28 Chinese, Asian Art Museum.

Last week I finally had a chance to see 28 Chinese at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was in many ways an inspiring exhibit and I had been hoping to write about it earlier than today – a series of unfortunate personal matters have gotten in the way of that. But it is nonetheless worth reading about, and seeing if you can this afternoon or tomorrow before it closes.

28 Chinese presents the work of 28 contemporary Chinese artists working in a variety of media. It ” is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of exploration and research by art collectors Don and Mera Rubell,” who met with 100 artists in China between 2001 and 2012 to learn about them and assemble works from their collection. The exhibition features famous artists like Ai Weiwei, but also up-and-coming artists such as Lu Wei, whose large-scale oil-on-canvas work Liberation No. 1 was among my favorites in the show.

Lu Wei.  Liberation No 1. Oil on Canvas
[Liberation No. 1, 2013, by Liu Wei (Chinese, b. 1972). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Liu Wei.]

It depicts a colorful and unfathomably dense urban landscape, even beyond what I experienced in Shanghai in 2009. It might be disquieting to some, but I find it welcoming. Lu Wei used computer software to generate the patterns which we then rendered as oil on canvas. Another work that made use of mathematical processes to direct traditional painting practice was Shang Yixin’s acrylic work 1061.

Shang Yixin.  1061.  Acrylic on Canvas.

[1061, by Shang Yixini (Chinese, b. 1980). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Shang Yixin. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The artist uses the the square as the fundamental building block in all of his paintings. He uses precise rules to generate the patterns of colored squares, which result in different images each time. It seems he must be using stencils or edges to get such precise shapes and textures from acrylic.

An equally modernist but very different type of painting could be found in Zhu Jinshi’s Black and White Summer Palace – Black. The paint was applied using trowels to create a thick and presumably quite heavy topographical structure. It brought to mind the incredibly heavy painting The Rose by Jay DeFao.

Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi
[Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Image from The Asian Art Museum’s Tumblr.]

There were quite a few interesting sculptural and conceptual works in the exhibition. One of the highlights was Zhu Jinshi’s monumental installation, Boat. It composed entirely of layered calligraphy paper and bamboo rods suspended from the ceiling. It was over 40 feet long, and visitors could walk inside of it.

Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread
[Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Zhu Jinshi. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

Not as large in size, but also quite monumental in its weight was Ai Weiwei’s conceptual sculpture A Ton of Tea, which literally was a ton of tea compressed into a cube.

A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei
[A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Ai Weiwei. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The setting for this piece and many others was inventive juxtaposition by the museum of works in the exhibition with the more traditional pieces from their permanent collection. The contemporary works stood quite a part from the traditional, but was interesting to see a few thousand years of Chinese artist practice all together.

One more surprising and intense conceptual work was He Xiangyu’s installation Cola Project, in which he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola to create a highly corrosive black residue. He used this as an ink to create traditional Chinese ink-on-paper drawings. In addition to the drawings, the installation featured a case of the rather disturbing substance, and the even more disturbing photos and videos from the worksite where large industrial cauldrons were creating it. The scene suggested a poorly regulated industrial site, and the room was filled with an odor of burnt caramel (probably emitted from the drawings). It was a rather intense work. And fortunately I am not fond of cola.

Like any good exhibition, this one inspired me in my own artist ideas – especially the two-dimension works. It also made me reminisce about my adventures at galleries and art districts in urban China, such as Shanghai’s Moganshan Road, which I’m sure has changed in the 6 years since I was last there.

28 Chinese is on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through tomorrow, Sunday, August 16. If you are in the area I recommend checking it out.

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