Ni Youyu: Dust Paintings

Ni Youyu draws inspiration from the tradition of landscape in art history and from his Chinese cultural background and personal history. He is fascinated by science and pushes the boundaries of photography and painting to explore concepts of microcosm and macrocosm as well as the ephemeral and the eternal. 


Ni’s dust paintings on view at OCMA demonstrate these interests as well as his adept technical skills and his innovative use of materials. Using exact replicas of photographic images of the galaxy as his source, Ni creates the paintings by meticulously applying layers of glue and powered chalk to carefully gridded images. The making of each work requires extraordinary precision and patience. 


Ni is very conscious of the contradictions implied in using the extremely fugitive and basic material of chalk to represent entire vast nebulae. He strives to make work that is at once astonishing and humbling. In these works, he essentially collapses great distances of time and space using this most mundane human writing tool and fragile medium. 


Ni, though, provides the viewer access to his process through accompanying gridded sketches that reveal the exacting scientific approach he takes to break down the details of the original images in order to render them exactly in chalk. This process of taking something so complex and simplifying its creation is a self-conscious act on the part of the artist meant to challenge his own mastery. Transforming chalk into a valued work of art in this way also raises the questions: What gives a work of art value? And what is the value of nature relative to the man-made?



Ni Youyu was born in 1984 in Jiangxi Province, China. He currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.

Ni Youyu

Dust (Orion Nebula), 2016

Chalk powder and mixed media

on wood board; sketch on paper 

43-3/4 x 62 inches

Sketch: 15-3/4 x 19-7/8 inches

Courtesy of the artist

and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels