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Breaking Ai Wei Wei

Traveling Exhibition Dispels Conventional Idea of Contemporary Chinese Art

OUTSIDE THE BOX: A piece by Zhang Minjie.

By Kate Noonan | Posted 4/23/2008

Realized in Wood: Contemporary Prints from China

At Towson University's Asian Arts and Culture Center through May 16

In a new traveling exhibition stopping at Towson University's Asian Arts and Culture Center, guest curator and printmaker Renee Covalucci assembles the works of three artists working with traditional European printmaking techniques in the Hebei Province of China. The exhibition originated at the Art Institute of Boston, and the included artists--Li Yanpeng, Dong Jiansheng, and Zhang Minjie--present three contrasting stylistic visions of northern Chinese life, which support and question preconceived Western notions about Chinese art.

For the past decade, contemporary Chinese art has emerged as a marketable commodity, with nearly every high-end gallery now representing at least one (token) Chinese artist. The phenomenon has emphasized largely sociopolitical works, like those created by art world darling Ai Wei Wei and the celebrated Cynical Realist movement leader Yue Minjun.

Like Yue, who is best known for his paintings of multiple figures ridiculously rendered with laughing grimaces in a number of unnatural settings, Realized in Wood shows a similar take on China's cultural climate in the large-scale prints of Zhang Minjie. But unlike Yue's more naturalistic representations, Zhang employs a simple iconography throughout his works, depicting hordes of faceless human bodies in basic outline forms. By removing any traces of the identities of his subjects, Zhang comments not only on the massive size of China's population but also alludes to Western perceptions of his homeland.

In his impressive print "Modern Toys" Zhang Minjie presents a collection of scattered green army men, who group together to form an anonymous pattern on a large white surface. Although Zhang's works could be read solely as a sociopolitical commentary on the current Chinese climate--the title itself is an evocative questioning of the role of a soldier--they are equally influenced by Zhang's personal history reflecting his experiences as an artist living in China. In "Modern Toys," as in the rest of his works, we see symbols of bodies sprawling in every direction, which not only represents the overcrowding in cities throughout the vast nation but also directly relates to the artist's own traumatic memories of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, one of the 20th century's worst natural disasters. In addition, Zhang repeatedly references the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, which, like many other young Chinese art students, he saw in the Shaanxi Province. Unlike the warriors from 210 B.C., however, which were each sculpted with distinctive personal features, Zhang's subjects remain anonymous, becoming symbols of a people rather than unique individuals.

Dong Jiansheng's early black-and-white woodcuts use simplified animal and human symbols, which reverberate with a primal energy. His early prints have an almost batik textile quality, where they interrelate to create intriguing patterns rich with textural detail. By the 1970s, though, we see a marked change to the mood and themes of his works, which become overtly political, as seen in his 1978 woodcut "Memorial to Zhou Enlai." Here, his stoic styling and stiff subjects recall monumental Soviet-era sculpture. Humble yet strong peasants stare out defiantly as they stand beside a memorial emblazoned with a stark white hammer and sickle, the iconic symbol of the Communist Party. In his latest works, Dong appears to have reconciled his two artistic interests, returning to a more natural subject matter, while maintaining decidedly less obtrusive political undertones.

Least expected and the most traditionally Western of the group is Li Yanpeng, who produces pastoral scenes of Chinese agrarian life. Sheep graze on hills and in pastures and goats peacefully cluster atop rocky landscapes. While the works are masterfully carved and printed, they lack the drama and tension expected from Chinese contemporary art. Li's prints carry no overt political message or social commentary. Instead they explore the subtly expressive qualities of the color-reduction process and its uncanny ability to render the effects of light on a surface.

Although his works are admittedly the least interesting of the bunch, Li Yanpeng's prints are perhaps the most important. Here, you see a different side to Chinese art, the kind, in fact, that dominates the walls of many of the commercial galleries within Asia. Any surprise upon viewing such traditional prints alongside more accepted "contemporary" artists exposes your own assumptions about styles of art that the market has decided typify a nation of more than 1 billion people.

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