Xiaoze Xie intended to study architecture. The uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989 influenced him to change his mind.
He left China three years later for the United States to begin a practice in contemporary art that has placed him on the art-world fast track. This week, Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston opens “Amplified Moments: 1993-2008,” an exhibition of large-scale and finely detailed paintings as well as works in other media that will be on view through March 18.
It’s the latest in a series of timely exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art that Bates has hosted during the past two decades, and among a trio of contemporary art exhibitions opening in visual art spaces across southern Maine in the days and weeks ahead.
Visitors can look for a quirky new-media digital exhibition by Maine native and budding international art star Michael Bell-Smith at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in Portland. And in February, the Portland Museum of Art opens a solo show by Maine photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander that taps into the social media and Facebook phenomena. “Tanja Alexia Hollander: Are You Really My Friend?” uses Hollander’s portrait work to explore friendships in the context of social media.
First up is Xie at Bates. The Chinese-American artist, who was born in China in 1966 and now lives in California, will be at the Lewiston liberal arts college this week to meet with students and talk to the public.
“He is a very important, U.S.-based contemporary artist,” said museum director Dan Mills, who was a colleague of Xie’s when the two worked together at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Xie now teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
Mills curated this exhibition, which is stopping at three other museums across the country.
For eight years at Bucknell, Mills had a studio next to Xie. He saw much of the work in the Bates show when it consisted of blank canvases.
“I talked to him about his work during their creation, and I talked to him about his work when they were done,” said Mills. “As a curator and as someone who was a colleague for many years, it gives me a unique insight into his work that I would like to think will benefit the audience.”
Xie’s paintings have received both critical acclaim and commercial success. His paintings are large and methodical. He uses imagery of newspapers and decaying books, and has said that stacks of printed pages represent both cultural memory as well as the passage of time.
Mills, who used to watch Xie paint, admires the artist’s labor-intensive technique. He builds up his paintings with layers of pigments. The final result is paintings executed with near-photographic precision.
The Bates show also will include actual photographs, videos and installations.
“What ties all (my) works together is the interest in time, in memory and in history,” Xie told an interviewer at the University of Oregon in November. “There’s always this sense of contemplating time, the passage of time and how changes in history and politics are documented.”
“I think he is a very important, almost mid-career artist,” Mills said. “He is very thoughtful and very talented as an artist. Those who come to hear him talk will understand that he is incredibly smart.
“There are a lot of deep layers in his work. The beauty in his work can hold you long enough to think about some of the other philosophical issues his work addresses. But in concert with those issues, beauty is absolutely important to him. His paintings may be dealing with tough issues, but he does not give up dealing with current events for beauty.”
First Maine show for native son
Michael Bell-Smith is a curious, somewhat unknown and still largely undiscovered figure in Maine art. When ICA director Daniel Fuller suggested hosting Bell-Smith, his colleagues at MECA asked, “Who?”
Born in East Corinth in 1978 and now living in New York, Bell-Smith is best known for constructing lo-fi environments that are familiar to those of us who remember the early personal computers and home-gaming systems. In all his work, he uses digital forms to ponder popular technologies in contemporary culture.
The ICA show will be his first in his native state. Although he has shown all over the world and in major museums, he has never shown a single piece of art in Maine.
The show opens Thursday, and will remain on view through April 8.
“I’ve known his work for quite a while,” said Fuller, who came to Maine by way of Philadelphia, where he and Bell-Smith were neighbors. “He was sort of a pioneer in the lo-fi digital movement. He became known as an innovator of this style. But the thing about Mike is, he never stays in that old way of working. He is always pushing it, always trying something new and trying to make something a little edgier.”
The Portland show will include what Fuller calls “a pretty impressive video exhibition and new work that we have commissioned that will go from here to an exhibition in Switzerland.”
Bell-Smith will visit MECA for a lecture in February.
Social media as art
At the Portland Museum of Art, Hollander will explore the concept of friendship in the Facebook age with “Are You Really My Friend?” It opens Feb. 4 as part of the museum’s ongoing “Circa” series that specializes in contemporary art.
For the past year, Hollander, who lives in Auburn, has traveled around the country to visit as many of her Facebook friends as possible. Some she knows well, others she had never met. This show features 59 photographs that will remain up throughout the show, as well as new ones added during the course of the show.
Her Facebook project is an ongoing concern, and Hollander has planned a series of events designed to engage museum visitors.
Hollander is best known as a landscape photographer. She founded the Bakery Photographic Collective, now based in Westbrook.
This project, which started with an idea sparked by a quiet residency in the French countryside, has led her into the next phase of her career.
A St. Louis native, she moved to Portland as a teenager. She took photography classes at Maine College of Art while still in high school, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1994. She has shown regularly in Maine, New York, Boston and elsewhere, and has twice been selected for the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, winning a purchase prize in 2007.
With this project, Hollander has attempted to remove the virtual limitations of social media by visiting her friends — 600 and counting — in person and presenting them as profiles in their homes.
“It’s awkward to show up on someone’s doorstep with a camera,” she told the Maine Sunday Telegram last fall. “But what I am realizing as I travel and as I meet people, one of the things that is most striking to me is how generous people are. Which is the opposite of what you would expect from a Facebook project.
“These people are real and genuine. People have fed me and offered me a place to stay.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: