Art in China, in the last half of the twentieth century, can be characterized in two stages: A.M. and P.M.—that is, After Mao and Post-Mao. The first phase began with Nixon’s groundbreaking trip, in 1972, as the outside world was permitted entrance and the Communist officials began, slowly, to entertain the thought of capitalism. Novelists and filmmakers, especially, took advantage of the thaw throughout the Eighties; directors such as Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou”) developed international reputations for seeming to bring the real China to the rest of the world. Then, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre squelched artistic freedom for many who could be easily censored by publishers or film studios. Freedom, economic and otherwise, only went so far.
Visual artists, stultified for so long, sprang into action; contemporary Chinese painters and sculptors had worked under the radar for decades without the attendant celebrity extended to American artists who came of age after Warhol, when the Western art world became an island of egos and stratospheric prices unto itself. Ironically, for the generations of Chinese artists born in the early Sixties whose forebears had been criticized (and often beaten and even killed) during the Cultural Revolution for producing non-revolutionary work such as landscapes, the art works now being produced are revolutionary in an altogether opposite sense—for example, the Gao brothers have created a sculpture called “Mao’s Guilt” in which the head is separate from the body. If the Revolution was a joke, the joke is on Mao and his legacy.
The Post-Mao phase is essentially Chinese postmodernism. Novelists have been mired in retelling China’s history in dry realist tones; directors have been tamed and now turn to the government-run studios for non-ideological historical epics (or do the government’s bidding in other ways, such as the spectacular, if completely impersonal, Opening Night staging at the recent Olympics by Zhang Yimou). Yet, Chinese artists are everywhere, consuming all varieties of styles, and turning out works mashed-up from influences at home and abroad, from Pop to minimalism, installation and mixed media. CaiGuo-Qiang, one of the most celebrated artists in the West, is renowned for hanging eight Ford Tauruses from the ceilings of museums. There is a political edge, an absurdist quality, a provocative sense of freedom that defines these Chinese artists in being unable to define them, either the way Communist officials or the art world would like.
The group show that recently opened at the Byron Cohen Gallery, in the Crossroads District, “Looking East: Young Artists from China,” (through January 1) is confined (with one exception) to paintings and prints—no hanging cars or, as in the extensive 2008 survey at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a larger-than-life reclining Mao made up of twenty thousand different colored toy dinosaurs (blended together, the toys created a 3-D trompel’oeil effect). The focus is intentional: to bring the exhibiting artists a step closer to collectors and art-followers. The over-abundance of art pouring forth from China demands some methodology of sorting out; this small show permits a visitor to pause and pore over seven artists who may someday rule the world.
The immediate effect of looking around is to notice, yet again, how deeply impressionable young artists are, everywhere. (Chinese art students get the rudimentary training all schools offer, but it is clear the Internet Generation is worldwide.) Hung opposite each other are three works each by FengZhengjie and Guo Wei: Feng’ssilkscreens are all portraits of model-like attractive women, their hair flowing (and glowing), their lips magnified red—but their eyes are off-center. They resemble alien goddesses. The result is Chinese, of a cookie-cutter variety, like their generic titles “Chinese Portrait Series No. 53” and “Chinese Portrait Series No. 26.” Feng (born in 1968) is often compared with Warhol and his silkscreen portraiture: Feng has taken our idea of the ideal even further (and emptier).
Guo’ssilkscreens in shades of gray, black and flesh tones are perfect bookends to Feng’s look-alike images. Guo’s cardboard-flat figures, mostly teenagers, play dress up (and dress down); one image depicts two girls: one wears a costume panda head, underwear and socks, and the other has her head tilted with her fist in her mouth—and several teeth scattered beneath her. In another, a young woman in a slip holding a pistol dances with her friend; a third image groups two girls, dressed, though in get-ups that look like their mothers’ wigs and clothes. Their look of determination is equally made up.
Other works are similarly Chinese because they say they are, not because they curry to a certain style. The lack of apparent style is, I think, what is most fascinating about this wave of Chinese artists. They have survived an entire revolution, and a notion which is the centuries-old view that non-Chinese anything is beneath disdain. So Yang Qian’s female portraits (including one of Marilyn Monroe) resembling photographs behind rainswept panes of glass, well, why not? Liu Hong’s oversize portrait of another model-like beauty, this one with her hair slathered in orange oil paint (the orange is her signature): I like it, even if it does not say “Chinese.” After all, what says “American,” anymore?
Huang Yan Self Portrait, 2008 mixed media, ed. 9/200 39 x 30.75 in.
Not all of the art works are so usual in their being unusual. The photographer-painter ShengQi is represented by four strong paintings, which hew closer to political commentary than some of the rest. Sheng is famous for his irrevocable act of protest after Tiananmen Square: he cut off the pinkie on his left hand and buried it before leaving the country. His severed hand appears in many of his paintings and in a famous photograph of his hand cupping a small photo of himself as a child. The works here cast the same melancholy call to arms: three funeral corteges, in gloomy grays and blacks, with the deceased in full-color portraits; and one, titled “Most Wanted,” renders a female soldier, again in dark shades, holding out some paper money (with Mao’s portrait printed on it) in bright pink. All of the paintings have paint lines dribbling down, perhaps as a further call to attention that politics, history and art run together.
The show is titled “Looking East,” but it might have been “Looking East, West, North and South.” As China’s revolution—which has really never ceased, however it flows and ebbs—continues, its artists will have a rare opportunity to experiment, and to document for the rest of us how their past is melding into their present. Huang Yan’s “Self Portrait,” a magnificent huge head painted and tattooed, reminded me a little of Arcimboldo’s portraits made of vegetables and fruits. When I got closer I saw I was wrong; that is what is right about this work. It necessitates looking closer.