Dao of Now
the Present: Contemporary Academy Painting from China
Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Dec. 31
contemporary spin on tradition: Chen Yupus Night
Rain in the Mountains.
visit to the Tang Museum is usually accompanied by noise,
activity, friendliness and several shows competing for your
attention; after all, the Tang is a “teaching museum,” not
a church, and quiet contemplation is not one of its stated
purposes. This can be an asset or a problem, depending on
what sort of audience you’re addressing, but in the case of
the show Brushing the Present: Contemporary Academy Painting
from China, more silence would have been welcome.
On a recent foray there, after initially being unable to locate
the exhibition, tucked as it is behind a more vivid contemporary
installation by Alyson Shotz, I found a painting class in
session, heard a live DJ playing rock music, and ran into
the show’s curator, painter and art professor Doretta Miller,
as she gave a friend a personal tour. A chat with Miller helped
clarify a few points about the show and refocus my mind on
understanding its quiet purpose.
Miller explained that the show had its genesis during her
1996 participation in a faculty exchange program with the
Qufu Teachers University, where she encountered many local
artists struggling with the challenge of incorporating contemporary
issues (particularly globalization) into the thousands of
years of tradition in Chinese art, not to mention the particular
political challenges that come with being a visual artist
under a repressive Communist regime. She also pointed out
to me which of the 27 artists represented are women (there
are 6), which was very helpful, as their names do not reveal
It turns out that some of the strongest work in the show is
by women—I suspect this could be due to the fact that women
in China would not have been fine artists until recently,
and hence those that are may feel less constrained by the
weight of tradition. For example, a large painting on canvas
by Gao Zhonghua, titled Rich in Every Year, mixes media
and styles in a peppy paste-up fashion that would seem quite
Western if not for the Asian figures and subjects depicted.
Zhonghua appears to be making a statement on the difference
between her handling of traditional subjects and the old way
of doing it.
Another woman who pointedly juxtaposes the old and the new
is Wei Rong, whose 2001 oil on canvas A Maid of Honour
in Manhattan portrays an imperial-style lady, with sharp
fingernails and bound feet, against the backdrop of the New
York skyline (painted before Sept. 11, 2001, it includes the
World Trade towers) at a time when China was beginning to
be welcomed into global trade agreements.
Totally contemporary, on the other hand, yet fully Chinese,
is Shen Ling’s 2002 painting titled Cola: The Love and
Lovers Series, in which a hip, young Beijing couple are
presented enjoying the pleasures of a bottle of Coke and a
ringing cell phone. Ling’s loose, colorful style is indistinguishable
from that of a thousand late-20th-century Western painters—not
surprisingly, she is the only artist in the show with New
York gallery representation.
Most of the work in the exhibition is far more subtly Western-influenced.
Many are brush paintings in ink and watercolor, and a number
are mounted on silk and/or hung as scrolls just like the work
of centuries ago. Still, they usually present a twist of one
kind or another, such as Shi Rongqiang’s cartoony spoofs on
Buddhist monks and Yue Dong’s slyly mannered nature studies.
Other works show their contemporary pedigree in ways so subtle
that you’d need to be a scholar to spot them: a paint shade
too vivid to be ancient, or a design just a bit more decorative
than tradition would have allowed. In the case of Chen Yupu,
there is no apparent difference. A practicing Buddhist, Chen
is quoted in the catalog essay as saying, “I’m modern but
I can’t determine how modern I am.” His stunning 2001 ink-and-wash
with watercolor on paper titled Night Rain in the Mountains
was inspired by a Tang dynasty poem and embodies the Daoist
philosophy of paying close attention to the world around you.
It is the most impressive painting in the show.
The core of the exhibition consists of work using traditional
technique with updated subject matter. Du Chunsheng’s Picture
of Confucius Watching Water and Rush for Spring Festival;
Zhang Hongbo’s Winter Pomegranates; Xu Zheng’s Artist
and Farmers and Fishermen on Weishan Lake; Mao
Lin’s Harvesting Season; and Chen Yingjun’s two figurative
pieces all feature ink-and-brush technique on paper with calligraphy
at the margins, much like the Chinese painting of the past.
But they all have a contemporary perspective: Lin’s painting,
for example, depicts the smiling beneficiary of the fruit
harvest as a stylish young woman wearing a flowered sweatshirt,
earrings and lipstick.
the Present is a survey show: It attempts to present the
diversity of styles found in Chinese art outside of the major
(hence, more thoroughly Westernized) cities. However, it is
small, including only 35 paintings, with just seven artists
represented by more than one piece. The result is, unfortunately,
a bit of a hodgepodge, revealing the inexperience of the curator
(it is her first time organizing a show) and making it too
much of an effort for the viewer to take it all in without
Accompanying written material, both on the walls and in a
nicely produced color catalog, is helpful in sorting it all
out—and highly recommended. Beyond that, perhaps a pair of
earplugs would also be a good idea.