October 24, 2015

28 Chinese at San Antonio Museum of Art

I recently visited the San Antonio Museum of Art to view the 28 Chinese exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from the Rubell Family Collection. This collection was amassed by the Rubells over the course of 11 years and involved them personally traveling to China, visiting hundreds of artist's studios, and trusting that the work they purchased would make its way safely across the ocean. 

When the Rubells travelled to China, a gallery system as we know it in the United States was non-existent. Even today, it's a relatively new idea in the Chinese contemporary art world. However, through their visits, the Rubells were building relationships and establishing the trust of those artists whose work they admired and chose to collect. 

As the Rubells explained in their talk with curator Anna Stothart, the artists often wanted to ensure that the work they sold would be going to a good home. They had a hard time parting with their work and wanted for it to be appreciated and cared for, rather than treated as an investment or commodity. The way the Rubells spoke about this collection and the artists shows how truly passionate they are and how they are living up to that trust they established. 

It was fascinating to hear the Rubells speak about their love for collecting art - something that Donald Rubell described as a "collector gene." They discussed how they establish themes for collecting and focus on those for a certain amount of time. In doing so, The Rubell Family Collection has amassed impressive and important Contemporary art from all over the world. They started it in 1964 with a $25 a month budget and grew it to the current collection housed in their 45,000 square foot warehouse in Miami, Florida. Yet, they continue to grow their collection, and they revealed that their next theme is a collection of Women Artists. 

Going in to this exhibition, the only Chinese artist that I was familiar with was Ai Wei Wei, but when I left, I was eager to learn more about so many artists whose work I encountered. 

Ai Weiwei, Ton of Tea, 2005, Photo by Stephanie Torres
In Wei Wei's piece, Ton of Tea, tea leaves have been compressed into a massive cube. The tea he used is Pur'er, one that is consumed most commonly throughout China and that was traditionally pressed into small blocks to be exported. Here, Wei Wei is commenting both on globalization and the growing Chinese population. 

Huang Yong Ping, Well(s), 2007, Photo by Stephanie Torres
There are a number of interactive pieces in this exhibition including these three large traditional Chinese vases or "wells" by Huang Yong Ping. The viewer is asked to peer into each one and discover what's hidden inside. I won't spoil the surprise, but they each contain objects that are symbolic, and whose symbolism can vary from culture to culture.

Qiu Zhijie, Memorial for Revolutionary Speech, 2007, Photo by Stephanie Torres 
Qiu Zhijie, Sixteen ink rubbings and cement cube, Photo by Stephanie Torres
Qui Zhijie's Memorial for Revolutionary Speech depicts various slogans from revolutionary speeches made throughout China's history. Zhijie carved slogans onto a cement block using the calligraphic style from each era and used them to make the ink rubbings that are on display. The prints capture the evolution of Chinese calligraphy and the history of revolutionary thought. The cement block was built up by pouring cement over each carving to make the surface for the next one, thus concealing the previous slogan. 

Qiu Zhijie, I Used to Have 72 Forms, 2009 (Foreground), TATTOO -2, 1994 (Background) Photo by Stephanie Torres
Another piece by Zhijie incorporates functional bamboo objects that were once used for every day tasks, like cooking or storage. They have been woven onto a bamboo mat, rendering them useless, but thereby turning them into symbolic sculptures. 

Zhu Jinshi, Boat, 2002, Photo by Stephanie Torres
Boat is another one of the interactive works of art in this exhibition. This massive hanging sculpture was made using thousands of sheets of rice paper. Museum staff put it together over the course of several days by folding and layering the paper on the bamboo structure. The audience can walk through the center of Boat and experience a symbolic journey that seems to block out the rest of the world.  

Zhu Jinshi, Epoch Color, 2010, Photo by Stephanie Torres
In Zhu Jinshi's massive, almost sculptural painting, Epoch Color, the artist has layered excessive amounts of oil paint on to the canvas using shovels and trowels. The extremely thick layers take years to dry and the painting evolves slowly as the paint cracks, breaks, and slides around the canvas. 

Lan Zhenghui, Untitled, 2008, Photo by Stephanie Torres
Lan Zhenghui's untitled abstract painting references modern influences like Franz Kline and the Abstract Experisonsts, while using traditional Chinese ink and rice paper. The works are in line with the Chinese landscape painting tradition in which the painter's expression of nature was a meditative experience.

Li Shurui, I am not ready..., 2013, Photo by Stephanie Torres
This painting by Li Shurui explores the Urban landscape through abstraction. She used airbrush to create a series of paintings based on photographs of LED screens, exploring the relationship between light and space. 

Chen Wei, Honey in the Broadcast, 2008, Photo by Stephanie Torres

Photographer Chen Wei creates a sense of alienation and disorientation in his photos by  constructing intricate sets that are often small, confining spaces and include a solitary figure.

He Xiangyu, The Death of Marat, 2011, Photo by Stephanie Torres

Conceptual artist, He Xiangyu creates a moment of temporary shock for the viewer as they encounter his life-like resin sculpture depicting the corpse of artist, Ai Wei Wei. Xiangyu elevates Wei Wei to a tragic figure by referencing the title of the Neoclassical painting by Jacques-Louis David that shows the murdered French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat. 

The work featured in 28 Chinese is just a sampling of the amazing work the Rubells have collected. It spans six galleries and two floors in the San Antonio Museum of Art and is organized into a variety of themes, from Social and Political Activism to Abstraction.

28 Chinese is on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art until January 3, 2016.