What is believed to be the first comprehensive U.S. exhibition of contemporary Chinese art created in the period immediately preceding Tian An Men Square opened Wednesday at Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum.
"There have been exhibitions by individual artists, and some universities have tried to do small group shows, but that's it, there's never been anything like this before," said Richard E. Strassberg, the museum's adjunct curator of Chinese art, and an associate professor of UCLA's department of East Asian languages and cultures. "And I don't know when there will be anything like this again, because with the political situation in the country now, it's nearly impossible to get this type of work out of China."
Many of the 41 artist and works in " 'I Don't Want to Play Cards With Cezanne' and Other Works: Selections From the Chinese 'New Wave' and 'Avant-Garde' Art of the '80s" were shown in an unprecedented exhibition of avant-garde art in Beijing in February, 1989, four months before the Tian An Men Square massacre. That show, which was planned independently of state cultural officials, ran into trouble with authorities and ended up being open for public viewing for only half of its scheduled run.
Today, Strassberg said, contemporary art in China has gone underground and artists who persist in making this art risk the wrath of the government. That made curating the Pacific Asia Museum show--and bringing the works out of the country--no easy task.
The artists and works represented in the Pasadena show were selected by Strassberg and David Kamansky, Pacific Asia Museum director, in two post-Tian An Men trips to China for meetings and studio visits with more than 100 artists from seven cities and outlying areas. The curators were guided in their search by Tang Qingnian, an organizer of the Beijing avant-garde art show and a noted Chinese art critic, and Zheng Shengtian, a professor at the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.
"We wanted to put this show together from a Chinese viewpoint," Strassberg said. "Because of the help of (Qingnian and Shengtian) we met all these young artists (most are in their 20s and 30s) who are not the artists the authorities usually put forward. These are essentially the young dissident artists who are not doing the acceptable, realist kind of art."
Unlike dissident Soviet artists featured in recent U.S. shows, however, Strassberg noted that only two of those in his exhibition are not supported by the state. The remainder--with the exception of five artists who have recently emigrated to the West--are employed within the Chinese system as art instructors, institution directors or professional artists adhering to the old Marxist dogmas of realism, while creating diametrically opposed art in the privacy of their own studios.
"Everyone here has a kind of schizophrenic identity; they're working in the academies doing standard, orthodox art, but in their studios--which are usually poor and small--they're doing a totally different kind of art. They all work in both styles," Strassberg said.
In 1989, the Western press extensively reported the tumultuous events surrounding Beijing's unprecedented "China/Avant-Garde Exhibition." That show, which contained 177 mostly Western-style works by contemporary Chinese artists was hailed by some critics as a first step in firmly establishing modern art in China. However, the show was twice closed down by authorities, once because an artist fired gunshots at her own work and again after an alleged bomb threat.
Today, Strassberg said, contemporary work has been driven even further underground. Since his last visit to China in March, he noted that there is now "no public venue" for the paintings, which are influenced by Western movements such as abstraction, German Expressionism and modernism. He said the works stress usually forbidden, non-Marxist themes, including negative emotions, the self, spirituality and the questioning of blind worship.
"It's gotten worse even in the days since Tian An Men Square," said Strassberg, noting that at least one artist in the Pacific Asia show, Xu Bing, has been singled out by critics as being "a blatant example of capitalist, decadent art" and is "lucky" to have emigrated before such action began.
"A lot of museums don't recognize that this work exists yet; we really are trying to acquaint the art world with the quality of the art being done in China today," Strassberg said, adding that he hoped the show, which closes Aug. 25, would eventually be seen in other cities.
"Most of the work that's been brought here before has been very poor in quality; it's been very commercial. But Chinese artists today are drawing close to an international level of quality while still maintaining their Chinese-ness. This exhibition, I think, makes that apparent."