Thursday, April 17, 2014
By Daniel Kany
“Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists” is one of the year’s best exhibitions in Maine. It addresses some vastly complicated issues without dumbing them down while managing to be an engaging show that is very easy to enjoy.
Hung Liu’s “Relic 8,” 2004, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.
Cao Fei’s “Deep Breathing” (from “COSPlayers” series), 2004, digital c-print.
Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Gallery
“BREAKTHROUGH: WORK BY CONTEMPORARY CHINESE WOMEN ARTISTS” including Cai Jin, Cao Fei, Chen Qiulin, Hung Liu, Lin Tianmiao, Peng Wei, Xing Danwen, Yin Xiuzhen; curated by Bowdoin professors Shu-chin Tsui and Peggy Wang.
WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick
WHEN: Through Dec. 22
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
COST: Free and open to the public
INFO: 725-3275; bowdoin.edu/art-museum
The exhibition was co-curated by Bowdoin’s Shu-Chin Tsui, associate professor of Asian Studies and film studies, and Peggy Wang, assistant professor of art history and Asian studies. But it was backed by a team ranging from post-doctoral curatorial fellow Sarah Montross and the museum’s professional staff to student assistants.
This kind of scholarly support allows shows like this and Colby’s extraordinary “Spaces & Places: Chinese Art from the Lunder-Colville Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” to gain open-ended momentum: They expansively open doors rather than closing in on one version of “truth.”
But “Breakthrough” has much less in common with “Spaces & Places” than with UNE’s recently completed year-long series “Maine Women Pioneers III.”
To its advantage, however, “Breakthrough” doesn’t co-mingle with the community it purports to survey (in fact, it doesn’t even try to be a survey), and the Bowdoin project was undertaken with significantly more resources (academic personnel, museum facilities, money, etc.).
But these two complex exhibitions make each other better. Their differences reveal much about their subject cultures as well as the plight of women within them. (If you missed “MWP,” there is a catalog available, and my reviews of all four installments are online.)
The simplest premise of “Breakthrough” is the question, “Why are there relatively so few women artists in China?” Some responses immediately reflect back onto us. For example, when Wang notes in the catalog that “In the 1980s, few women entered into art academies,” I first think of Western practices like primogeniture (the custom of having the oldest male inherit a family’s entire estate – so education resources would be focused on him).
One of the gutsiest points the show takes on is the “feminist” label and why some (Chinese) “female artists bristle at this category and deny its applicability altogether.” This is a question that came up repeatedly with the “MWP” series and Maine female artists like Lauren Fensterstock. (It’s not something we have the space to discuss here, but it’s a fundamentally important conversation.)
Fortunately, the handsome catalog (short enough to read on site – and it’s free!) raises many such questions succinctly while providing a wealth of information about the artists.
Viewers are greeted by Peng Wei’s “Autumn of the Tang Dynasty” – a beautiful work made from paper molded around a mannequin torso on which a traditional scene has been painted. As a straight (white) male, I wound up questioning my response to the work’s sculptural beauty (literally formed on a mannequin’s shape), but that only led me to appreciate the work more.
It’s a fine introductory work because it establishes the overarching metaphor of the woman’s body as both subject and object in contemporary art.
There are only 22 works in two rooms, but they are nicely installed and they achieve more than sufficient density without overwhelming the viewer.
The strongest presence in the first room comprises Chen Qiulin’s video “Peach Blossom” and the large-scale photographs from the project in which a fully-gowned bride revisits her hometown that had been devastated by an earthquake (despite the Olympics-hosting-minded government’s insistence that all had been made well). The images eloquently move past the obvious forced-urbanization-as-disease reading toward ideas about tradition and the “old” (discarded industrial sites, say, versus traditional dress for a traditional wedding – all, mind you, in a Western idiom).
The bride is like the flowers that bloom in the decayed landscape – it’s a Ying/Yang idea that life will sprout from its opposite. While we may see her as nightmarishly dislocated, a Buddhist will likely see her as the first blossoming bud of renewal.
(Continued on page 2)
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Chen Qiulin’s “Solidified Scenery” (from “Peach Blossom”), 2009, giclee print.
Courtesy of the artist and Beam Contemporary Art, New York, London
click image to enlarge
Peng Wei’s “Autumn of the Tang Dynasty.”