Art Review

The Photography of Huang Yan|Body Art: New Photography From China

With all the excitement in this country about Chinese contemporary art, the fact that China is a police state is often forgotten. Leave it to the Chinese to remind us with some timely events that reveal the true conditions under which artists live and work there.

A couple of weeks ago, the regional government of Shanghai abruptly canceled an exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum that was to be devoted to Zhang Huan, among the most famous of Chinese contemporary artists. Huan had been banned a decade ago, but as Chinese art began to make an international splash in the past few years, there was greater tolerance for him and other once-blacklisted artists. This cancellation indicates that things are turning back.

Another example of the crackdown hit closer to home when Chinese photographer Huang Yan was unable to come to Denver last week. Huang mixes figurative photography with traditional landscape painting, as in "Brother and Sister" (pictured). He is currently the subject of a solo, The Photography of Huang Yan, at Michele Mosko Fine Art (136 West 12th Avenue, 303-534-5433) and is part of a group show, Body Art: New Photography From China, at Foothills Art Center (809 15th Street, Golden, 303-297-3922). Both are elements of the Month of Photography celebration here.

Huang was refused an exit visa by the Chinese government, and although he and his wife and collaborator, Zhang Tiemei, had already purchased their plane tickets, they were prevented from boarding their flight to the United States. He was unable to come for the shows — or make a presentation at Foothills scheduled for March 15 — though his work had already arrived and the exhibits are going on anyway.

This episode and the one in Shanghai make the point that the creative class in China survives only by the whim of the government. Even when there is no political content, which is the case with the works of Huan and Huang, artists can still run afoul of the authorities.

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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