'Tis the season of the MFA group show, in my opinion the most democratic of art exhibitions. Why? Because the artworks are supremely individualized, the only binding relationship being one of relatively minor consequence: these artists are fellow graduates; they are peers. And that’s it. There are no key themes or hot topics. If conceptual or aesthetic linkages occur it can generally be chalked up to coincidence or perhaps early signs of a possible zeitgeist. These shows are about individual artists showcasing their best work, each in its own right. If you like a piece it’s often simply because it strikes, not because it illustrates some intellectual angle driven by a gallery or curator. That’s refreshing, and exciting.
Timing-wise Catch the Moon in the Water: Emerging Chinese Artists could not be better. Of the nine artists in the show, all but one are contemporaries of the emergent MFAs, being born between ’77 and ’83. Their work ranges from animation, to performance, to more traditional watercolor painting, to staged photography, to the documentation of good old conceptual tomfoolery. It’s good work, more fun than most contemporary Chinese art, and it would be a great exhibition were it not for Leo Xu’s sophomoric curatorial attempt to upend “the West’s preoccupation with certain stereotypes,” (press release drivel) which is in itself a pretty stereotypical thing to do.
It’s best to ignore this bogus didactic framework and go straight to the art. Double Fly Art Center, a loosely organized artist collective—China’s equivalent of our very own Bruce High Quality Foundation—who stage satirical performances, presents a giddy and exuberant music video titled Contemporary Business (2010). It’s a parody piece riffing on a Chinese pop song, simultaneously a critique of art world dealings and a damn silly dance video.
Cheng Ran and Chen Wei both create elaborate stages to photograph. Cheng’s compositions are psychologically loaded and heavily narrative driven, in the vein of Jeff Wall and Gergory Crewdson. Ran’s Ghost of the Tundra portrays a derelict version of the Hollywood sign atop a barren cliff of no significance. This is tinsel town stripped of everything that makes it what it is.
The rest of the group splits three ways. Hu Xiangqian and Zhao Zhao both make art about art, which is by turns inventive and amusing. Guo Hongwei and Liang Yuanwei contribute pretty flaccid paintings; Guo’s combining his father’s poetry with American iconography (e.g. Warhol, the Guggenheim, the New Museum, some dollar bills, etc.). Liang’s diptych Oval (2011) is Rococo at its mildest. The most impressive piece is Sun Xun’s 21 Grams (2010) a hand-drawn animation lasting nearly half an hour and comprising roughly 30,000 still frames, twenty-one of which are on view beside a flat screen looping the film. This layered and complex work uses a considerable amount of symbolism to raise questions about the authenticity of history. It is emotionally provocative though ultimately pretty pessimistic. If history is hopeless, it seems to ask, what does that say about the future?
One of the defining aspects of this generation of Chinese artists is that they are mostly single children thanks to the one child policy. Consequentially individualism comes naturally to them. Rather than make overtly political work (common for the generation that preceded them) they’re making art that interests them personally, which leads to a wonderful diversity of approaches and ideas, as this exhibition makes evident. How this is going to play out over time will be interesting to see, and perhaps soon someone will let an emerging curator from China do something with his or her peers. Because the mentality of the old guard is a poor fit for this rising generation.
Images: Cheng Ran, Ghost of Tundra #1, 2010, C-print, 150 X 180 cm; Liang Yuanwei, Oval, 2011, Oil on linen, Diptych, 15 3/4 x 19 5/8 inches (40 x 50cm) each. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.