Arts & Culture » Art

10 years of contemporary Chinese art

by Sura Wood

Adrian Wong, "Untitled" (Grates VIII/IX: Derrick Industrial Building, Shun Tak Ferry Terminal, 2014). MDF, latex, enamel, stainless steel, glass, neon. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Adrian Wong, "Untitled" (Grates VIII/IX: Derrick Industrial Building, Shun Tak Ferry Terminal, 2014). MDF, latex, enamel, stainless steel, glass, neon. Photo: Courtesy of the artist  

Launched in 2008, the Chinese Culture Center's "XianRui" ("Fresh and Sharp") initiative, led by CCC's dynamic artistic director Abby Chen, was and is the only program in the country, outside of museum auspices, that mounts solo shows for mid-career, underrecognized, contemporary artists of Chinese descent. Now a new exhibition marking the series' 10th anniversary highlights work from six alumni of the program, all of whom currently reside in the U.S.

They're from diverse backgrounds, and work in a variety of mediums, from mixed-media installations and textiles to video projects such as 2014 artist Summer Mei-ling Lee's "Pieta for San Francisco," a collaborative staged event with Lee sitting in a chair facing a view of the city, and different artists taking turns lying across her lap like the Christ child in a Renaissance masterpiece. Beili Liu, whose much-praised "Sky Bridge" transformed an old pedestrian footbridge in Chinatown in 2015, was the series' inaugural artist. She returns with "Go#1," a grid of 361 spent shotgun shells filled with saturated salt water that has crystallized over the blackened rims; an allusion, perhaps, to a flower placed in the barrel of a rifle. Lined up in military formation on the floor, the 2006 piece, based on "The Game of Encirclement," an ancient Chinese board game of territorial control, tactics and shifting alliances played with black-and-white stones, has a chilling resonance in light of recent events.

Born in Shanghai, schooled in Japanese and Chinese weaving techniques, and having emigrated to Brazil, where she spent her teens before settling in the U.S., Dora Hsiung (2009) injects a multitude of cultural influences into her sculptural fiber creations. The depth and three-dimensional illusion of her refined geometric shapes is derived from architectural structure and a bold color palette of deep purples, violets and magenta, inspired by her time in South America.


Dora Hsiung, Chocolate delight (2015). Fiber. Photo: Courtesy of the artist  

It was a 10-year stint in Japan that helped inform Stella Zhang's aesthetic. "Things Fall Apart," her new, nervy, site-specific installation of recycled objects arranged in an all-white space, has the feel of a theatrical set. Its strange, difficult-to-identify components or props do indeed appear broken, like the scattered half-shells resembling cracked eggs, and a rectangular cushion in need of repair resting uneasily on an inflated oval. White cotton fabrics, from sheets and underwear to T-shirts, are stretched across wooden frames, prompting disparate associations: a conflicted psyche, hospitals, body parts and deconstructed Japanese couture of a certain vintage.

Perhaps the best-known of the group, 2011 artist Zheng Chongbin, is a classical master and former portraitist who came out of traditional Chinese ink painting, a graceful, ancient art-form that he has given a distinctly modern spin. Influenced by artists visiting from abroad while studying at China's National Academy of Fine Arts in the 1980s, he was moved by the "astonishing physicality" of Western abstract painting. Retaining core aspects of traditional Chinese art, he began experimenting and developed his own visual vocabulary and techniques. He switched to a wide brush and applied ink, white acrylic paint and fixer to creased, collaged xuan papers for what he calls an "assemblage of cutting, folding (and) casting." The four textured, large-scale, abstract works here, in frosty winter whites, with slate gray and the occasional splotch of black, have a preternatural calm like the hush that descends on the woods after a fresh snowfall.

Adrian Wong, a cerebral artist with a Masters degree in research psychology from Stanford and an MFA from Yale, partially bases his art practice on animal communication. His unusual thinking is behind "Dream Cosmography" (2015), a whimsical, off-the-charts video of a rotating food platform, an animal cafeteria with mobile cabbages, carrots, tomatoes and sprouts snacked on by ecstatic hamsters and a pair of rabbits who must have felt they hit the jackpot. They devour the edibles in the course of the video, a metaphor, maybe, for the voracious consumption of the cosmos; but who knows what the critters were really thinking.

If you haven't been aware of CCC's thoughtful shows, which include "off-campus" community ventures, it may be because of the gallery's location on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel on Kearny Street. Affiliation with that venue has protected the nonprofit from the vagaries of the wild San Francisco real estate market, but the lack of a storefront space, or one inside an arts complex, has meant they're off the beaten track and difficult to find. As this retrospective exhibition amply demonstrates, it's worth the effort to seek them out.

Through Aug. 18. www.cccsf.us


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