Wang Luyan, “W Global Watch D12 – 01” (2012), acrylic on canvas, at Pékin Fine Arts (all photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There are few hot topics in the art world like China, which along with its growing economic might is starting to flex its cultural soft power and demonstrate that it is central to any global dialogue. So it should be no surprise that this year’s Armory Art Fair has devoted its curated section to China. What is surprising, and welcome, is that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill exploration of the contemporary world of the Middle Kingdom, since in the able hands of Philip Tinari, director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and the founding editor of Leap magazine, this small cluster of China-based galleries and nonprofits might shatter some perceptions of Chinese contemporary art.


Curator Philip Tinari speaking at the opening of the 2014 Armory Show.

Don’t expect images of Mao, Ronald McDonald in communist gear, or political art on the verge of being censored — Tinari’s mission, he told Hyperallergic, was to normalize our stereotypes of a Chinese art world dominated by commercialism, record auction prices, and Ai Weiwei.

This is not to say that the spectre of corporate branding doesn’t creep into many of the objects at display, like Wang Luyan’s obnoxiously loud Global Watch series, or Liang Shuo’s ceramic mashups, but they are integrated in the same way we see in a lot of contemporary art, particularly at art fairs.

There are many surprises, like Huang Rui’s austere abstract paintings from late last century, and the exuberance of Double Fly Art Center’s packaged objects (you can try to win a prize for $50, I paid, played, and walked away with nothing … CAPITALISM!).

Tinari successfully makes the case that Chinese contemporary art is just like any other corner of the art world, with its abstract painters, performance artists, installation fiends, bad boy (they tend to be male) artists, and clever conceptualists.

The biggest find for me was a painting by Xu Zhen, “Light Source” (nd) at Tianrenheyi Art Center, which plays a trick with your eyes by injecting a glare into a famous painting of François Boucher’s, “Blond Odalisque” (1752), such that it appears surrounded by light. Walking through the venerable museums of Europe, which are filled with massive Old Master oils, the effect should be familiar. There have been many instances where I was never able to take in a large canvas in person the way I’ve been able to see the same images clearly, with some color correction, in a catalogue or book. Xi’s work seems to encapsulate the point of this “Focus,” namely that first-hand experience is vastly different from what we learn from others. Sometimes what you see with your own eyes shatters your perceptions of what you thought you’d see.


The props of Xu Zhen’s “Action of Consciousness” (2011), which is part of a performance installation at the center of the China Lounge at Pier 94. It is courtesy the MadeIn Company,


A work by Nadim Abbas at Hong Kong’s Gallery Exit incorporates a robotic vacuum.


Li Shurui at Shanghai’s Aike Dellarco gallery


Painting by Huang Rui and a sculpture Wang Keping at Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane Gallery


One of the packaged items by Double Fly Art Center at Space Station gallery


Small objects by Liang Shuo at Gallery Yang


Detail of Xu Zhen’s “Under Heaven-2802CF1312” (2013), oil on canvas, aluminum, at MadeIn Company


The display by Zhang Ding at Galerie Krinzinger


Two works by Zhao Zhao at Chambers Fine Art


A detail of a painting by Zhao Gang, which was part of the Northern Salon” show at Platform China

Works from Wang Yuyang's "Breathing Series - POS" (2013), silica, motor, metal frame

Works from Wang Yuyang’s “Breathing Series – POS” (2013), silica, motor, metal frame, at Tang Contemporary Art


Xi Zhen’s “Light Source” (date unknown) at Hangzhou’s Tianrenheyi Art Center

Pier 94 – FOCUS: China continues at the 2014 Armory Art Fair (Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Westside, Manhattan) until Sunday, March 9, 12pm–7pm.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

7 replies on “The Chinese Focus at Armory”

  1. I love the uncorked champagne bottle on the desk in front of Wang Luyan’s piece! A little extra incentive to buy never hurts.

  2. So much of the coverage I’ve been reading about China has left us cold. Everybody is saying how pleasantly nice all of this work is–and it’s true. It’s certainly not hideous–but there’s simply no sizzle. Is it possible to create provocative and compelling art in a country with no true democracy or social justice? I just can’t see a Chinese Banksy roaming the streets of Beijing and not suddenly and inexplicably disappearing never to be heard from again. http://www.baxnyc.com/2014/03/10/china-syndrome-hollow-art-trend/#permalink

      1. I think I present a legitimate question. Can art really flourish under an environment where the very real threat of continuous, unabated and unrelenting persecution is real and readily available for those who create art that offends the powers that be? I think the art that is produce will always feel neutered as a means for self-preservation. I don’t blame any artist under that condition–I’m just trying to highlight the limitations placed on cultural development under totalitarian regimes.

        1. I agree with you but I also think it’s healthy to see each period as a full picture. I’m thinking of the fact that during the same era that the US was placing Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, the New York School was starting to roar. I’m not saying that China today is mid-century US, just that every era and big government has it’s contradictions.

  3. Hi Mr. Vartanian,
    There is a spelling mistake of the artist’s name. It’s Xu Zhen, who made the “Light Source”, not Xi Zhen.

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