28 Chinese


Installation view of “28 Chinese,”
2015 at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Few collectors have the discipline and stamina of Don and Mera Rubell. They started collecting contemporary art in 1964, the year they got married, and given their limited budget, they quite naturally began by buying art by emerging artists. A little over a decade ago they decided to look into Chinese contemporary art, and starting in 2001, they made six trips to China and made about 100 studio visits. “There is something essential in the experience that we get visiting the studio,” Mera Rubell says, in an interview for the catalogue of their sprawling exhibition “28 Chinese.” “For us, because the artist is so new and oftentimes they haven’t even had a solo exhibition… the studio represents entering the inner, inner sanctum of the artist’s practice and life.” Adds their son Jason Rubell, who is also actively involved in the collection, “To understand a new art language and culture, the personal and physical interaction with the artists was essential. The nuances of China wouldn’t have become apparent through visits to contemporary Chinese exhibitions in Chelsea galleries” In short, there is no substitute for being there, and the Rubells were smart enough to know that.

They also augmented their visits with plenty of research, including reading and speaking to curators, gallerists and other artists. In the end, they purchased the work of 28 artists-from their galleries and not from their studios, they say, although they have been known to drive a hard bargain. The resulting exhibition-simply called “28 Chinese”- was first unveiled at their home base in Miami, where they famously own a 45,000 square foot space. This summer it came to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where the works were pared down to 48 by guest curator Allison Harding. The show featured a variety of mediums, including painting, photography, sculpture, installation, and video, although the video was arguably the weak link, with works that felt plodding and immature compared to the rest of this overall fascinating exhibition.

Faced with a challenging task in terms of installation, the museum did an inspired job presenting the work in its rather cut-up spaces- it was formerly a public library. Two of the largest and most engaging works were placed in the atrium spaces, which enjoy a lot of foot traffic. In North Court they installed Zhu Jinshi’s Boat (2012), made of 8,000 sheets of crinkled calligraphy paper laid over rods that create a tunnel shape-these rods are suspended from the ceiling. The work looks, and was, labor-intensive. “It took 10 people, 10 days to assemble,” says Harding. Visitors were allowed to walk through this tunnel of translucent paper, taking what the artist calls a “symbolic journey.” The South Court was dotted with 11 wooden chairs from He Xiangyu’s The Man on the Chair (2008-2009). The works are made from ancient wooden aqueduct pipes from southwest China, cut and re-assembled to make chairs visitors were welcome to sit in-and they did. Amazingly, these craggy pieces were quite comfortable, due to the pitch of the seat and back, and the smoothness of the surfaces.

Two of the better-known artists in the show were Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan. Ai Weiwei’s sculptures were deliberately located amid the permanent collection. “We put some work in the traditional context of Asia,” says Harding. “It talks about the lineage which they’re very much part of.” In the gallery featuring Chinese porcelain were Ai Weiwei’s Ton of Tea (2005), a 39-inch tall block made of compacted pu’er tea, and Table with Two Legs (2008), a Qing dynasty table that has been cut apart and reassembled, so that it sits on two legs and a corner of the table. These are part of the artist’s continuing exploration of Chinese antiques and artistic traditions.

Zhang Huan was represented in “28 Chinese” by two color photographs, both documentations from early performance work. In 12 Square Meters, from 1994, Zhang sat in a public toilet, his naked body covered with honey and fish juice. As this image shows, he sat still and detached, almost in meditation, as flies swarmed to him. He has said that this work was his comment on the filthy state of public toilets. In 1/2 (1998), he placed pork ribs from a butcher against his own torso, a gruesome and pitiful sight, and also invited members from the audience to write words on him in black ink. The artist became famous for these rather self-punishing performances, but today he is known for painting and for large-scale figurative sculpture, some depicting Buddha. He is now represented by Pace Gallery-a long way from the days when he had to put up with public toilets.

Zhu Jinshi
Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread.
Photo: courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami.
© Zhu Jinshi, © ARS, New York.

