M The New York Art World ®"All You Need To Know."
M The New York Art World ®"All You Need To Know."

art reviews



Art and China's Revolution at Asia Society >>
By Qing Qing

New York's Lower East Side aka LES: An Update >>
By Mary Hrbacek

Asian Contemporary Art Fair 2008 >>
By M. Brendon MacInnis


e-mailE-Mail This Article

Art and China's Revolution at Asia Society
By Qing Qing

Every person of Chinese descent will walk out of Art and China's Revolution with their own stories to relate. That is the magnitude of the subject matter— the Cultural Revolution — a time when one man was Chairman, Emperor, Sun and God. However touched up, glorified and forgotten, undisputed is its mark on a nation. Some forty years later, my mother — daughter of a denounced landlord — still has such a hard time making sense of "those days" that, in the end of our conversations, she would resign to underwhelming and exasperating utterances of "maddening," and "impossible to explain to you."


But just as the show, spanning three gallery halls to unravel three decades from the founding of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) in 1949, is nuanced, the effects of this period on today's China are just as complex. Amidst a boom in recent Chinese contemporary art, curators Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian have invited the conversation back from China's chronic fascination with the present to suggest that the past may speak for the future more than we think.


Every artwork, artifact, and photo in this exhibition brings a historical era back to life where memory falters. It is fitting then, that the show begins with an archival collection to serve as historical narration for these chaotic times. The section Art, History, and Politics, comprised of photographs, posters, artifacts, video and a timeline, may be the closest we will ever come to know the truth behind a time so estranged from reality. Perusing through this packed exhibition hall with Chairman Mao beaming from banners, sculptures, and even tin mugs, I was reminded eerily of the time when my grandmother took out her trove of Mao pins, rendering a small metallic flood on the table. Here in the museum setting, the glint from the collection of Mao pins is no different. There is the same �red, bright, shining� that uniformly describes the decor that were once the allotted aesthetic in every home. Through hair combs, vanity cases, bowls, toys and even cookie jars, everyday private household goods became an opportunity to parade one�s devotion to Mao. The gentle absurdity of what the Chairman has become today � a pop art element in any given contemporary Chinese art piece, T-Shirt, or tote mass produced, versus the totem that was forced upon millions, is perhaps reminder of the Chinese spirit as a whole: resilient, optimistic, forgetful.


The most telling pieces from the exhibition may be the photographs included in this archive. Taken during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, one photo shows the Chairman standing atop the red walls of the (once) Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square, waving to an emphatic crowd of Red Guards below. While he does not loom larger than life compositionally, the sense of euphoria and reverence guided toward him is not unlike that of propaganda posters popularized during this time.


A series of stunning black and white photographs taken by photojournalists further punctures the sentiment of surreal reality. Kept in secret at the time they were made, these photographs offer insight into a world that had been kept in a shiny mantle of what was essentially China�s most ambitious public relations campaign. The photo stories include: Ancient statues defaced, with dunce caps hanging over their drooping heads; synchronized swimmers boasting a portrait of Mao floating in water; a man bent-over in self-criticism; a man avowing his allegiance to the Chairman with a clutter of pins and medals strewn across his shirt and cap. While films from China�s fifth generation filmmakers set during the era have made such scenes familiar to the modern viewer, nothing quite prepares us for the sheer theatrics rooted in absolute reality � not a stage set designed with the director�s vision, nor an idealized painting commissioned by the party � this is about a moment frozen in time, captured.


As for the model paintings chosen by the party and reproduced as posters, prints, stamps and the like, the majority of them are all on display in the main gallery of the exhibition, and all exist to deify one man. It is as the artist Chen Danqing acknowledges in one interview �At the time I felt there was no difference between me and the Renaissance painters: They painted Jesus; I painted Mao.�


In Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (1969), a young heroic Mao, who would soon incite the workers rebellion of 1921, seems to dwarf the mountains and guide the clouds of change behind him. In Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside (1972), a crowd of farmers unfolds from his side, to his left and right. In Strive Forward in Winds and Tides (1971), the painting commemorates the historic event in which, at the age of 73, Mao swam in the Yangtze River for over an hour, thereby asserting his political influence through physical prowess. The cult of Mao is at work, essentially rendering him as a God-like figure in these paintings. He is as the sun. His expression is always radiant, lifting those around him who look to him, euphorically, for guidance. Indeed, one of the many folk songs rewritten during the time refers to Chairman Mao as �the sun in our hearts,� a line that reappears in movies, staged dramas, and as slogan on propaganda posters. Big, red, bright and shining, perhaps no symbol encapsulated the Party�s idealized Mao better.


Works that do not focus specifically on Mao in this gallery adhere nevertheless to the strict socialist realist style championed by the Party. For Shen Jiawei and his immensely popular work Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland (1974), to simply depict revolutionary themes isn't enough. The oil painting, which portrays three Chinese soldiers guarding the border against Soviet threat, had to be partially repainted to the Party's vision before it could be shown in public. In the revision, the faces of the soldiers were made fiercer, their cheeks rosier. The subtlety of which doesn't seem all that removed from the compulsive side of the Party today�overseeing every meticulous detail of the 2008 Olympics, including what one cute little girl's face may come to symbolize over another's.


To understand artists of this time as either puppet or victim of the authoritarian state, however, would oversimplify the picture. Among the roster of such leading contemporary artists as Xu Bing, Chen Danqing, and Zhang Hongtu who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Shen Jiawei confesses that it was the Revolution that "turned me into a painter, and, what is more, a painter who achieved fame at a very young age." As part of a work unit that painted portraits of Chairman Mao, Shen was able to keep the expensive leftover paint to further his artistic interest. These young artists regard the years of their "re-education" — living and working alongside farmers in the countryside — as the formative years of their artistic careers. It is with these sketches of the rural life that the exhibition ends in a tender spirit.


Yet the most memorable paintings in the main gallery are neither the official propaganda nor sketches from the rising stars of the era. The most memorable works often belong to the forgotten. With a departure from social realist style, the traditional ink brush paintings of established masters like Pan Tianshou, Lin Fengmian, Shi Lu and Li Keran startles one with their deviation in not only technique and style, but subject matter and emotion. If revolutionary art was bold, loud and invulnerable, the works of these masters drew on minimalism to create a spiritual lushness. Their fall from grace chronicles the shift in ideology, when pine trees standing for nobility, solemnity and dignity are replaced by jubilant faces surrounding Mao.


The most powerful painting among these "Black Artists," so labeled for their counter-revolutionary works that utilize traditionalist, old cultural themes and technique, may be Li Keran's Sunset on the Pass (1964). The ink on canvas of a looming bronze mountain landscape in rough ink strokes of traditional technique shows the People's army with their red flags, threading through the mountain. Like many of the established artists who were heavily criticized and denounced during the Cultural Revolution, Li Keran's incorporation of revolutionary themes into his traditionalist styled paintings is a monument to his artistic mastery, while the soldiers serve as reminder of the artist's concessions in order to survive. The mood of the piece is at once triumphant and lush, the irony unsaid. Another master of Chinese painting featured in the gallery was less fortunate. Lin Fengmian, who personally destroyed his own works by soaking and flushing them down the toilet, could not escape imprisonment; among countless artists who were jailed or sent to labor camps at the time, he spent over four years in prison.


It is the most ordinary paintings that accentuate the incongruity of the times. A series of landscape and still-life paintings by the fittingly named No Name Group seems entirely out of place in the throng of revolutionary art. Their depiction of everyday subjects, while not radical in form and technique, is rebellious in their very existence.


The last section of the exhibition features the Long March Project, a "walking visual display" by a contemporary artist collective set to retrace the 6000 mile retreat by Communists from Nationalist forces that mark the ascent Mao's power between 1934 and 1936. Installed as panel displays of photographs that recorded art events at twelve different sites along the route, the ambitious project is, in one of the organizer's own words, not simply an artistic chronicle of an historical event, but "an abstract symbol of achieving a [modern day] revolution…"


A revolution in the making may be fitting to describe the contemporary art scene in China today. Spearheaded by projects like The Long March, artists push the envelope with not only their unique artistic voice and medium, but by taking strides in shaping the space, the society in which they reside in. As it is with many exhibitions on China, each visitor may walk out of Art and China's Revolution more perplexed than before. The sheer otherworldliness and catastrophe of the three decades chronicled remind us that this world was only a generation ago. Today's generation, enduring its scars, feeling out its effects, remembering and forgetting, will have critical material to march on with for a while.




