Chinese Food for Thought

The lot of the contemporary Chinese artist can't be an easy one. To begin with, there are the inevitable comparisons of their work with all of the other Chinese art of the last few thousand years--a pesky history that constitutes the oldest, and therefore the longest, continuous thread in the world's material culture.

In the Western world, only the Italians have had to confront a similar problem. That led the most radical among them to suggest that the way to deal with tradition was to erase it--literally. In the 1920s Italian futurist theorist Filippo Marinetti advocated setting fire to the museums so Italian art could be freed from the chains of history. Luckily, the idea didn't catch on.

But in the China of the 1960s and '70s, a similar notion did, thanks to the Red Guard, a group of young radicals who had emerged at the forefront of China's so-called Cultural Revolution. At the time, communist bureaucrats determined what kind of art could be made and who could make it. Just as in the Soviet Union, social realism--literal depictions of state-friendly themes--was the only style allowed. And the members of the Red Guard were much more dangerous than the Italian futurists, because they were political fanatics, not aesthetic ones. That meant they not only got to call for the destruction of traditional art, they actually got to do it.

Political control over art has lessened in the years since the Cultural Revolution. But it still exists; surely no artist in China today could prosper with critiques of the Chinese government. What to do in the face of such adversity? Three young Chinese artists--Wei Dong, Lu Peng and Liang Changsheng--have chosen to laugh. Unfortunately, it's a decision that makes their work difficult to appreciate, since nothing translates worse than a joke.

Dong, Peng and Changsheng are featured in The Adventures of the Three Travel Weary Loafers, the first of three Oriental-themed exhibits now showing at the Arvada Center as part of a collaboration with the Asian Art Coordinating Council. Each artist pokes fun at Chinese art history in his own way. But each falls just short of the mark.

Dong takes the idyllic landscapes and genre scenes Western audiences may have seen in Ming dynasty screens and scrolls and inserts into them characters and situations from China today. In the ink-and-watercolor "Landscape as Stage 1," he places brightly painted figures among more subtly hued rocks and trees; the figures are cartoonish while the scenery is elegantly traditional. Peng, too, looks to historic Chinese art for inspiration but throws in a few Western references as well. As a result, though he employs the age-old conventions of the Chinese watercolor in the painting "Blue Sky," the piece might easily be mistaken for the work of a Western artist. Of the three, Changsheng is the most interesting and appealing. Looking to both folk- and fine-art sources in his engravings and papercuts, he does a better job than Dong or Peng of creating work that looks both ancient and contemporary at the same time.

Travel Weary Loafers shares the cavernous first-floor galleries of the Arvada Center with Mystic Dreams, Majestic Scenes, an in-depth look at the work of Chinese landscape photographer Yu Yuntian. Unlike his painting brethren, Yuntian isn't concerned with shrugging off convention. Lucky for him, photography's just not that old.

Yuntian, the press photographer for a Chinese airline's in-flight magazine, specializes in predictable full-color shots of beautiful scenery. The best of these are his panoramic shots, which he executes in a narrow horizontal format. Yuntian isn't reluctant to experiment, as evidenced in "River Transport," which shows a gleaming golden river meandering through the black silhouettes that are its banks.

Occupying all of the exhibition space on the center's second floor is West Meets East, which is easily the most compelling of the three shows. Even here, however, don't expect to see chinoiserie. The show presents the work of three local artists--Emilio Lobato, Glenn Chamberlain and Susan Meyer Fenton. And while each of the three professes to have been influenced by Asian philosophy, none of their works make overt references to Oriental art.

Denver artist Lobato is one of the region's premier abstract painters, a San Pablo, Colorado, native who frequently refers in his writings to the fact that he is of Spanish-colonial ancestry and can trace his lineage back nearly 300 years in the New World. But if Lobato's background might suggest retrospection and provincialism, his abstract paintings and prints don't. Most impressive here are mixed-media pieces such as 1996's "Duodecimo (twelfth)," in which Lobato runs vertical lines, some of cut paper, others of dripping paint, right down the middle of the painting.

Several of Lobato's works push geometric boundaries still further. "Tambor," a 1996 collage on canvas, has been divided in half vertically, with a hard-edged arrangement of forms placed at its center. Lobato's familiar palette--lots of cream and beige offset by black--recalls the magnificent efforts of Europe's early-twentieth-century abstractionists.

Also reminiscent of classic modern art are the fabulous sculptures by Boulder artist Chamberlain, who taught sculpture at the University of Colorado in Boulder for more than 25 years. The 83-year-old professor retired fifteen years ago and hasn't exhibited his work in nearly two decades, so for many local observers --myself included--he's a brand-new discovery.

And Chamberlain's an exciting find: The many tabletop bronze sculptures he displays here, most of them dating from the 1960s and '70s, are spectacular. Chamberlain's typical approach is to create a simple set of forms and then stack them in symmetrical and hieratic arrangements suggestive of Oriental forms. That may seem to reflect the artist's special interest in Asian art--Chamberlain took a sabbatical to the Far East just before retiring from CU. But the real source for these sculptures is American modern art, and though the newest Chamberlain in the show is twenty years old, all of his sculptures look strikingly contemporary.

A good example is "Sentinel," an airy bronze sculpture from 1978 that Chamberlain has adorned with rectilinear cutouts and an inverted curve that suggests the horns of an animal. More purely geometric, but just as modern-looking, is 1969's "Gateway"; in that piece, curved sheets of bronze support the separated halves of a sphere. Almost all of Chamberlain's bronzes have been finished in gorgeous black and brown patinas that complement the modernist simplicity of the artist's forms while linking his work to the bronzes of ancient times.

Fenton, the last of the three participants in West Meets East, is a young artist who's made a big splash locally in the last couple of years with sculptural boxes and constructions that have been widely displayed at both private galleries such as Denver's Artyard and public spaces like the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Alone among the three artists in this show, Fenton actually lived as an adult for several years in the Far East. But you wouldn't know it by looking; her work seems to have even less of a connection to Asia than does Lobato's or Chamberlain's.

Fenton is represented in West Meets East by the wonderful new installation "Walking on Eggshells," which marks a dramatic change from the work she was doing just a year ago. In a small room specifically created for this installation, Fenton has placed a large, shallow wooden box that has been painted white. The box is filled with hundreds of broken eggshells, and hanging directly above are diaphanous garments made of a flimsy material. Slides by computer-art whiz John Bonath depicting Fenton trudging through the egg shells are projected onto the garments; as the images slowly change, the entire installation is bathed in a beautiful blue light.

The Adventures of the Three Travel Weary Loafers, Mystic Dreams, Majestic Scenes and West Meets East mark the seventh annual effort by the Arvada Center to highlight Asian art. And though the two imports are of limited appeal, the locals really come through, even if their work doesn't quite fit the topic. Maybe next time East should meet West.

The Adventures of the Three Travel Weary Loafers, Mystic Dreams, Majestic Scenes and West Meets East, through April 6 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia