JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 75 works (116 total photographs) by 36 different Chinese artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung in the two main gallery spaces and the connecting entry area. All of the works were made between 1994 and 2011. The exhibit was curated by Miles Barth and will travel to the Krannert Art Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art. (Installation shots at right courtesy of the Katonah Museum of Art, photography by Margaret Fox.)
The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of photographs on view and image details in parentheses:
Adou (2 gelatin silver prints, 2006)
Chen Wei (1 archival inkjet print, 2010)
Jiang Pengyi (1 chromogenic print, 2009)
Li Lang (1 digital pigment print, 2001)
Li Wei (2 digital pigment prints, 2005, 2008)
Liyu + Liubo (6 digital chromogenic prints, 2006, 2007)
Liu Ren (1 digital chromogenic print, 2007)
Lu Guang (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2010)
Lu Hao (1 set of 4 color photographs, 1999)
Peng Rong (1 color photograph, 2008)
Qiu Zhijie (1 color coupler print, 2005)
Rong Rong (1 set of 4 hand tinted gelatin silver prints, 2000)
Wang Qingsong (1 set of 3 chromogenic prints, 2003)
Weng Fen (4 digital chromogenic prints, 2000, 2002, 2009)
Xu Zhen (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2005)
Yang Yi (1 digital pigment print, 2007)
Zhang Lijie (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2010, 2011)
Zhang Xiao (4 digital chromogenic prints, 2006-2008, 2007, 2008, 2009)
Cao Fei (1 digital chromogenic print, 2002)
Chen Qiulin (1 color photograph, 2002)
Huang Yan (1 chromogenic print, 2005)
Liu Zheng (12 gelatin silver prints, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, printed in 2006)
Muge (3 gelatin silver prints, 2004, 2006)
O Zhang (17 chromogenic prints installed in greenery, 2006, 3 digital chromogenic prints, 2008)
Sun Ji (1 digital pigment print, 2005)
Tamen (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2007)
Tian Taiquan (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2006) Wang Jin (1 chromogenic print, 1995)
Wang Wusheng (3 gelatin silver prints, 2007)
Weng Fen (1 set of 10 digital chromogenic prints, 2001-2010)
Yao Lu (2 chromogenic prints, 2007, 2009)
Zhang Huan (1 set of 9 chromogenic prints, 2000)
Maleonn (3 digital chromogenic prints, 2005, 2006, 2007)
Yu Haibo (1 digital chromogenic print, 2005)
Zhou Hai (2 digital chromogenic prints, 2005)
Comments/Context: It’s been eight long years since the groundbreaking 2004 ICP/Asia Society show of contemporary Chinese photography, and while the chaotic art scene in China continues to evolve at a blistering pace, from a fixed perch in New York, it’s nearly impossible to stay current on what’s actually going on. So it was with much anticipation that I made a visit to the Katonah Museum of Art’s current group show, with the hopes of getting an update on how things have continued to change over the intervening years. If this tightly edited sampler-style exhibit is any guide to the reality on the ground, the melting pot of interconnected ideas surrounding the country’s wholesale economic, social, and cultural transformation has become even more complicated and nuanced than expected, and the resulting art has moved beyond simplistic Chinese cliches intended for Western audiences to more mature investigations of everything from consumerism to environmental destruction.
While the show is not organized thematically, there are certainly a handful of underlying ideas that present themselves again and again in the chosen works. Given China’s rich artistic and cultural history, it is inevitable that contemporary artists would be forced to thoughtfully engage with the past, picking through the centuries of excellence for those portions to discard and those to renew. This back and forth dialogue between the traditional arts and those of this moment is captured in a number of memorable pieces. Zhang Huan blackens his face with calligraphy, while Qiu Zhijie draws characters with light. Wang Wusheng makes imposing foggy mountainscapes reminiscent of ancient Chinese painting, while Yao Lu reinterprets these same forms using construction rubble and green netting. Huang Yan paints traditional landscapes on his face, and Wang Qingsong builds classic floral still lifes out of frozen meat and vegetables. Respect and subversion are offered in equal doses, highlighting the challenges of balancing the aesthetics of old and new.
Western style consumerism and the expansion of mega cities are another face of this old/new reconciliation. Cao Fei’s dog faced people crawl on all fours dressed head to toe in Burberry plaid, while Li Lang’s studio portraits of the traditional Yi people include boom boxes and bright white tennis shoes. Weng Fen has three separate bodies of strong work in this show that all touch on these related themes: a diptych of “family aspirations” which juxtaposes patriotic Mao suits/red dresses with Western suits/briefcases, a pair schoolgirl profiles against expansive modern cityscapes, and a William Christenberry-like series of ten images of the city of Haikou, which is slowly engulfed by massive urban sprawl. Li Wei’s portrait of his wife and daughter, precariously seated on the raw girders of a new building while he is lifted feet first into the air, makes the personal uncertainty surrounding such rapid expansion all the more unsettling.
What we haven’t seen as much of in the telling of the “new China” story is the rebirth of documentary and photojournalistic efforts. Happily, this show collects a number of examples of unflinching, nuanced reporting. Muge chronicles the societal transformations created by the Three Gorges Dam, while Zhou Hai documents the lives of steel workers. Environmental damage is captured by both Lu Guang and Zhang Xiao. And overlooked stories, from deformed citizens (Zhang Lijie) to mass produced art forgeries (Yu Haibo) finally have a voice. It is a hopeful sign that truth telling is becoming somewhat easier, after decades of suppression and censorship.
Finally, this show gathers together plenty of examples of quirky rule breaking and symbolic eclecticism. A man in a tuxedo marries a mule dressed in pink taffeta to protest his repeated visa denials (Wang Jin), dream-like sheep fill Tiananmen Square (Liu Ren), mechanical ants head toward the futuristic Water Cube (Peng Rong), kids pose in “Chinglish” t-shirts in front of historic landmarks (O Zhang), and groups of kids wrestle with PhotoShopped George Bush and Kofi Annan (Xu Zhen). Creative boundaries are being stretched, not always completely successfully, but at least with genuine freshness and spirit.
What I think I like best about this show is its quiet optimism. Of course, there are many complex perhaps intractable problems facing contemporary China, but this exhibit proves that the burgeoning artistic community is increasingly ready to meet these challenges, using everything from beauty and insight to mockery and satire to bring thoughtful, unvarnished context to these issues. New Yorkers, this is the best short term opportunity that you’re likely to get to catch a glimpse of the current state of Chinese photography, so hop the Metro North train to Katonah and don’t miss this well-chosen cross section of recent work.
Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. While most of the photographers in this show lack New York gallery representation, I have listed below what I could track down for those that do. If there are other representation relationships in other cities in the US, or in China for that matter, please be encouraged to add them to the comments for the benefit of all:
- Adou: Pace/MacGill Gallery (here)
- Cao Fei: Lombard-Freid Projects (here)
- Liu Zheng: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)
- Muge: Anastasia Photo (here)
- O Zhang: CRG Gallery (here)
- Wang Wusheng: Barry Friedman (here)
- Yao Lu: Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here)
- Zhang Huan: Pace Gallery (here)
Similarly, very few of these artists have any secondary market history in the US. Zhang Huan and Wang Qingsong have the most consistent auction activity; for virtually all the rest, gallery retail is likely the only real option for interested collectors at this point, and this assumes being able to find an appropriate representative to contact, either here in New York or elsewhere.