Qiu Zhijie is another figure who has gained an international reputation, especially for his TATTOO series from the 1990s. In this photographic series, Qiu stood shirtless, and a design or Chinese character that was on his body blended with the design or character on the wall behind. One of the best known is TATTOO-2 (1994) in which a giant red “bu” (meaning ‘no’ or ‘not’) character is painted across the lower half of his face and extends down his torso and across his arms-and continues on the wall behind him. It’s a rather ominous image, as the person seems nearly cancelled out by the character, both in form and in meaning. The same artist has a rather whimsical side, reflected in the piece I Used to Have 72 Forms, from 2009. In these bamboowoven mats (two out of three in the Rubell Collection were shown here), household objects such as baskets and boxes and a bookshelf arise from the flat plane, with bamboo strips continuing from object to mat. It’s a bit of a visual mind-bender. Qiu has said, “This continuous process of dissolving and reincarnating shows Chinese peoples’ worldview and the survival attitude of the ceaseless cycle of life.”

Most of the other artists were at least a generation younger than Ai, Zhang, or Qiu, with far less exposure on the international scene. A number of them are real finds, talented and singular artists. Some of their work was quite unexpected, as well, such as those in the paintings gallery which includes several abstract artists. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and through the Maoist era and beyond, abstract art was banned in China. It wasn’t considered art ordinary people could understand or appreciate, and it was suspiciously bourgeois. Thus, a lot of the artists in this gallery were young-40 and under-meaning they grew up in the era of economic reform. “A lot of people would say, this isn’t Chinese,” says Harding. “I thought that by having abstraction allowed for a way to change expectations. The technical aspect of these paintings really blew me away.”

Among the abstract artists, two especially notable ones were Li Shurui, one of two women in the show, and Wang Guangle. Li’s large acrylic paintings on canvas are mesmerizing patterned abstractions that evoke Bridget Riley, although they don’t aspire to the three-dimensional illusion that Riley’s form of Op Art does. Li’s work are in vibrant colors that pulsate across the canvas, sometimes purples and blues, sometimes magentas and pinks. They resemble digital prints, but I have been told she paints them by hand. Wang’s 130905 (2013) was another tour de force of painting. The surface appears to be a series of black stripes
on a white background, with a bar of white cutting across the horizontal middle. However, it was made through a laborious process of layering. First, he painted the entire canvas black and let it dry. Then he painted it white, leaving the top and bottom strip unpainted (and black), and let it dry. Then he repeated the process with black, now leaving a strip of white at the top and bottom unpainted. Wang says that he got the idea from a custom in Southern China, where an ailing elderly person will prepare a coffin for himself or herself, repainting the coffin a year later if still alive, in a process called “longevity paint.” It’s an interesting story, but also makes for a striking work of art, with its slightly uneven stripes and paints drips down the sides.

One troubling issue is why there were only two women artists among these 28 artists. It is raised in the catalogue interview with the Rubells, and the answer seems to be they couldn’t find many in their research. The lack of women in the exhibition “is a surprise and a little disappointing,” Harding admits. “But perhaps this is not accurate of the landscape as a whole. Part of it has to do with galleries not representing as many women. There are a lot of women in art schools, but then when you look at the galleries, the ratio is not reflected.” Traditional Chinese society expects women to have families and raise children, so galleries may see them as less serious about their careers than men, and are reluctant to support them- thus few women are represented in galleries. That absence is conspicuous in the show.

While “28 Chinese” will have left San Francisco by the time this article comes out, it moves on to the San Antonio Museum of Art, from September 5, 2015 – January 3, 2016. The exhibition conveys a fundamental sea change in Chinese contemporary art. There seems to be a movement away from confrontational political messages, mainly of the anti-Maoist/anti-traditional kind popular in the 1990s and 2000s, to more considered explorations of both the nature of Chinese-ness, and an international language of abstraction. In putting together this collection, the Rubells have invited us along on their discoveries in China, and it’s a most illuminating trip.