China's Veteran Artist - 14-Year-Old Wang Yani

Exhibited since she was 4, her work is known worldwide. ART

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WANG YANI, a 14-year-old Chinese artist, hunkers down in blue jeans on a great rectangular swathe of paper on the floor of the Sackler Gallery here. She sits silently for more than five minutes, thinking about what painting to start on the blank paper before her. About 100 people - reporters, photographers, TV camera men - watch in uncharacteristic silence. Suddenly she springs diagonally across the paper, paint brush in hand, and in one lightning motion spreads an undulating, thick black line of ink across the blankness from top left to bottom right.

Then she sits back, eying the line of mountains which has just become the spine of her new painting. Over the next hour or so, she will alternate long moments of contemplation with bursts of painting as two of her signature monkeys, blurred crysanthemums, Chinese squash, and narcissus take shape in the painting she decides to call ``The Happy Partners in the Orchard.''

This extraordinary child prodigy, who has been an acclaimed painter in China since age 4, is used to an audience as she paints. In fact, she is accustomed to painting as a spectator sport; she has demonstrated her technique from the center of a Shanghai stadium as thousands watched. To the left of Yani as she paints, underground at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, stretch rooms full of her work. They are part of new Sackler show, ``Yani: The Brush of Innocence,'' which includes 69 of her lively brush-and-ink paintings.

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By the time she was 6, Yani had done 4,000 pictures, and her work had been exhibited throughout China as well as in Hong Kong. Recent exhibitions of her work in Japan, West Germany, and England have made her an internationally known painter.

She first started painting at the age of 2 at home in the Guangxi province of southern China. Her father, an oil painter, encouraged her from the start and has since given up his own painting, according to a Sackler spokesperson, so that he would not influence her style.

``Yani says she paints only for herself,'' said Jan Stuart, the Sackler's assistant curator of Chinese art, after Yani had answered a few questions through a translator. Ms. Stuart also told a reporter, who had asked if the political situation in China had changed Yani's plans, that Yani's father indicated there was as yet no difference for her.

The press was encouraged to ask questions while she painted, but questions only in English, not in Chinese. A white line two feet wide fenced Yani in from the crowd, but, as she worked, it was apparent that she also had a language wall around her, which kept the English conversation from interfering with her creative effort.

A petite teen-ager with long black hair tied back with a red ribbon, Yani wore a pink blouse with two embroidered flowers that sparkled above her cut-off jeans. She was barefoot. When she finished the painting and began to answer questions in Chinese, it was in a soft, feathery voice. When asked if she sees an evolution in her own work, she said she does sometimes still paint monkeys, but fewer of them; she now likes to paint pretty birds and flowers. Asked if she has any favorites, she says, ``No, I like them all.'' She enjoys dancing, painting and running. At this point she has done 10,000 works, and the bulk of them, she says, are lying around her house.

The most amazing picure in the Yani show is the earliest, ``Kitty,'' which she painted at age 3: a quizzical black kitten done with only seven or eight sure strokes of the brush, tail up, claws visible on one front paw, pads on the other. For Yani, the monkey-house influence started with frequent family visits to the zoo when she was very young. These important Chinese cultural symbols - the monkeys - gambol, cavort, peer, dance, tug, and romp their way through many of her paintings. Yani's monkeys, with their round eyes, pink-masked faces, and webby paws, are the subject of her showcased magnum opus in the show, the 35-foot handscroll ``One Hundred Monkeys,'' painted when she was nine.

In addition to the painterly monkey business, Yani has focused on other subjects from nature: lions, roosters, egrets, lotuses, mountains, fish, rivers.

There is a joyous exuberance and a droll humor in many of these paintings, particularly in her earlier works, which are so child-eyed and yet mature in technique. But there is one painting which makes the viewer pause and wonder, ``Yani's Party,'' done at age seven. In it, the children dance, but the expressions on their faces are fierce, unsmiling.

After the seriousness of creating a painting to order at the Sackler, Yani relaxed and posed for some photographs. Only then, when the show-and-tell was over, did she giggle a little like the child she still is.

``Yani: The Brush of Innocence'' will be at the Sackler Museum of Asian art through Oct. 22. Next it goes to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., Dec. 16-Jan. 28, 1990; and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco March 7-April 29, 1990. The exhibition was organized by the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, with the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China. The exhibition's corporate sponsor is United Technologies Corporation.

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