Not quite Shanghai’ed

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Monday March 8, 2010
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With Shanghai, a much-hyped, rudderless exhibition timed to coincide with San Francisco's 2010 Sister City celebrations and Shanghai's hosting of the World Expo in May, the Asian Art Museum steps bravely, if unsteadily, into the 20th and 21st centuries. Simultaneously the most adventurous and least coherent show the museum has mounted to date, Shanghai represents both a radical change of pace and time frame for an institution with a tradition of showcasing ancient masterpieces, and a breakthrough in that it marks the first time the museum has been able to tap private collectors in China. It's also a savvy move toward cultivating a younger audience (the wave of the future) by presenting exciting contemporary installations and video art, and, for better or worse, an example of an ongoing engagement in marketable, event-friendly programming. The Asian should be commended for its ambition and desire to expand into new territory, but in this case, their reach exceeds their grasp and, by extension, proves elusive for us, too.

The epitome of a forward-thinking, fashion-conscious, cosmopolitan city obsessed with the modern and the cutting-edge, a center of international commerce and an economic powerhouse, a refuge for Jews and other persecuted minorities, and, during the 1920s and 1930s, home to tony nightclubs, opium dens, a shady criminal underworld and an extensive a la carte menu of sexual depravity, Shanghai has long been an epicenter of tradition and innovation, past and present, and a fusion of East and West.

The exhibition, a rambling, eclectic overview encompassing multiple art movements and a trajectory of 160 years of visual art, from 1850 to the present, is loaded with cool stuff, but short on historical context or depth, and without a clear, linear chronology to anchor it. The impact of globalization (the buzz word of the moment) and exploration of visual culture offered up as the show's core themes might sound good on paper, but they don't resonate in the galleries. In an attempt to address this lack of cohesion, the curators have provided what they call a chapter format with intersecting subplots; if this sounds like a recipe for confusion, it is. Those who aren't versed in the city's complex legacy, haven't read the catalogue, or are anticipating support from the scholarly narrative underpinnings they've come expect at the Asian, may find themselves set uncomfortably adrift.

Loosely divided into four sections (Beginnings, High Times, Revolution and Shanghai Today ), the exhibition's numerous high-quality, aesthetically interesting and beautiful objects include richly expressive oil-and-ink paintings that meld Chinese tradition and Western techniques (some Shanghai artists studied in Japan, and a select few were tutored in Europe), expressionistic, sometimes politically charged woodcuts, fabulous art deco furnishings, eye-catching propaganda posters, dreamy watercolors celebrating industry, the latest contemporary art installations from a young crop of artists, avant-garde videos laced with social commentary and film clips from the city's heyday as the cinema capital of China.

A subsection on Architecture and Interior Design injects a significant wow factor. Shanghai Deco is its own creature, and decidedly Chinese. For example, take the pair of deep, reddish-brown lounge chairs made of Hongmu, a wood resembling mahogany, with curved arms, wheels at the base of the frame and cushions with the original, swirling futuristic pattern, or the 11-piece bedroom suite with wardrobe, dresser and a magnificent vanity adorned by a large circular mirror and carved trim. Art deco buildings of the period were funded, in part, by Iraqi Jews, who were among the style's ardent patrons.

The modern woodcut, emblematic of the Public Art Movement, gained momentum in the 1930s with visceral works such as Li Hua's startling "Roar, China! 1935," a universal evocation of human suffering. Hu Yichuan's "To the Front! 1932" exhorts a response to the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932, and Shao Keping's "Street Corner, 1947," depicting a downtrodden man passed out in the gutter as a well-heeled couple stroll by on a fashionable street, speaks to gross social inequity, while Lai Shaoqi's "Youth, 1933-35" is simply graceful. A strikingly modern, sinuous nude in motion surrounded by undulating lines and the perfect curve of a sunset, the work owes a debt to Fauvism and Matisse's arabesque nudes.

The convergence of East and West that has permeated Shanghai culture comes full circle in the show's final section, Shanghai Today, in the form of two massive, horizontal ink paintings by artists who divide their time between Shanghai and the Bay Area. Exhibited adjacent to one another, Li Huayi's "Forest, 2004" and "The Dimension of Ink No. 1, 2008" by Zheng Chongbin combine mystery and theatricality, echoing the past while embracing modernity.

Inspired by the Surrealists' intrigue with shadow and the troubled rumblings of the human psyche, as well as monumental Chinese landscape and Francis Bacon's propensity for drama, Zheng Chongbin plunges into pure abstraction in this giant Rorschach test of a painting, with velvety blacks and tactile globs of white acrylic and fixer; Li Huayi, rooted in Abstract Expressionism and steeped in the tension between formal structure and chance operations, recalls traditional Chinese landscape in an ink wash that conjures an enchanted wood haunted by the unconscious.

Shanghai shows at the Asian Art Museum through Sept. 5. For more info: (415) 581-3500 or