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Art Review : Modernism Crosses The Great Wall

June 12, 1987|COLIN GARDNER

In the West, artistic innovation is deemed exhausted. The avant-garde has been proclaimed dead, originality seems impossible. The Modernist surge toward transcendent progress has been replaced by a critically imposed Post-Modernism that transforms everything into myth.

But what of other cultures, where jaded self-analysis and philosophical navel staring are considered decadent bourgeois indulgences? What of the People's Republic of China, for example, where under Mao's severe Cultural Revolution even the mildest of Modernist ideals were severely repressed in favor of the official dogma, Socialist Realism?

Today, following the more pragmatic leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Western cynicism is almost unknown, the concept of simulating history a contradiction. If you have no notion of a dead end, you don't need to recycle the past.

Or do you? Judging from "Beyond the Open Door," the Pacific Asia Museum's survey of 50 contemporary paintings from post-Maoist China, aesthetic liberalization is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it opens the flood gates to Western influence, breaking down the stultifying hermeticism of ideologically correct "style." On the other, it replaces a viable national identity with a faceless internationalism. Every Modernist movement from Cubism to Photo-Realism is appropriated and analyzed. Modigliani, Matisse and Picasso become a form of creative elixir, embraced and exploited with as much passion as in their first appearance in the West 80 years ago.

The irony here is that Western artists have been simulating the very same models for the last eight years. The difference is that the Chinese are sincere. Their harnessing of history is somehow "progressive" and "modernizing," while our domestic strategy is seen as a sign of exhaustion, allegorical at best.

Perhaps the real ideological key to this show is its sponsorship (Arco) and its letter of introduction (by Henry Kissinger). Corporate, conservative America is more than willing to encourage the Third World's rite of passage into the 20th Century as long as it takes place within its own aesthetic orthodoxy--Modernism. The show's catalogue quotes a young Nanjing painter proclaiming, "All doors are open, all roads are accessible." So open and accessible, in fact, that cultural colonialism can step right in and take over. The exhibition at the Pasadena museum continues through Aug. 9.

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