Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Art review: Wang Yin's quiet mischievousness

First appeared in abridged form in City Weekend.

Wang Yin came of age as an artist amid Chinese avant-garde’s flourishing but resisted joining his contemporaries in lavish experimentation, preferring instead to retreat into the most orthodox and politically safe of mediums, oil on canvas, with the stated objective of marking the evolution of modern Chinese oil painting. In “Homer,” for instance, one sees a bust of Homer, a Western candelabra and a mango – a symbol of Sino-Soviet friendship (Soviet influence is manifest in nascent modern Chinese art) – in an attempt to say something along the lines of, This is what mid-20th century Chinese art apprentices did… how dull.

Sound too meta? Wang’s academic adviser, Wang Min’an, calls art’s “basic joy” “the pleasure experienced by art in the game of self-reference,” but the problem with that, of course, is there is often no joy for the viewer who finds himself handcuffed by an artistic puzzle; sometimes the effort just isn’t worth it. Wang’s paintings, however, with their muted colors, their conciseness and dashes of surrealism, look and feel different – they demand a second chance. And what you find has the ability to surprise on both the visceral and cerebral levels: nude models whose legs are freakishly elongated, or dainty riverbanks that are actually maps of East Asia on which is prostrated a “comfort woman” from World War II…

In the 30 pieces on display at 798’s Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Wang’s mischievousness repeatedly shows itself in discreet and remarkable ways. He is capable of – indeed, prefers – subtlety and irony, as in the 36 portraits of Russians executed under during Stalin’s regime at the back of the exhibit. Accumulating on the bottom of these picture frames is peeled-off flakes of paint, representing time’s erasure of memory. If this tribute seems out of place, it would be wise to remember that parts of the Soviet Union’s political history finds parallel in that of the People’s Republic of China. Of course, it would have been impossible to memorialize those Chinese who were martyred in the name of progress.

Wang’s works achieve depth by referencing both the classic and the modern – “Flower” depicts peonies, the Qing Dynasty’s national flower, and the toddler in “Lu Xun Park” is the son of contemporary poet Wang Jiaxin. And in one of his several untitled pieces, a nude woman in a studio casually glances at the bottom right corner of a portrait that is obviously of Mao Zedong.

Even using oil on canvas, the medium of the “Yan’an model” used to apotheosize New China in the 1950s and 60s, Wang is never far removed from his context, which is decidedly un-jingoistic. His generation sees art as liberating, cogitative, subversive and even iconoclastic, which is why in “Spring Grass Grows beside the Pond II,” Wang depicts the artist Xu Beihong, famous for his ink paintings of horses, painting a nude Russian model in a dale so Arcadian you half-expect the Lady of Shalott to float down the stream; at the foreground stands a smiling, fully dressed Chinese woman of an ethnic minority. We’ll let you unravel the meanings of this one. As with all Wang’s works, the answer is contained within – just look deeper.

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