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08.13.08

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Phaedra

Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan; photo: courtesy the Logan Collection; (c) Liu Xiaodong
THE IMPERIAL CHILD : Liu Xiaodong's 1996 painting 'Fat Grandson.'

The Clampdown

Chinese artists at SFMoMA look at Chinese society and politics from many angles

By Richard von Busack


CONSIDER the disillusionment in China a little less than 20 years ago. So many thought that when the Iron Curtain came down, it would come down in China, too. The art in "Half-Life of a Dream" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art isn't overburdened with the standard images of protest art—all those downtrodden workers and the like. The protest is explicit, here and there: Zeng Fanzhi's Meat, an Ashcan School–like 1992 painting of bloodied workers at a butcher shop. One construction by Xu Bing has a mechanical finch perched in a cage of die-cut English words: "The dream of a bird is to escape," says the commentary text, unnecessarily. And the artist Zhang Huan sculpts himself in fiberglass as a full-size caged bird-man in Buddha Never Down. The post–Tiananmen Square clampdown is emphasized in a show dedicated to what guest curator Jeff Kelley calls "dream states as an alternative to the state dream." But the work is far more suggestive than the average dream.



Yue Minjun's terrific sculptures of idiotically smiling, large-headed and shiny-pink life-size figures are the most likely to draw attention. They are squinting painfully, and their faces are locked in gritted, toothy smiles of compliance. Yue's 1998 painting Ostricheshas a squad of the white-shirted grimacers riding a fleet of flightless birds. The slightly oversize heads of Yue's figures look something like the Pep Boys mascots, and visitors feel cozy around them. I saw more than one punter happily posing next to them for snapshots. What menace could there be in the statue of a man grinning himself to death? Equally pointed are Fang Lijun's black-and-white oils; they have titles in the sense that "Series 3, Number 15" is a title. We read that Fang used to be part of a Chinese art movement described as "cynical realism." There might be a bit of cynicism in these hydrocephalic yobs. Like Yue's happy ostrich riders, these skinheads are on vacation, bobbing in swimming pools or scowling territorially at the viewer.

The show's poster image is Fang's 1998 canvas 980815. It's done in electrically clashing colors: a red, verging on imperially vermilion, baldie snarls or bays as he sinks in bright blue water. The swimmer is clearly a loaded, a perhaps accusatory image in contemporary Chinese art. We could suppose this has something to do with the luxury of an ordinary swimming trip in a place where clear water or an open beach is hard to find. The famous image of Mao swimming in the Yangtze is repeated in Liu Hung's installation "Where Is Mao?" In embroidered outline, the chairman is depicted in various great moments (dimpling at Nixon, for instance) on the rumps of dozens of silk swimming shorts stirring in a fan's breeze. Our local heroine Liu Hung also displays her stunning 2007 triptych We Have Been Naught, We Shall Be All about a World War II catastrophe in which a detachment of Red soldiers chose death in a river over capture by the Japanese army. And my favorite piece is Liu Xiaodong's 1996 Fat Grandson, with an bespectacled, arrogant Little Emperor puffing his belly halfway out of his swimming trunks as he leans propped on the back of a luxury car.

The barbs of this show are all the sharper for being created in a society where the clampdown exists. It lacks the drawbacks of political art—insipidness or obviousness. The artists have all the cunning of the truly trapped. Still, the thorough mastery of formal qualities here shows the upside of rigorous art schools. This is true in all the media: in Lin Tianmiao's silk-thread abstracts, which are as much tapestries as canvases; in Li Songsong's large portraits of factory ruins or missiles, with impasto that looks as thick and soft as the frosting on a cake. And most suggestively, we see the toughness and unexpected flexibility of Chinese society in sculptor Sui Jianguo's mass meeting of plastic toy dinosaurs, swarming at the bedside of a sweetly sleeping Mao.


  HALF-LIFE OF A DREAM: CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ART FROM THE LOGAN COLLECTION shows through Oct. 5 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. (415.357.4000)


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