Ren Hang: Athens Love @Klein Sun

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the entry area and the main gallery space. All of the works are c-prints, made in 2015. The prints are shown in two sizes – 26×38 (or reverse), in editions of 10, and 11×16 (or reverse), also in editions of 10. There are 15 large prints and 7 small prints on display. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Session Press (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Chinese photographer Ren Hang’s provocative nudes first appeared in the West a handful of years ago, they seemed to inject a jolt of fresh energy into a photographic genre that was in need of an infusion of creativity. Coming out of a repressively conservative society where government control has limited the presence of nudity in artworks, Ren’s pictures felt full of a youthful brashness and subversive rebellion that had more urgency than most contemporary photographs of naked 20-somethings acting out. Their flash-lit frankness seemed like an authentic reflection of the changing attitudes of China’s new generation.

Most of Ren’s early pictures were made inside, on floors and couches, in beds and bathrooms, with friends and lovers of both sexes tangled into clever twists and overlaps of naked bodies. His compositions were overtly performative and often playfully surreal, with heads disappearing into crotches and legs and arms bent into disorienting kaleidoscope patterns, populated by a healthy and largely equal dose of male and female genitals. Ren’s brand of bold eroticism wasn’t captured in the pared down classicism of Robert Mapplethorpe but in something altogether more casual and collective. The nakedness of his models was mundanely blatant (and risk-taking, given the political environment), and his confrontational aesthetic took advantage of the inherent push and pull of knowing put-on sexuality and actual unadorned vulnerability.

Ren’s newest photographs were made on an artist residency in Greece in 2015, and represent new directions for his work beyond just the obvious change in geography. Most notably, his interest in the interplay between bodies and nature comes forth with much more centrality. Gone are the cramped interior quarters of bland urban apartments, where cut flowers provided the only symbolic link to the natural world – the tactile reality of rocky shorelines, tide pools, and sweeping meadows now replaces that original background blankness.

Additionally, rather than interacting with others in pairs and groups, his models are now largely alone, their physical dialogue coming with the spacious environment around them. Naked bodies lie on rough rocks, peek through cracks, goof around with flowering cacti, and nestle in the grass, figuring out expressive ways of engaging the terrain.

Part of what is evolving in these photographs is Ren’s management of scale. In adapting to the geography, he’s stepped back several paces from his previously tightly cropped bodies, allowing the expanses of the venues to fill the frames. While he’s still employing a strong flash, that effect plays differently outside, brightening the singular bodies but leaving the wider surroundings largely unchanged. Sunsets, shimmering water, and craggy rocks provide context, and his models interact with their given space the best they can (they’re naked after all), but the intimacy of Ren’s experimental interlocked bodies is gone, replaced by a kind of theatrical prancing and vogueing amid the wisteria and in the dirt caves that feels less engaging. In isolating his youthfully defiant subjects in the grandeur of nature, he’s made pictures that look like Ryan McGinley’s.

Ren has also made many of his newest prints much bigger, each large print taking up a decent slice of wall. This again feels like an expansive gesture, the claustrophobic crampedness of his earlier works loosened a bit. But that spaciousness comes at the expense of hidden subversiveness – his new images are much more open, and as a result, more muted in their rebellions. Perhaps it’s just harder to come up with something radical to act out for the camera when it’s only you, your naked body, and the passively entrancing beauty of the Grecian coastline – a friend and a sofa opens up all kinds of quirky combinations that are impractical on the rocks.

While there is momentary visual magic to be found in the turn of a body or the uneasy interaction of nudity and nature in these images, this isn’t Ren’s best work. The edgy, young-and-bored rawness of his earlier photographs feels overly forced in the beauty of Greece, its red lipped audacity out of place amid the tranquility of the landscape. While Athens may have been a lovely place to visit, it seems to have been the wrong environmental match for Ren’s intense approach. What makes his pictures stand out is their thoughtfully composed impertinence, and while there might have been genuine dissonance to be exploited here, too often these images fall toward going-through-the-motions rather than blunt action.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The larger 26×38 prints are $6200 each, while the smaller 11×16 prints are $3100 each. Ren’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Ren Hang, Eli Klein Gallery, Session Press

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Aperture in 2024 (here). Softcover with dust jacket (17 x 22.5 cm), 124 pages, with 80 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a conversation between ... Read on.

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