The Color Of Money

Zhang Hai-er for TIME

Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai

Yue Minjun is laughing all the way to the bank. The shaven-headed Beijing painter has turned his iconic guffawing self-portraits into one of China's most lucrative exports. In June, a brightly hued canvas of Yue dressed as a merry Roman Catholic Pope sold for $4.28 million in London. That record was shattered last month when Execution, a work depicting maniacally grinning figures in a Tiananmen Square–like setting, netted nearly $6 million in another London sale. Riffing on Deng Xiaoping's maxim "To get rich is glorious," Yue's paintings capture China's exuberant love affair with consumerism. But even as...

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