Read more about Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz in Resource Library Magazine.
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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/7/11
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