Over the last few years Platform China has established a strong programme of shows that display refreshing latitude with respect to exhibition formats and presentation of artworks.
Two highlights from last year included the extravagant group show “Jungle” and “The Third Party”. The former expansive exhibition continually refreshed itself over its two-month run, inviting the starting artists to adapt their installations and also bringing in new artists later in the exhibition. In what seems to have been a precursor to the current trend in Beijing of withdrawing the curator from the process of the show, “Jungle” eschewed the authority of this figure or even a strong theme, leaving the results in the hands of the artists (for better or for worse). At the end of 2010, “The Third Party” (which I reviewed earlier on ArtSlant) represented the opposite stance in relation to curation, with Beatrice Leanza taking, if not centre stage as curator, then at least a dominant role, corralling the large collection of alternative practices.
And so we reach the current offering: “19 Solo Shows About Painting,” produced by the Platform China Contemporary Art Institute as the first of what they propose will be an annual series of shows. Stepping back into curatorially-bereft territory, “19 Solo Shows…” mirrors the format of “Jungle", with an extended collection of artists and a sprawling layout that dominates a large part of Platform China’s two buildings. But this time the focus is squarely on painting and its presentation.
The gallery is divided into multiple more-or-less well-defined rooms or areas, each of which is given over to a single artist. Aside from some interruptions, the spaces are treated fairly simply, with collections of paintings arranged on the walls in mostly innocuous configurations. Many of the artists have politely arranged their works in the space and utilised the provided A4 sheet to give details of their pieces and indicate their locations. The sheet also provides an opportunity for the artists to write a short statement in addition to details about the works.
Overall, the feeling I got from moving through this show was surprisingly flat. “19 Solo Shows…” doesn’t fail to provide plenty to contemplate, but wandering through these rooms I was struck by how unengaged I was. There are the requisite examples of specific objects intended to take the viewer back to a ground zero of form and meaning (for example, Huang Lian’s series of small canvases); paintings from photographs to alienating effect (Lin Yenwei’s ageing statuary in public parks); and the ever-popular “bad” painting. Where a strong attitude was evident (for instance in the scatological works of Liao Guohe), the presentation meant that the results simply faded into the background.
Some artists managed to overcome these conditions and stood out from the crowd. Sun Xun’s ink painting on a long paper scroll was strongly presented, unrolling diagonally across the floor of the grey room, anchored at both ends by breezeblocks and portraying a series of animals in the artist’s characteristically confident brushwork. Li Qing’s take on the legacy of mid-20th century Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases brought the metaphysical into the everyday in a childishly playful way (although possibly too childish). Song Yuanyuan’s self-aware multiplying painted interiors accreted architectural elements and physical deformations of the canvas and Zhou Yilun’s painting/installations displayed a touch of hysteria in their surreal subject matter. Architectural adjustments to the spaces such as a vertically raking wall added an interesting element of viewing instability to Liu Weijian’s otherwise pedestrian works (perhaps echoing an intervention left over from the “Jungle” show – Liang Shuo’s disconcertingly angled treads on Platform’s staircase).
Ultimately, however, these elements had less to do with the paintings themselves and were more related to attempts to work with the format of the show and with possibilities for installation combined with painting. This was implicitly recognised in the title’s significant use of the word “About", which I read as an attempt to shift the meaning of the individual solo shows from simply an exposition of the artists’ works to an investigation of how those works fit into a milieu.
Although large group shows are sometimes welcome, they can end up with the same result one gets with art fairs – providing a concentrated means of seeing many works in one place, but suffering from a tendency towards homogenisation and producing an unwelcome sense of exhaustion in the viewer. “19 Solo Shows About Painting” provides no real surprises with regards to painting itself and left me with little to take home. Beyond the painting, however, the possibilities that this approach alludes to and the fact that institutions like Platform are willing to take such risks is cause for considerable hope.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Platform China and the artists.)