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Chinese Artists Stick to Old Style to Make a Living

December 22, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

It's not exactly what Chairman Mao had in mind.

Had the Chinese leader lived to see it, in fact, he might start another cultural revolution--in Queens, New York. That's the home of Chen Dan Qing and other Chinese emigre artists who honed Socialist Realist techniques during Communist China's most traumatic anti-Western phase. You know the kind: Heroes of the rice paddies trudging behind the water buffalo; peasant children reading the Great Leader's Little Red Book.

Now these artists are turning out Norman Rockwellish examples of so-called Chinese Realism for some New York art dealers--those cultural capitalist roaders--who sell them for $8,000 to $12,000 a pop.

Showing country scenes and Tibetan peasant faces, 32 works by six of the artists are on view through Jan. 31 at the Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana. The works were provided by two New York galleries--the Hefner Galleries and Grand Central Art Galleries Inc., which represents Chen.

Chen, 34, had just arrived at the museum recently after a flight from New York as he spoke freely about the "culture lag" that he embodies by working in a folksy, quasi-19th-Century idiom that reflects neither the older artistic traditions of China nor current trends in contemporary Western art.

"There is a clash in the work, and I admit this," he said. "China is still in the 1950s, and I am part of the whole context of China. In the 1950s, China closed the door to the West and you saw only Russian art magazines and even Russian art teachers, who had indirect influence because they taught our art teachers. The Russians had probably been trained by European teachers. Socialist Realism was an influence because it was all we saw during the 1960s and the early 1970s."

Later, a contradiction emerged when Chen spoke of other groups of contemporary Chinese artists--some in New York and others in China--who, since the decadelong Cultural Revolution ended in 1977, have experimented with such Western modes as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Surrealism and Dadaism. Mao Zedong's Red Guards had set out to purge Western aesthetic experiments, considering them to be decadent.

Chen, a soft-spoken man with a shy smile, spoke good English but sometimes turned to a Chinese friend for help. He told how he came to the United States on a student visa in 1980 to study at the Art Students League in Manhattan and said he loves the work of contemporary American artists David Salle and Eric Fischl. He would like to strike out in a new direction, try new styles, take risks.

So, why then, hasn't he? Why is this group of six artists living in New York, far removed from the time and place that spawned their style, persisting in it?

"Before we came to the United States, we never thought we'd keep painting traditional subject matter," he said. "But we lost the sense of our identity when we came here, and we hung on to our style. For all of us, the big question here is how to make a living. This is what the galleries want. We are behind the times. We are struggling, but we are sponsored by galleries.

"The others who are freer, the ones who experiment with other styles, it is harder for them to sell their work. They must drive taxicabs and take other jobs. I live from my painting."

Chen himself said he sees the irony in the fact that, having found his way to the land of free enterprise, he now talks about the artistic limitations he feels are imposed by the demand of a commercial market.

Chen and three other artists in the show are represented by Grand Central Art Galleries Inc. in New York, whose director, James Cox, said the art has found a certain vogue among private collectors who have general taste for Chinese culture.

Almost 90% of them are private collectors who have had some exposure to China through travel or collecting, and there is that identification," Cox said.

"There was a lot of anonymous work going on during the Cultural Revolution, when artists did what was acceptable. Chen Dan Qing was one of the first to get much notoriety as an individual artist in China after the Cultural Revolution. At the time he came here, I would say the American collecting public was prepared to embrace images of China . . . but now many more Chinese artists have immigrated. More and more of them are bringing these kinds of paintings. It's not as new as it was. I think Chen Dan Qing is champing at the bit. He is looking for a chance to do something that will excite him creatively."

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