Under the Radar: Contemporary Chinese Art
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.
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.
More self-consciously Chinese are the sculptures by Chen Wenling, including "Happy Life #4," one of the Logan loans, that depicts a female pig up on its hind legs. In Chinese folklore, the pig is a symbol of happiness, hence the title. Though not for sale, the companion piglets are. Mother and babies are in fiberglass with a mirror finish of white enamel. Other works by Chen Wenling, from his "Happy Life" series, depict a centaur-like figure with the body of a pig and the torso of a businessman, and one of a man carrying a pig. Both were cast in bronze covered in a Chinese red enamel. They're stunningly beautiful and breathtakingly made.
I'd say that sculpture dominates this show, perhaps because of how strikingly cutting-edge and post-pop they look. That's also true for some -- though not most -- of the paintings, including Yan Lei's "Painting #14" and the other work loaned by the Logans. In Lei's vertically arranged triptych, he placed the serene face of a traditional Buddha in the top panel, a kitsch version of the same thing at the bottom, and a target in the middle. It's very good -- especially in the way it transfers American-style pop-art techniques and tastes to a Chinese subject.
A different take on pop aesthetics is seen in Shen Xiaotong's blown-up portraits. The four smaller ones feature busts and torsos, while the large one focuses only on the face -- but they all share the same taste for kitsch as the Lei triptych.
A number of the painters in UNDER THE RADAR are working in some variation of neo-traditional representational painting, which is a direct outgrowth and critique of Western-derived socialist realism. This includes Liu Hong's painting of a seated woman with a fish swimming in front of her, and Chen Liangjie's three large black monochromes of groups of people in the distance.
There's only one abstract artist included, with abstraction being pretty rare in contemporary Chinese art. These are two acrylic paintings with neon by Zhang Dali. The artist has covered the canvas with smears and has hidden Chinese and English writing within the scribbles. On top, Dali mounted pink neon lines formed to look almost like profiles though not quite.
The 2006-2007 season is not yet at mid-point, but the exhibition offerings just about everywhere have already been filled with more visual riches than I can remember. So much so that I'd say it's unprecedented for the art world in the Mile High City. And it's no exaggeration to say that among the treasure trove of art shows in the area right now, Robischon's UNDER THE RADAR is clearly one of the best. Great Walls
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