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