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The good, the bad and stuff that ought to be recalled — "RED HOT: Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has got 'em all. Last week's review ["Red Hot Business," September 13] discussed how oilman and venture capitalist Robert Chaney used business-based collecting strategies to select works for his family's collection. This week we address that work, the collection as a whole and what the Houston art community has had to say about it.
Let's start with the good stuff. In Korean artist Do-Ho Suh's massive fiberglass sculpture Karma (2003), two legs wearing men's black dress shoes and suit pants extend through the gallery ceiling, poised in mid-stride. Clusters of tiny figures are shown running in the shadow of the giant soles. Are they fleeing, or are they carrying a giant in Lilliputian fashion? It's a wonderfully ambiguous, but dramatic, work.
Sheng Qi's Memories (Me) (2002) is a large photograph of the photographer's flat, open hand against a red background. In the center of the palm is a tiny black-and-white photograph of Sheng as a shyly smiling little boy in a cap and Mao jacket. The photograph seems fairly straightforward, until you notice the pinky finger is missing.
Sheng cut the finger off with a meat cleaver in a 1989 performance to mourn the friends he lost in the Tiananmen Square massacre. He buried his pinky in a flowerpot and left China for exile in Rome, returning ten years later. The photo juxtaposes the shyly smiling innocence of the chubby-cheeked boy with the mutilated hand of a disillusioned man.
The photograph 12 Square Meters, a 1994 work by Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan, documents an hour-long performance in which the artist coated himself in fish oil and honey and sat naked in a filthy, fly-filled public toilet in 100-degree weather. The image shows the artist in profile, naked and sticky-looking, surrounded by a swarm of flies. Afterwards he submerged himself in a nearby polluted river to "cleanse" himself. For Zhang, as for much of the Chinese population, there is no escape and no relief.
This idea continues in Zhang's Family Tree (2001), which addresses the weight of history and China's 5,000-year-old culture. Zhang "dictated a narrative of the past" — his own and that of his country — while calligraphers wrote it over his face. In the grid of nine photos, Zhang the individual slowly disappears under the narrative of the past, the black ink a dense coating of history.
Nikki S. Lee is a Korean artist who came to America as a student. She is known for her series of works in which she plays various roles — sometimes blending in with different ethnicities and cultures, sometimes becoming different characters. In Part (6) (2002), the transformation is much more subtle. She plays the role of girlfriend to some unseen male; only his hand is visible as she smiles adoringly up at him.
Video work fares well in the exhibition. Chinese artist Cao Fei's Hip Hop New York (2006) captures people in Chinatown dancing to the satiric Chinese-American hip-hop group Notorious MSG, who are, incidentally, coming to the MFAH this Saturday as part of the Starbucks Mixed Media Music Series [See "Stop — Buddha Time," Night & Day, page 28]. In the video, teenagers and an old man flashing gangsta signs dance for the camera. An elderly woman lets loose, her elegant moves decidedly tai chi influenced. It's an amusing and exuberant slosh of cultural influences.
Another standout in "RED HOT" is City Glow (2005) by Chiho Aoshima, an anime-influenced animated DVD that runs panorama-style over five flat-screen monitors in the museum's bottom floor. But still images from Aoshima in the upstairs gallery are less successful. Sure, they have eerie and otherworldly elements such as gravestones and a rain of blood, but they feel too much like illustration and need the elements of time, movement and sound to succeed.
The Chaneys own other problematic Japanese "Neo-Pop" works with anime and manga influences. Ah, Akihabara (2007), a painting by Mr. (that's his whole name), is filled with luridly colored, big-eyed characters with vapid, grinning expressions. Think Hello Kitty with a creepy subtext. Preadolescent girls cavort in maids' outfits the same way waitresses do in real life in Tokyo's Akihabara district. In his bio in the catalogue for the 2005 "Little Boy" exhibition, Mr. is described as a "genuine 'lolicom' (Japanese shorthand for 'Lolita complex')." Gee, I guess that explains why we can see the pudendal cleft through a little girl's panties. Ick.
Things don't get any better in the Chinese pop section, in which the examples are recent, newly acquired and feel very speculative. I like bright, shiny, kitschy stuff, but as one observer quipped, "It looks like freakin' Disneyland." Most of all, there are some bad paintings here. Take Zhao Bo's street scenes. His Chinese Portrait #8 (2005) shows a businessman on a cell phone with McDonald's Golden Arches and Mao in the background. Look, communism and capitalism! Melding consumer products and Chinese communist imagery may have started out edgy, but it seems pretty hackneyed now. Another shows a crowd on the street with the Chinese flag and an image of Spiderman. These hastily painted works, with their large signatures and subject matter targeted to foreigners, look like tourist paintings, each a quick variation on the same theme.
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