e-mailE-Mail This Article

New York's Lower East Side aka LES: An Update
By Mary Hrbacek


New York's Lower East Side (LES) gallery scene continues to experience rapid growth as new galleries turn up in unexpected locations. Just east of the Bowery, for example, along the northern border of Great Jones Street, Bond Street and East Second Street has seen a lot of activity lately. To help visitors navigate the terrain, please refer to the Village/LES map in this magazine (page 40). A confluence of venues between Rivington Street, Stanton Street and Chrystie Street branches off themain artery of the Bowery, where the pristine, entirely new building of the New Museum is proving to be a major attraction. This area has drawn vernerable Chelsea venues such as Feature, Inc. and White Box, while at the same time inspired new start-ups. Gallery Nine Five, at 24 Spring Street and Bowery, is a new space with an ambitious international program. And too, there are long established neighborhood fixtures such as such as Fusion Arts Museum on Stanton Street, ABC No Rio on Ludlow Street, and the Gathering of the Tribes, north of East Houston, that continue their unique multidisciplinary programs.


While the majority of these spaces are intimate to mid-sized, Fusion Arts Museum Gallery has opened an extra large, two-story flagship establishment with a program that focuses on large-scale installations, video projections and visual art. 31 Grand, named for its orignal address in Williamsburg, moved to 143 Ludlow Street in the LES last year. Many of the art spaces are new businesses run by gallerists who are suavely friendly and welcoming. The atmosphere is unpretentious and relaxed, and the works they show are often surprising and creative.


For example, at the start of this season 33 Bond, north of East Houston Street, showed large-scale graphite on paper drawings by Jeremy Lawson, with narrative scenarios of youths in rundown settings. Werkstatte, on Great Jones Street, showed David Malek's carefully mixed diamond-shaped oil on canvas tints and tones and Clare Brew's investigations of neon light. Zurcher Studio, located on Bleecker Street, just opened its doors last month. Across the Bowery, Rivington Arms on East Second Street recently featured a show by Leigh Ledare that included photographs, a video installation and sound art.


Walk further south down the Bowery, past East Houston Street, and you find Feature, Inc., which exhibited new photographs by the uncensorable Richard Kern. Nearby, on Chrystie Street, Lehmann Maupin (in addition to their Chelsea location) shows the huge wall-sized computer-generated and digitally animated projections by Jennifer Steinkamp. Her meadows of swaying pink, yellow and black flowers recast nature in a slightly menacing mold. Another abstract projection in the show featured silky, flowing fabric cascading in repetitions over a wall in the gallery. On the Bowery, the New Museum building exudes an aura of hip architectural splendor, where informative lectures and an innovative exhibition program give added gravitas to the area's experimental feel.


Situated in a quiet enclave called Freeman's Alley, Salon 94 shows ghost-like religious paintings and sculpture by Vidya Gastaldon. Alissa Friedman, the gallery's attentive director, responds gladly to visitors' questions; there is no attitude on display here, just art. Thierry Goldberg Projects, at 5 Rivington Street, was showing an Islamic inspired free-form painting show by Jeffar Khaldi. At Eleven Rivington, a group show curated by Fernanda Arruda called Active Forms utilized an unusual mix of art materials, from leather and wood, cow skin, rice paper, paint, painted metal to plexi-glass. Created by artists De Sauza, Galen, Schendel and Spoati these offbeat materials comprise the works that inspired the show's title. At 53 Stanton, Luxe Gallery presented Marie Losier's installation of photographs and film stills of industrial rockers, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye. Located at 57 Stanton, Fusion Arts Museum, a long established Lower East Side institution, offered a freewheeling group show entitled Woman. These women artists assert, in accord with the poet Ovid, "What one beholds of a woman is the least of her." The show reminds us how our pop-culture emphasis on sexiness and appearance tends to push women to accept a low view of female eroticism. At Gallery Nine Five, even the graffiti has graffiti in Monia Lippi's photographs of illuminated Brooklyn factory frescos. DCKT, at 195 Bowery, featured ten night photographs of urban and semi-urban structures by Lia Halloran, where squiggling shards of tinted white light magically disrupt and interpenetrate the images. Envoy, at 131 Chrystie Street, featured darkly, strange oil on canvas nudes and portraits by Piet Pollet. Nearby, Kukumu, at 42 Rivington Street is another new gallery that just opened.


