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The Dao of Now

By David Brickman

Brushing the Present: Contemporary Academy Painting from China
The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Dec. 31

A contemporary spin on tradition: Chen Yupu’s Night Rain in the Mountains.

A 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 gender.

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.

Brushing 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 some confusion.

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.

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