Cao Fei: Play Time @Lombard-Freid

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 works, displayed in the main gallery space, the back alcove, and on the outdoor terrace. There are 8 photographic works on view: 2 single image c-prints, framed in blond wood and not matted, each 35×47 in editions of 10, from 2011, and 6 c-print diptychs, framed in blond wood and not matted, each print 24×32, also in editions of 10, from 2011. The show also includes 2 single channel color videos with sound (one on a small flat screen, the other projected on an entire wall), both from 2011, 1 wooden tabletop sculpture, from 2011, and one garden installation. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: In a relatively short span of time, Cao Fei has cemented her artistic position at the nexus of pop and youth culture, expanding how we experience and think about new trends and online communities. In recent projects, she has explored the virtual world of Second Life and documented cosplayers in the context of day-to-day China. This show continues this line of experimentation, remaking recognizable children’s TV characters and simple games by playing with the edges of reality and fantasy and adding in layers of subtle social commentary.

All of the photographs in this show come from the PostGarden series, where candy colored characters (the CBeebies from the BBC) have left their idyllic world and now travel through muddy dirt piles, highway underpasses, and smoking wastelands. Her images capture the stuffed figures escaping across an open field, pushing a shopping cart, living in a tent camp, and digging a grave for their dead father. The works are like a fairy tale gone bad, where honest simplicity and trusting innocence unexpectedly meet difficult reality. Many of the images are actually diptychs with an I Spy game built in, where the paired works have a handful of differences the viewer is supposed to try and spot. Even though this feels a little gimmicky, the technique definitely encourages a close inspection of the details, reinforcing just how odd the whole narrative structure really is.

A similar cartoon character device is used in one of the short videos, where the jaunty smile of Thomas the Tank Engine is grafted onto the front of a dusty truck hauling grimy trash and construction debris across town to the city dump; fun childhood adventures have been exchanged for ugly, mind numbing work. A second video uses silhouetted hand puppets to play out clever shadow stories with dark undertones and ominous political undercurrents.

In all of these works, things are not what they seem, and innocent cartoon symbols have been taken out of context, creating an entirely different “play” experience. Depending on your level of jadedness and sarcasm, it’s alternately sharply satirical and and sadly dispiriting to see these bouncing happy characters endure the harsh realities life has to dish out. In Cao Fei’s works, the soft, warm glow of these fantasy worlds has been drained away, leaving behind something more complicated and much less easily interpreted.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced as follows. The 35×47 single images are $13200 each (framed); the diptychs are also $13200 each (framed). Cao Fei’s work has only recently begun to enter the secondary markets, mostly in Asian Contemporary Art sales. As such, gallery retail is still likely the best option for interested collectors at this point.

If you don’t have an 11 year old boy in your house (like we do), you likely won’t have any idea what a Tech Deck is (it’s a small hand held replica skateboard that can be manipulated with your fingers). But if you can identify this trendy toy, I can absolutely guarantee that Cao Fei’s laminated wood miniature skatepark is the single most kid friendly artwork that you will see in a gallery this year. It combines various architectural features with ramps and rails, coming together in a dense tabletop extravaganza that will make your child’s eyes light up; don’t enjoy it too much, or you’ll be off the lumberyard cursing yourself as you try and recreate it.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Review: NY Times (here)

Cao Fei: Play Time
Through June 25th

Lombard-Freid Projects
518 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10001

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Read more about: Cao Fei, Lombard Freid Gallery

One comment

  1. Sam Boetti /

    This show was diverting, fun. She reminds me of Rei Sato. The compositions are very, very similar.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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