A couple of years ago, while I was serving on a panel, one of my fellow panelists — I won't say who — commented that it was no longer relevant where something was made because art had become truly international. I had two words for this would-be theorist: Chinese art. Surely one of the biggest stories in the contemporary art world during the past ten years has been the strength and increasing importance of cutting-edge art done in China. While this work is international in its scope, it is also uniquely Chinese in several ways, ranging from subject matter to formal development. And it's not just relevant that this engaging material comes out of China; that's also the key to understanding it.
And that brings us to the fifty-plus paintings, prints, and sculptures that make up Face East, a must-see show at Robischon Gallery showcasing recent Chinese art.
Gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran typically go the extra mile to put together a great show, but in this case they went an extra few thousand. The pair traveled to China to pick out the pieces for the exhibit, often selecting works right out of the studios and foundries where they were produced. Robischon and Doran enlisted Tom Whitten and Michael Micketti, two important Colorado collectors of Chinese art, to serve as their guides and goodwill ambassadors, but they also explored the scene there themselves, making their own discoveries in the process.
In Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, Robischon and Doran were struck by the high quality of the art schools, the burgeoning gallery districts sprouting like weeds, the enormous studios — some in outdated armament factories — and the monumental contemporary sculpture. It's all part of an unbelievably crowded and colorful urban environment in cities so big they make New York look like a quaint little town.
For Face East, Robischon and Doran have successfully imported the over-the-top visual experiences they had. The exhibit is laid out with the most established artists — many of them big names in Chinese art — in front; artists who have come to the fore more recently in the center space; and a mix of pioneers and emerging talents in the back room. It flows beautifully. This is the second time Robischon has featured Chinese art. The first, 2006's Under the Radar, was without question one of the best shows around at the time. And to be honest, Face East is even better.
I'm no expert in this field, but some things are immediately apparent from the exhibit. First is the continuing role of traditional Chinese art as a source for artists today. Second is the recent history of government-sanctioned socialist realism, which is another inspiration and a style in which many of the artists were trained. Last is the effect of American pop art and its post-pop progeny, especially conceptual art. (It may be an overstatement to say that all contemporary Chinese art could be partly traced back to Andy Warhol's "Mao" portraits of the 1970s — but it still needs to be said.) Face East exemplifies the current Chinese aesthetic as a nexus of these three foundations.
One of the first things that caught my eye were the Mao jackets by Sui Jainguo cast in fiberglass, one in white and one in black. The detailing is beautiful in Sui's iconic and conventionalized version of the jacket, the uniform of China from a generation ago. And the smooth industrial finishing, perfectly integrated and exactly right for the simplified forms, adds a note of elegance to these politically charged sculptures.
Also striking political notes are the ceramic busts from the "Fashion and Mao" series by Suo Tan, in which the Chinese revolutionary and totalitarian dictator's head is covered in floral decorations à la dinnerware — you know, what we call china. The motifs are those common to Suo's home region. The gallery had trouble getting these through customs, and the assumption is that the touchy subject matter, especially in light of the Olympics coming to Beijing, was the issue.
Zhang Dali's photos of medieval buildings awaiting demolition, their occupants forced out by the government, are embellished with neon profiles. They may seem more subtle than Suo's heads, but these works are actually more confrontational because they indict China's current leaders rather than a past one.
Among the other interesting pieces in this initial section are Zhang Xiaogang's melancholy and big-eyed portraits of ordinary Chinese people. Zhang was one of the first contemporary artists in China to have found an international audience in the early '90s.
Passing by Yu Fan's charming "Hello," a fiberglass sculpture that resembles a tomb figure, a statue of Mao and an amusement-arcade decoration all at once, viewers enter the second space, which is the main part of the show. The large room is dominated by a monumental fiberglass sculpture, "Happy Life #8," by Chen Wenling. Set in the middle of the floor, it depicts a striding peasant man carrying a sow over his shoulders. Bright-red like a Ferrari and around eight feet tall, it's absolutely stunning.
More intimate — and funnier, for that matter — is a row of baby sculptures by the outlandish Luo Brothers. Combining sentimental and kitsch renditions of babies, a mainstay of the traditional doll trade in China, the Luo Brothers place the cute and cuddly babies crawling or lounging on top of Western icons like a Big Mac or a case of Pepsi. I thought these pieces were amazing because, despite the lowbrow references, the fiberglass casting and finishing is done to the highest standard.
The colors the brothers use are as toned-up, garish and loud as possible, which is the same approach that Feng Zhengjie takes in his "Chinese Portrait" series of paintings, three of which are included in Face East. The people in them resemble animated images, or maybe caricatures on billboards, in which the faces have been reduced to outlines of simple shapes with minimal detailing.
The final part of the show is in the small space behind the Fengs. Among the artists Robischon and Doran discovered while they were in China was He Jian. Walking a row of studios, the pair peeked into He's and liked what they saw. His three works on paper here depict the everyday life of Chinese youth and have a retro-1920s mood to them. In the most impressive of the lot, "At the Foot of the Great Wall," two men and a woman are playing cards, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at an outdoor cafe near the Great Wall. It's charming but edgy-looking, as are his other pieces.
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Adjacent to the Hes is a DVD by Song Dong called "Eating Landscape." Using a stationary video camera, Song set up a mountain scene in the style of a scroll painting. But he has used fish parts, notably fish heads, to suggest the topography, and bits of herbs for the trees. Off-screen, people armed with chopsticks remove the herbs and fish pieces, some of which have been carved up by a man with a knife. It's captivating, if a little gross.
Also in this last part of the show are two sculptures by Jiao Xingtao that take Christo's idea of wrapping things in a different direction. For "Green Bust," a painted bronze, and "Golden Gate," in painted fiberglass, Jiao takes the basic form of a man's head in the former and a work of architecture in the latter, and covers them in dead-on imitations of gum wrappers. Formally and conceptually, they're extremely cool and aloof. I wonder if the original study models were made from actual chewed gum encased in their actual wrappers? We'll never know.
I loved this show — and its 2006 prequel — but I've got to confess a certain queasiness about Chinese things. China, one of the world's most polluted places, is an industrial police state better known in the popular imagination here for its lead-painted toys than for its painted fiberglass sculptures. On the other hand, for thousands of years China has been an art powerhouse, and regardless of how oppressive its rulers have been, artists there have risen above their circumstances and gone all the way to the top.