Multi-headed monsters, slithering snakes and tentacles, spooky-looking figures whose strings are being pulled by invisible puppeteers… Looking at the artworks of New York-based Chinese artist Hanyu Cui, you’d be forgiven to think you are looking at the musings of a madman. Nothing could be further from the truth. Articulate, fresh-eyed, and brimming with enthusiasm, Hanyu (or “Max” to his international friends) seems to have both feet firmly planted on the ground, and he was very excited to have his first exhibition in Thailand.
Still, it took a sojourn to the west for the 25-year-old artist to find his way back to the east. Born in Guiyang, a small village in Guizhou province, Hanyu received his Bachelor in Fine Arts from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. Not feeling satisfied with his artistic progress, especially when comparing his artworks to those of his peers from internationally acclaimed art schools, the ambitious young artist decided to apply to one of the world’s top design schools, the Parsons School of Design in New York. Amongst fierce competition – the prestigious institute only admits a selected number of students a year – he was elated to secure a highly coveted place on a partial scholarship. Thinking it would be “cooler” and “clothes can express one’s feelings a lot more”, he elected to switch to fashion design.
After obtaining his master’s degree, he remained in New York to establish himself as an independent creative and started posting his pencil sketches online.
“The two years at Parsons really helped me find who I am as an artist,” Hanyu said. In true millennial style, Porntip (Mook) Attakanwong, the driving force behind ATT 19 gallery in Bangkok, spotted the budding young artist on Instagram. Mook is also a Parsons alumnus, having graduated two years earlier. She convinced Hanyu to come to Thailand where she offered him his first solo exhibition. Situated in Bangkok’s creative district of Charoen Krung, the multipurpose art space ATT 19 is building quite the reputation for itself as a platform for emerging artists.
“I was terrified,” Hanyu admitted. He was also worried he didn’t have enough artworks to show. “But then all of a sudden, everything fell into place,” he said.
That breakthrough came when he bolstered his portfolio with a series of dramatic, large-format oil paintings, which added to his existing collection of highly detailed illustrations in pencil and the fashion pieces from his Parsons graduation collection. His pieces had been featured in Vogue Italia and Harper’s Bazar Arabia and became to be sought after by celebrities for photo shoots.
In his work, Hanyu lets his imagination run wild, drawing lines and swirls on the paper from which characters slowly emerge – inspired by the pop culture of monsters, manga, video games, Harry Potter, and fairytales from his youth. He loves nothing more than when people stand in front of his paintings and make up their own stories and interpretations behind the figures he has committed to canvas. Titled ‘Universe Without Boundaries’, a direct translation of Hanyu’s name, the exhibition brought all of his art together for the first time.
The work was warmly received, and Hanyu basked in Bangkok’s creative climate. “Everyone is so nice and supportive here,” he enthused.
In fact, he’s so smitten with the city that he decided to set up a studio for the next three months to develop his métier and decide on his future direction. Works-in-progress include another fashion collection and collaborations with local Thai artists.
No doubt we’ll be seeing more of this gifted young man whose work stands at the crossroads of contemporary fashion and classical art, where his surreal images of pop culture fantasies are colored by genuine emotions.