Under the Radar: Contemporary Chinese Art

The first wave of post-Mao contemporary Chinese artists settle in at Robischon.

A generation ago, when you said "contemporary art," it was assumed you were talking about creations from New York City, south of 54th Street -- even if you were referring to internationally important material. In the 1980s, everything started to change. First there were the artists from Italy and Germany, such as Francesco Clemente and Anselm Kiefer, whose work became part of the fine-art dialogue. Then artists from the Soviet Union, mostly emigrés such as Komar and Melamid, entered the fray. In the 1990s, the YBAs -- young British artists -- were added to the mix, with people like Damien Hirst doing Jeff Koons one better and taking the world by storm. That brings us to the last several years, wherein artists from Japan and China -- represented by Takashi Murakami and Zhang Huan, respectively -- joined the conversation.

Back in the '80s, the Denver exhibition scene lacked the infrastructure to delve into the Italian and German artists, with the exception of maybe a print or two. But then Mina Litinsky's Sloane Gallery opened in LoDo and became a national center for Russian art. By the 1990s, the Mile High City had the wherewithal to take in British art in a big way, including major examples by major players. Dianne Vanderlip at the Denver Art Museum was particularly interested in the Brits, becoming the first curator in the United States to buy a Hirst. More recently, Cydney Payton at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art has pushed Japanese and Chinese art, presenting separate shows focused on each group.

Jennifer Doran, co-director of Robischon Gallery, has added her voice to the hands-across-the-water movement with UNDER THE RADAR: Chinese Contemporary Art, a spectacular museum-quality show that's been years in the making. Finding the necessary contacts was as difficult as you might expect, what with the distance and the Communist government. And although China is now open to the West, it's still pretty complicated to deal with the bureaucracy. So Doran went through the back door and secured the pieces she needed by working through American collectors Tom and Michelle Whitten and Michael and Jean Micketti, who knew from experience how to get the stuff over from Beijing and other cities throughout China. It's important to note that the current generation of Chinese contemporary artists is the first ever to participate in international aesthetic currents. The People's Republic of China under Mao proscribed contemporary art (and, really, traditional art), allowing only the officially sanctioned Socialist Realist style that features heroic and happy workers and somber and powerful leaders.

"Liu Hulan," by Yu Fan, cast and colored fiberglass.
"Liu Hulan," by Yu Fan, cast and colored fiberglass.

The title of the Robischon presentation is a play on another exhibition title, Radar: Selections From the Collection of Vicki & Kent Logan, which is currently on view in the Anschutz Gallery on the second level of the DAM's Hamilton building. The Logans collect broadly, and although they have not focused exclusively on Chinese art, they have acquired important examples, some of which are in the museum show. They have also participated in the Robischon exhibit by loaning the gallery a pair of monumental works -- a sculpture and a triptych -- that add pizzazz. Doran also included a wide range of material, from neo-traditional paintings to post-pop sculptures. As is standard for Robischon, the exhibit is handsomely installed with an eye toward aesthetics as opposed to laying out any particular theme or narrative thread. This was necessary, considering both the inclusiveness of many different styles and the space limitations of the gallery.

Catching your eye even while you're still out on the sidewalk is "Tang Lady," a life-sized sculpture of a woman in traditional dress by Yu Fan. It's based on a tomb figure done during the Tang Dynasty, but Fan didn't make it out of clay, as the original was, but from fiberglass finished with automotive lacquers. In this piece, Fan demonstrates his interest in the formerly forbidden field of traditional Chinese art, but his wide taste in subjects is revealed through other works on display.

Though there are many knockout pieces in Under the Radar, Fan's "Liu Hulan" is a genuine showstopper, not to mention shocking. Lying on the ground is a supine woman whose throat has been cut. The figure is on a pool of plastic blood that serves as something of a stand. Off to the side is a lone shoe. American viewers will surely think of the revolt in Tiananmen Square that presaged the more open China of today -- I know I did -- but Hulan was actually a martyr to the Communist revolution and was killed by the nationalists. Fan teaches at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (which is controlled by the Chinese central government), so he is being politically correct by not being critical of the ruling regime, even if it looks that way at first sight.

There's no rule against making fun of Mao, though, since he's been discredited as any kind of authority. So Suo Tan creates busts of Mao, using mixed metaphors related to the art of the past, both Chinese and Western. Two of the busts from his "Fashion and Mao" series perch on wall-mounted shelves and peer down at the recumbent "Hulan," who died for him. The busts are finished with blue-on-white decorations that obscure their forms. This color combination, nicknamed "Blue Willow," revolutionized Western ceramics a few hundred years ago, so the Tans resonate with us as much as they do with the Chinese audience.

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