Art

What Do Chinese Artists Think About Chelsea?

Chen Wei, "House of Recovery" (2008) (all images courtesy James Cohan gallery unless otherwise noted)

I love visiting Chelsea during the middle of the summer. Fewer gallery visitors and collectors mean that before they close their galleries for the month of August galleries are willing to take some risks. Though June and July lack the blockbuster flare and boldfaced names usually reserved for the fall and winter it is sometimes the most fruitful time to see art.

An installation View of "Catch the Moon in the Water" with works by Chen Wei. (photo by the author)

Last summer’s group show at Jonathan Levine provided me with a welcome introduction to the work of German graffiti artist EVOL, the current group show at Zieher Smith Grasping for Relics was a surprising survey of abstraction from a range of young emerging artists. James Cohan Gallery’s most recent show Catch the Moon in the Water is an unexpected and thought provoking riff on the summer group show. The exhibition reflects on the work of young Chinese artists. The  show’s  title refers to the impossibility of capturing the moon from its reflection. As per the press release:

This idiom takes on special meaning when applied to the West’s preoccupation with certain stereotypes in contemporary Chinese art.

And now to quote Time Out New York:

Besides making all that crap you buy at Walmart, China has been minting contemporary artists left and right.

While its true that China has experienced a huge growth of artists in recent years, as with the rest of its economy a large percentage of this output is geared for export. To reduce this to pandering would be to oversimplify things. China, its economy and the attendant art market has been an object of intense scrutiny from the western public and arts professionals alike. This exhibition highlights a group of artists who are happy to return the favor.

Cheng Ran, "Ghost of Tundra # 1" (2010) (click to enlarge)

Cheng Ran’s romantically staged photographs present a backwoods, hodgepodge reimagining of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. These photos are fanciful but also critical, laying bear the influence of American cinema.

Zhao Zhao’s “Wrapping Christo and Jeanne-Claude With Semen” is the most overtly aggressive piece in the show. The piece juxtaposes a photograph of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Valley Curtain” with a swatch of the orange material that, considering the title, is probably covered in semen. A parody by Double Fly Art Center, “Contemporary Business” is a tongue and check parody of hit Mandarin pop song, “Love Business.” The members of the collective dance to saccharine music, performing campy dance moves while reciting lyrics that take a shot at perceived injustices by curators and art centers.

Guo Hongwei, "On the Frontier" (2011)

Guo Hongwie’s works on paper combine a focus on American culture with personal history and Chinese cultural tradition. The artist selects and hand paints images from the American psyche, from a portrait of Andy Warhol to a found photograph of the Twin Towers, combining them with his father’s traditional Chinese calligraphy. Chen Wei’s staged photographs of a bedroom have the unnerving stillness and highly produced value of American photographer Gregory Crewdson. Hu Xiangquian’s tone is similarly referential. His video “Art Museum” depicts a presentation by the artist of major Western artworks that have inspired him but that he has never seen or fully understood.

When I walked into the show it felt as if I was walking into a sort of alternate reality version of a Pictures Generation show. I think the feeling goes beyond influence to a sort of challenge, not to this body of artists in particular but to an international arts community long dominated by the West. Video, satire, photographic appropriation and above all a sense of irony and playfulness infused the show. My sense is that China’s highly educated, well informed and ambitious young generation of artists are willing to take on Chelsea.

Catch The Moon in the Water is on view at James Cohan Gallery (533 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until June 29.

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RELATED LINK: The Economist takes a look at China’s contemporary art scene in an article unfortunately titled, “Chinese Checkers,” which (nonetheless) has interesting insights like:

Most Chinese artists live in Beijing, whereas most collectors come from Shanghai, the historic financial centre.

And:

For instance, François Pinault, a French collector with two museums in Venice, owns 15 Zeng [Fanzhi] paintings and says he sees the artist as “the Jackson Pollock of the 21st century”: the great abstract expressionist was the first American painter to gain international recognition.

The latter statement makes those of us at Hyperallergic wonder if Pinault is simply crazy or just senile.

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