At Nicelle Beauchene, 163 Eldridge Street, there are intricate landscape-based abstract paintings by Rebecca Saylor Sack; the gallery owner is easy to point out, she brings her beautiful baby to work. 31 Grand, 143 Ludlow, was showing Jeph Gurecka's diverse sculptural forms in a variety of materials. White, cast-resin images of people, ships, and animals, mounted on wood, recall the porcelain figures of Italian artist Della Robia. John Isaacs two-floor installation at Museum 52, located at 92 Rivington Street, features unusual sculptural objects such as a highly realistic elephant's foot. At Smith Stewart, 54 Stanton, Rashawn Griffin's denim/fabric panels reference the gallery's architectural design elements.


There are certainly more LES galleries than can be mentioned in this overview, and despite (or perhaps because of) tough economic times, it seems more galleries move here all of the time. While the whole area can easily be covered by foot, it's best to plan two or three visits to see everything. The gallerists are largely helpful and notably unpretentious, and the intimate size of the exhibition venues, many of which are converted storefronts, makes for a truly unique gallery-going experience.




e-mailE-Mail This Article

Asian Contemporary Art Fair 2008: A Report
By M. Brendon MacInnis


What distinguishes Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) from so many other art fairs launched amidst the art market frenzy of recent memory, is that its owner, Cristal Kim and Korean based sponsors — comprised of an extended family of private supporters — seem genuinely interested in promoting Asian art and culture. Certainly everyone wants to sell art, but the emphasis here on decidedly noncommercial, quirky and innovative works, presented together with a robust lecture series that includes prominent speakers from around the globe suggests that the fair organizers really mean it when they proclaim their mission to continue the growth and appreciation of Asian culture in and around the world.

A sampling of the educational programs offered during the course of the five day event reads likethe syllabus for a graduate studies semester. Victoria Lu, creative director of MOCA Shanghai, explained the intricacies of balancing public and private funding sources in her tireless efforts to secure a future for private contemporary museums
in a rapidly developing China — a future beyond the attention span of real estate speculators. David Elliot, 2010 artistic director of Biennale of Sydney, gave an informative talk about the behind the scenes workings of the museum world by comparing and contrasting his experiences in Tokyo and istanbul, on the same pannel discussion, titled Private Passions in Public Spaces: The Rise of Private Museums in Asia.

Other pannel discussions included: Biennials and Beyond: Contemporary Asian Art and Art Markets; Art and Asia's Islamic World: Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan; Re-Orientation: Art from Central Asia, Caucasus and the Middle East.

Of course, given that this second edition of ACAF took place against the backdrop of a world-wide economic tsunami, sales expectations were kept in check, and attendance was modest. The crowds were mostly comprised of art world insiders and more than a few serious collectors. For example, Jack Tilton and friends made a point to go through
the fair, and the former president and CEO of MTV Networks' VH1, Edward A. Bennett, was seen chatting up dealers. A prominent collector of Asian art, Mr. Bennett currently heads Bennett Media Studios in New York, and is active in numerous social causes, most recently promoting music teaching in public schools.

The fair also managed to bring together a dynamic albeit quirky mix of heavy-weight dealers, such as Max Protetch, New York; Chambers Fine Art, New York- Beijing; Red Gate, Beijing; ifa gallery, Shanghai, along side relatively new, but promising galleries, such as ippodo gallery, New York-Tokyo; 798 Avant Gallery, New York; and Eli Klein Fine Art, New York.

Particularly notable works included Yibin Tian's All for One and One for All, at Tenri Cultural Institute of New York. The ambitious installation that is part sculpture, part performance piece and photographs, utilizes the example of North Korean Soldiers
and that country's somewhat excentric application of "Juche" (self-reliance) to showcase the absurd. Liu Bolin's Notice for Government Affairs at ifa gallery,
Shanghai, further touched on a theme addressing the role of the individual and the state. Jin Zi's One Man's Battle, featuring doll-like figures painted on canvas utilized the repetition of the motif to highten the sense of anonymity. Chicara Nagata's Art-1
chrome laden motorcycle sculptures at ippodo gallery, New York-Tokyo confounded the lines of Kitsch, fashion and art.

On balance, this second edition of ACAF reveals the fair as a valuable cultural asset that, with some luck and determination on the part of its organizers and participants, could well take root and become one of New York's cultual gems. It's already one of
my favorite fairs to visit this time of year.




Copyright © 2005- by MBM Publications/The New York Art World®. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.