The gulf between the sophisticated nuances of Chinese "literati" painting and the stuff that decorates plastic place mats at your favorite moo shu pork eatery is not as great as you may think.
These days, Chinese artists in Taiwan and the United States--and, increasingly, painters working in the People's Republic--are melding traditional styles with odd remnants of Western art. All too often, the results are bland, commercial-art products that dishonor 15 centuries of extraordinary artistic achievement.
An exhibition jointly created by the Chinese American Council of the Historical and Cultural Foundation and the Irvine Fine Arts Center, and on view at the center through Nov. 7, inadvertently tends to underline the quandary of Chinese art in the late 20th Century.
This oddly disjointed show encompasses work by three contemporary Chinese artists, a handful of Ch'ing Dynasty bronze vessels, a miniature (and unconvincing) Chinese garden and a selection of traditional calligrapher's tools.
The most peculiar works are Hu Ch'ung-hsien's color photographs of flowers growing in the Tapei, Taiwan, garden called "Abode of Illusions." The photographs are inscribed with lines of poetry and commentary by the garden's designer, Chang Ta-ch'ien, a well-known exiled Shanghai artist who died in 1983, soon after this burst of literary energy.
Calligraphic additions to paintings have a long history in Chinese art. Among the exquisitely cultured scholar-painters, it was considered sporting to inscribe pithy or humorous remarks or quotations from the great Chinese poets with skillful flourishes of brush and ink.
Chang's verses, which respond to glimpses of his beloved garden, do have their moments: "Breeze-stirred dew brilliantly glistens," he writes. Or: "The moon seeps through tangled branches as the fragrance flickers;/Dewdrops float on red petals clustered in the dawn."
But instead of adding another layer of meaning to elegant or astringently spare ink-and-color paintings, Chang's writings coast along the tops of what look like glossy calendar photos. Each one zeroes in on small groups of hibiscus and lotus and plum blossoms shot against soft-focus greenery or gray backgrounds that might as well have been concocted in a studio.
For Western viewers, constant exposure to the barrage of images in the media has blunted the potential impact of images of common objects, even ones usually considered "beautiful." A sophisticated viewer isn't apt to be enthralled by yet another depiction of a flower unless it's transformed by an artist's personal vision.
Even in traditional Chinese art, which reflects the special place of humble living things in the Taoist nature-centered world view, painters subtly reinterpreted historically encoded ways of representing flowers, rocks and birds. But Hu's photos are about as personal and poetically allusive as tourist postcards or greeting card art.
Watercolors by Catherine Yi-Yu Cho Woo, a Peking-born artist who teaches Chinese language and literature at San Diego State and painting at San Francisco State, are also a disappointment.
She brings too heavy a hand to the delicate activity of nudging veils of color across the paper. Too often, areas that should have a limpid clarity look labored. Her notion of landscape composition is ploddingly dull. Coupled with her lack of control over the watercolor medium, even wispy, abstract images like "Drifting Freely in the Sky" appear hackneyed and effortful.
Woo's sentimental, muddy flower paintings are no better. At least in "Quiet Roar," an abstracted view of a waterfall, her clotted style loosens sufficiently to allow the diluted color to slide and soak freely on the rice paper support.
The most noteworthy works in the show are the paintings of Li Hua-sheng, an artist in his early 40s who lives in Sichuan province. Although he is said to have no knowledge of the world of art outside his backyard, he picks his way through the powerful legacy of maverick painting styles in Chinese art to create curiously stylized compositions with a quasi-European flavor.
Li mingles great, sweeping movements of the brush and bizarre, exaggerated shapes with a coyness and willed simplicity that sometimes seems gratuitous. Yet the line between astuteness and boorishness in Chinese art is a surprisingly narrow one.
If "Landscape with Four Ducks" is a bit precious--with colonies of soft black dots clinging to the tenderly awkward shapes of willow tree trunks and a row of long-stemmed lotus flowers floating above the landscape--it does convey the dizzy energies of early spring days.
Li's fun-house mirror approach to landscape is endearing in large and small ways. Irregular green mountains in a landscape representing a scene in Kweilin look rather like giant cucumbers. (In a passage of calligraphy the artist appended to the painting, he compares the land forms to jade hairpins.)
In another landscape, in which a stick-figure couple walk over a bridge near tree branches tipped with rust-colored leaves or flowers, the man's bent head abuts a branch in such a way that it looks like a big berry.
Spotty as the exhibit is, it does offer an intelligent and easy-to-follow series of wall texts about the history of Chinese brush painting and an array of samples of the scholar-artist's tools, loaned by Dr. San-Pao Li, director of Asian Studies at Cal State Long Beach, and his mentor, Professor Shih-Shang Hsu.