Monday, June 25, 2018

Exhibit of Chinese artists will be challenging but worth it

“My Generation: Young Chinese Artists" will be a sumptuous, exciting and historic exhibition when it opens Saturday, and I urge all to see it. Contemporary Chinese art is one of the most dynamic categories for collectors and museums right now, and this will be the first major museum survey of some of the most successful artists.

But it could be challenging to some viewers. Contemporary art in general doesn't always have the identifiable markers and messages of older art. We're sometimes more comfortable with a painting that looks like a real tree or doesn't plant that tree in an unfamiliar setting. But we forget that when now-beloved artists such as the Impressionists introduced their new approach, it was met with confusion and downright hostility because their trees didn't resemble the trees people were used to seeing on canvas.

You'll have a great time with this exhibition if you put it in context. These are younger artists, hungry to explore their creative possibilities. They're young but they're not amateurs. They have studied at the finest art schools China has to offer and many have been abroad. They already have established reputations in their own country. Some have become popular with collectors in Europe and the United States, too. So begin with the assumption that there are good reasons for their being in this exhibition.

Take pride in its being here. This first-time show was organized by the Tampa Museum of Art with New York-based professor, author and contemporary Chinese art specialist Barbara Pollack as curator. Usually our museums have temporary exhibitions that are organized by others and sent on tour. Tampa is sending this one on tour to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in late October after it ends its run here. It has attracted the attention of national arts publications that are sending journalists here to cover it, and that's rare, too.

It's a big show, so big that it's being shared with the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, another first. Museums have shows complementing each other all the time. But never one show at the same time by two museums operating in such close proximity.

Each artist has a distinct point of view but a few generalizations can be made. The 27 artists in the show were born in or after 1976 so they were spared the harshness and deprivations of Mao's Cultural Revolution. All are products of the "one-child" law. They have enjoyed access to Western culture and lifestyle. And they have seen stunning growth in their own country that is rendering it a place far different from the China of their childhood.

The result is that they don't have the political passion of an earlier generation of artists who were censored and punished for their protests against an authoritarian government. They freely mash up their cultural heritage with other influences and appropriations. Their work tends to be more introspective and their themes more universal, less Chinese-centric.

Two works shown offer a glimpse of "My Generation."

Animal Regulation No. 4 by Liu Di ("leo dee," born 1985) is one of a series of manipulated photographs in which a giant animal (a panda here) is plopped into an urban setting. They're a commentary on the rise of urban development at the expense of the natural world. Except he reverses the imbalance giving it a wry rather than hand-ringing tone.

Xu Zhen ("shoo jen," born 1977) also works under the "production company" name of MadeIn, another example of cultural commentary done with both a philosophical and humorous underpinning. Fearless is a mixed media work emulating the tapestries of Medieval and Renaissance Europe and is a colorful riot of Eastern and Western references.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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