SARASOTA — On a recent visit to the Ringling Museum of Art, the Mondo Gallery was abuzz with children’s squeals of delight, laughter and a ballet of people side-stepping to avoid photobombing.
It’s the energy drawn out by contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac (2018) Lego. The famous building blocks have a wide appeal, especially to children, but there’s intense meaning behind the colorful display.
The panels that depict the Chinese zodiac are feats unto themselves, each using 30 to 35,000 Legos snapped together to form intricate detail. Each animal is placed on a background depicting world landmarks and monuments, creating a 3-D effect, although they’re completely flat. The pixelated patterns of color make the design look even more difficult to accomplish. In short, they’re amazing.
Ai, an outspoken critic of Chinese politics, uses his work as his voice. He was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days, has been put under surveillance, has travel restrictions and cannot express himself on his country’s social media. He dedicates his work to exposing injustice.
This body builds on his other series of the zodiac, which includes the bronze Circle of Zodiac/Animal Heads on display at the museum from 2017 to 2018. His series are based on the zodiac fountain water clock at Yuanming Yuan, an imperial estate near Beijing designed by two European Jesuits. It was pillaged by the English and French during the Second Opium Wars in 1860. Seven of the zodiac heads surfaced and have been repatriated back to China, referred to as “national treasures.” Because of their European lineage, Ai questions who they really belong to.
The backgrounds come from a past project in which he photographed them while flipping the bird, a statement against political power and oppression. In a sense, that’s what he’s doing in Zodiac (2018) Lego. He places the boar in front of the Eiffel Tower. The dog is in front of the White House. And the dragon is on Tienanmen Square, where he includes an image of himself, in a T-shirt that reads “f--k.”
Also on view in the Center for Asian Art is the work of contemporary Chinese artist Sun Xun. He combines traditional techniques and digital technology to create a 3-D animated film, Time Spy. Sun carves out and inks plywood and linoleum blocks, then prints them digitally to create animation cells. Inspired by the richly detailed woodcuts from artist Albrecht Durer, Sun explores environmental destruction, global history and surveillance, with characters who have cameras or spinning moons for heads. There’s no real narrative, reminiscent of Max Ernst’s surrealist collaged novels, but the action swirls in a chaotic way that could be a metaphor for the way the world can feel like it’s spinning out of control. It runs about nine minutes, so grab a pair of 3-D glasses and settle in for the duration. Original woodcuts are also on display.
The next three exhibits are in the museum’s Searing Wing.
The small but mighty “Remaking the World: Abstraction From the Permanent Collection" contains many notable artists, including Yayoi Kusama, whose chartreuse Infinity Dots painting makes your eyes dance. John Chamberlain’s sculpture Added Pleasure is made of car parts pulled from wreckage, his collage technique likened to the abstract expressionist approach to painting. One of only a handful of women from the early abstract expressionist movement, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled from 1965 is part of her Sunflower group. And original abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell’s striking red and black All Is Still (Whitman) is suggestive of a door or portal.
Sarasota artist Syd Solomon is celebrated in “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed.” He referred to himself as an “abstract impressionist” because he combined Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist techniques in his work. He moved to Siesta Key from East Hampton, N.Y., where he also kept a home, in 1946. Solomon was a designer of camouflage during World War II and a graphic artist, which greatly impacted the gestural forms that would define his body of work. Once he moved to Florida, his color palette brightened up, reflective of the landscape and climate. He used acrylic paint and spray enamel, which dries quickly, achieving fantastic swoops and drips with his marks. In a statement included in the exhibition, he said, “Watching the perpetual dual between the spontaneous and the deliberate in my work has made me more restless than ever.”
He wanted to create bold forms but not let them feel heavy with thick layers of paint. He likened his style to lifting a veil, drawing light out of a dark mass.
“Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Specters and Parables” showcases the work of the first modernist photographer in Mexico. Alvarez Bravo was active during the Mexican Renaissance, when government patronage of the arts was flourishing as a reaction to the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (1919-20). He was contemporaries with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the latter of whom features in the exhibit in a beautiful portrait from 1930. The room is reflected in a sphere next to her, a fine art technique.
There are many Surrealist qualities to his style, especially in Optical Parable (Parabola Optica), an image of an optical shop full of disembodied eyes, which he purposely printed in reverse to give the unsettling feeling of not being able to trust what one sees. Aware of his work, the Surrealists included him in exhibitions and publications during the 1930s and ’40s.
Alvarez Bravo focused on the folklore and indigenous culture of Mexico. Many consider his best works to be the ones he created in the street, including The Daydream. He captured the image of a girl at an apartment building as she pensively peered over a railing to watch a scene below. He was able to catch that perfect moment when a ray of sunlight crossed her shoulder, making this one of his most celebrated pieces.
IF YOU GO
“Ai Weiwei: Zodiac (2018) Lego" is on view through Feb. 9; “Sun Xun: Time Spy” is on view through Feb. 16; “Remaking the World: Abstraction from the Permanent Collection” is on view through Aug. 1, 2021; Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed” is on view through April 26; and “Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Specters and Parables” is on view through March 1. $25, $23 seniors, $15 active duty military, $10 Florida teachers, $5 college students and children 6-17, free for children 5 and younger and select college students. The art museum is free on Mondays. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Thursdays until 8 p.m. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. ringling.org.