Sidewalk Cracks: Contemporary Chinese Art Has a Laugh

Two exhibits by contemporary Chinese artists takes China's enormous transformation as a jumping-off point to interrogate globalization, commercialism, and form itself.

(Left) Burning Bridge II, by Wanxin Zhang. (Photo by Jonathan Curiel) (Right) Phoenix Trip, by Wanxin Zhang. (Courtesy of Catherine Clark Gallery)

A king holds a baby monkey in one hand and a dead rooster in the other in Wanxin Zhang’s Burning Bridge II, a subversive, politically charged sculpture that China would ban if Zhang were still living in his native country. Zhang’s new artwork at Catharine Clark Gallery is a dig at both China and the United States — to the monarchical way that political leaders in both countries have imposed anti-migrant policies that create hardships and ruin scores of lives.

The sculpture’s red coating — a color closely associated with China’s government and history, and Chinese fire symbolism — is the artistic layer that connects the Western-looking royal to Beijing. The figure’s simultaneous coddling of a sentient being and his casual wrangling of a carcass represent the extremist approaches that President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and their minions are enacting on populations that are being swept up — often literally — by xenophobia.

“This reflects the reality of how people in power teach lessons to their followers,” Zhang tells SF Weekly of the king’s obey-or-kill approach.

At Catharine Clark, Burning Bridge II is in a sea of Wanxin Zhang sculptures that have something important to say — not just about politics but globalization, identity, art-making, and the complicated ways that ideas and cultures stick in society, then transmute into forms that are barely (or entirely) recognizable. The forms that Zhang prefers include clay, which he shapes into surfaces that can be both smooth and rough, familiar and dissonant, monochrome and tattooed with designs and patterns.

Some of Zhang’s objects in “Wanxin Zhang: Fahrenheit” are funny. You smile at their dark humor or their irreverence, as in Phoenix Trip, which has a figure taking a selfie (or checking his phone) as he holds a skateboard. The sculpture is in the mode of a Terracotta Warrior — the noble figures who were buried with China’s first emperor, discovered in 1974, and have become iconic symbols of the country’s dynastic ambitions. The sculpture is also Zhang himself. Zhang has lived in San Francisco since 1992 (when he came to attend the Academy of Art University), and his own hybridity — of being influenced by the Bay Area and greater U.S. culture — is unmistakable in Phoenix Trip. The Bay Area Funk Art movement and its playfulness with self-portraiture (hello, Robert Arneson) is squarely embedded in Phoenix Trip, which Zhang made this year.

Zhang’s first video project makes its debut at Catharine Clark, and it features six looped works of unfired ceramic figures under water — and dissolving. Parts come off. Faces disintegrate. One of the figures could pass for Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution led to more than 1 million deaths, according to estimates. The revolution purged traditional artists and those deemed bourgeois. Zhang’s father was a Mao supporter. Zhang, who grew up during that period, says that his dad “does not comment on my works nowadays.”

“One of the first and still biggest things I appreciate about America is how much it honors and respects truth and freedom of speech,” Zhang, who has exhibited around the United States and now teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, says in his email interview. “As for how my art is received in China, over the past few decades, China has changed a lot in many levels, but some things — including how well a critique of its government and politics is accepted — will never change.”  

Like Zhang, Xiaoze Xie grew up in China in the 1960s and ’70s, moved to the United States in 1992, and now lives in the Bay Area, where he’s a university educator (at Stanford) and an acclaimed working artist. At Anglim Gilbert Gallery, Xie’s newest exhibit, “Nocturnes,” delves into scenes at night — including those in China — where the available light casts distinct shadows on social conditions that Xie paints with an eye for fine details.

On the Sidewalk (Guangzhou), by Xiaoze Xie. (Courtesy of Anglim Gilbert Gallery)

Xie made On the Sidewalk (Guangzhou) from photos he took in Guangzhou, the city of 14 million formerly known as Canton that’s now part of a megalopolis whose economic expansion has paralleled China’s rise as a world power. On the Sidewalk (Guangzhou) takes art-goers to the outskirts of Guangzhou, where the hood of a new car becomes a de facto showroom for street-sale athletic shoes.

Families crowd about the footwear as lights from buildings glisten in the background, and a street light shines from above, illuminating the shoes’ desirability and the car’s shiny exterior. A table lamp is also a source of light. In that moment is a collision of capitalism, economic aspiration, and ascension, and group dynamics in modern China. In the painting’s center is a teenage boy looking longingly at the brand-name shoes, whose authenticity is in question — at least for Xie.

“Whether they are real or not one would question — and if they are real, in what ways do we get these Nikes?” Xie tells SF Weekly as he stood in front of On the Sidewalk (Guangzhou) on a recent Saturday. “As people gathered around to look at them, I was so struck by this young boy’s intense focus. He was so lost in thought. But what attracted me was how much was going on in the surrounding environment of the city. Look at the overpasses, the pedestrian steps, and all the supporting structure, and buildings glowing — and glowing in the distance is a big TV screen showing what I think is advertising. There’s drama.”

There’s also drama in Xie’s video work at Anglim Gilbert, Night Wanderer, which features footage that Xie took across China from 2000-02, and 2016-17. Several scenes show the razing of old nightclubs in what amounted to destruction of neighborhoods to make way for modern structures. Xie, who calls the scenes “dystopic,” says that “night scenes have a more emotional impact” for him, and that his formidable years in China are still influencing him. Xie can’t escape his past, and he doesn’t want to.

“I think there is something in the blood that gives you a personality or a psychological state that is different from others,” he says. “I know some friends who are very cheerful, and it’s great to be around them. My own life — even when I’m doing really well career-wise or in other things — I’m just not a cheerful person. This melancholy — I just have to deal with it. It comes back and it lingers. Sometimes it stays for a long time. I have to deal with it and to let it pass.

“To make videos, to make photographs, to make paintings from these scenes, to say something about it is a way to deal with it,” he adds. “It has as much to do with my formidable years, when I went to college in Beijing. With my friends, I read a lot of poetry. I wrote a lot of poems, too. I even had some published. That was crucial in what I’m doing now in general. The reading and writing of poetry gives me something in all my work.”

Poetry has a long tradition in China, stretching back thousands of years, as does art. Xie and Zhang — along with China’s most famous visual artist, Ai Weiwei — have embodied what could become a new tradition for Chinese artists: Moving to the United States, at least for a while, and reworking their art-making as they remake their own lives.

Xie participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations that Beijing suppressed with bloodshed and martial law. His paintings became more political after he moved to Texas in 1992, and he’s made canvases that are damning portraits of war. “Nocturnes” features Xie’s painting of an older New York Times photo that shows a U.S. soldier seriously injured in the Iraq War. People are gathered around the soldier. The only clear face in Xie’s painting is of a dark-haired man in the background looking gravely concerned. That man has no obvious nationality or ethnicity. He could be Hispanic. He could be Chinese. He could be a stand-in for Xie, who has witnessed man’s inhumanity to man firsthand and knows that it’s not unique to China. Zhang shares Xie’s feeling, even if the two artists express it in vastly different ways.

“Wanxin Zhang: Fahrenheit,” through Jan. 20 at Catharine Clark Gallery, 248 Utah St. Free; 415-399-1439 or cclarkgallery.com

“Nocturnes,” through Jan. 6 at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, 1275 Minnesota St. Free; 415-433-2710 or anglimgilbertgallery.com

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