Closer to the Beautiful World curated by Janet Fong
Klein Sun Gallery, Oct. 12th - Nov 25th
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, Nov. 2017
Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow is quoted in the press release for “Closer to the Beautiful World,” where he asserts the necessity of establishing “a beautiful world” in the face of social ills. But maybe the more accurate response to this show has to do with the change in the way China makes money. In the last forty years, Chinese people have practiced capitalism with a vengeance, and the consequences of this practice have had real influence on the way art is made. Gone is the melding of Western and Asian art practices, which, during the 1980s, resulted in some remarkable art: Book from the Sky by Xu Bing, the performances of Zhang Huan, the famous installation by Xiao Lu, which she shot twice with national—even international—repercussions. But this is all gone now; indeed, the artistic revolt practiced by these highly gifted artists has been completely co-opted—to the point where Xiao Lu now poses with a pistol for fashionable women’s magazines in China. As a result of these economic advances—if that is the right word to use—Chinese art has become quite similar to other art practiced by highly developed mercantile economies. There is, as elsewhere, an emphasis on personal expression and experience, as well as a reliance on social descriptiveness that has next to nothing to do with historical legacies in Chinese art.
So, increasingly, we are all the same artistically and economically. Artists are usually the ones who withstand materialism in culture, but there has been a shift; more and more, they are embracing money and things. This has happened pretty thoroughly in America, where popular culture has capitulated to the pursuit of eros and goods in ways that mimic the general values of the world in which they exist. The same thing has happened in the art world, where the market, and not critical regard, dominates the visible success of works of art. “Closer to the Beautiful World” may not be so directly taken with following the financial ascent of China, but there is in much of the show a discomfort with values that no longer indicate an Asian or Western bias; instead, they simply illustrate a world economy that is impervious to economic or cultural criticism. The choice facing young artists everywhere is how much to participate in a financial system that tolerates their existence but hardly takes them seriously. Chinese artists are no exception to this rule, and the show’s title, “Closer to the Beautiful World,” can as easily be read as an ironic wording of the search for the good life as it is a sublime statement. People often say, with supposed wisdom, that the truth lies somewhere between the two positions. But in fact that is not the case—contemporary art must chose the ground on which it will stand.
Popular culture is now embedded in much contemporary art, which quite naturally makes use of it to communicate across class, race, nationality. But its use results in degradation—at least to some degree. The oil painting Blowing Cheerily (2015) by Zhang Zhaoying is a highly commercialized tableau of four muscle-bound women dressed in bikinis, their faces completely obscured by propellers of different colors. In the black ground behind them, all manner of confetti-like squibs in white, pink, and green seem to be raining down on them from above. The scene is one of conscious excess, but it has little to do with specifically Chinese circumstances (because their faces are hidden, we cannot tell whether the women are Asian). Even so, the tableau illustrates the tendency toward a merger of spectacle and sex, a feature of media for decades now. This breezy, humorous embodiment of eros as entertainment is offset by a serious abstract painting by Chen Xi. Titled Single Layer Acrylic No. 11, 2015, the moderate-size painting consists of swirling, colliding brushstrokes that are regularly embellished by spider-like designs in black. As the artwork’s name indicates, it is done with acrylic paint—not a material mainstay of classical Chinese culture! Moreover, the abstraction reads as international, rather than being specifically Chinese. Contemporary art can no longer be separated by geography; instead, it represents a worldwide movement in which cultural borrowing is accepted with equanimity—even the former rule against colonizing cultures borrowing from colonized cultures seems to be slipping. But this has been happening for some time.
Hu Yinping’s identity cards document an increasingly chubby Chinese woman in her early thirties. The somber photos, some with the artist wearing lipstick, register an emotionally blank reserve on the artist’s part; we remember that this is an official photo and not one intended to be lighthearted or personal. What exactly is the artist recording? The changes in the fullness of Hu’s face can only be seen as uniquely her own—this despite the fact that she is posing for an official photo, which would supposedly render the image impersonal. Even so, her gain in weight has hardly any private meaning, let along public import. There was a time in China, not so long ago, when friends greeted each other with the question, “Have you eaten yet?” But now overeating is something of a problem in the affluent Mainland, with its Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Hu may simply be illustrating what happens when a person—or a society—has much more than is needed. (Her work could be connected to the French conceptual artist Orlan, who has had major surgeries, which were videotaped, to make her resemble famous beauties. Physical change mimics social change.) Yang Xinjia’s photo, called A Fatty’s Sorrow (2015), shows six military personnel, clothed in caps and coats, standing and laughing over a pinkish fish of considerable size, dead on a table draped with white cloth. The jovial atmosphere is undercut by the pathos of the fish, out of its element and no longer living. One hesitates what to make of the situation. Is it a satire of the insensitivity of military people? Is it an ironic tragedy, in which the fish is being mocked despite—or because of—its desolate state? It is hard to tell. Yang suggests a narrative that makes no rational sense; indeed, its very lack of purpose may stand as a comment on the absurdity of uniformed life in contemporary China. Whatever the artist’s intention, the image reflects a disturbing complacency on the part of the men as they stand over the dead creature with an equanimity bordering on contempt.
Finally, Wang Jiajia’s complicated, colorful mixed media work, called Can We Live in Reality? (2017), seems to offer many small scenes overriding and overlapping each other. These describe an intricate mosaic that feels figurative and abstract at once. The work is very hard to read, but Western letters, rather than Chinese characters, make an appearance, sometimes building legible phrases such as “Die Yuppie scum!” The colors are gorgeous: dark blues and greens, as well as bits of red and yellow. As happens so often now in marketplaces and entertainment centers everywhere, the work’s sensory input is overwhelming, so that the title’s question is rings true to the circumstances we face. Wang is a romantic chronicler of a visual reality based on the exorbitant exchange of money, and while the imagery is highly compelling, that does not mean the reality behind it is the same. As it happens, the title suggests more than a small amount of doubt in the face of the visual overkill we are exposed to on a daily basis. “Closer to the Beautiful World” doesn’t bring us any nearer to a utopia where every desire is fulfilled. In fact, ast it indicates the kinds of compromises, visual and emotional and philosophical, we make in order to live the good life. America’s manic appetite for things has now spread all over the world, with the result that art is starting to look more or less the same in its accommodation of materialsm, no matter where it comes from. For this writer, the results are close to tragic in their indifference to the specificities of Chinese history and culture. China, whose classical culture stands out in history, now seems oriented toward a path of mindless gain. The artists in the show reflect their situation with insight, but they cannot restrain the forces that bind them to a way of life that sidesteps the historical greatness of their country’s past. Such circumstances are not happy. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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