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"RED HOT: Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection"

Collecting on the quick with the Chaney family

In a 1999 Art Journal article, Francesca Dal Lago cited political pop artist Wang Guangyi's 1988 Mao Zedong — Red Grid No. 1 as one of the first examples of the "Mao-related phenomenon in painting." This was almost 20 years ago, and there are a lot of recent Mao's in "RED HOT." The Chaneys' 2006 Wang Guangyi merges People's Liberation Army soldiers with the Kodak logo. It's well done, but is Wang playing his greatest hits? I would like to see some earlier examples of his work as well.

Then there are the paintings of Feng Zhengjie, whose big, stylized portraits of glamorous women with cat eyes are likened in the exhibition catalogue to Warhol's portraits. Right. I'd say they're more like the '80s works of Patrick Nagel, the guy whose new-wave-y, stylized prints of sexy women hung over every black leather sofa in every coke-snorting single guy's apartment at the time.

Feng Zhengjie is, incidentally, shown by the London gallery owned by Charles Saatchi — the man who pioneered speculation and market manipulation in contemporary art. Robert Chaney cites him as a "major influence" on his family's collecting career and talks admiringly of how Saatchi "established dominance" in an area of collecting. Hmmm. Chaney says his confidence in Asian art is due in part to Saatchi's plans for a major show of Chinese art this year.

The good: Do-Ho Suh's Karma.
©Do-Ho Suh, Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York
The good: Do-Ho Suh's Karma.
The ought-to-be-recalled: Feng Zhengjie's portraits.
© Feng Zhengjie, Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York
The ought-to-be-recalled: Feng Zhengjie's portraits.

The Houston art community has had a lot to say about "RED HOT," most of it off-the-record and/or unprintable. "Stir-fried shit" was one of the milder comments. "I don't know how I feel about it," says Devin Borden of Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery. "I think it's fun, but if someone was going to present abstract expressionism to me in 1971, 20 years after abstract expressionism, I would be scratching my head. Essentially we are looking at work in which a lot of the ideas are 20 years old."

According to MFAH curator Alison di Lima Greene, "RED HOT" was planned in record time to fill a vacancy caused by a show cancellation in the MFAH's summer slot. "It was unusually short; our typical lead time is between one and two years, sometimes three to five years. Our lead time was nine months, with the majority of the work done in six months...Robert and Jereann rolled up their sleeves and worked side by side with us, made some key acquisitions and did some research on the ground in Beijing. They came back with new info and new work. They really put their hearts into it."

By my calculations, 62 percent of the work in "RED HOT" was made in the last two-and-a-half years. I don't know exactly when the Chaneys acquired it all, but many works were just purchased on their March trip to Beijing. (Meanwhile, 91 percent of the show was made and acquired since 2000.)

According to Kinzelman Art Consulting, who manage the Chaney family's collection, they own around 400 total works, and the Asian ones at press time numbered around 120 to 130. (They are always buying.) There are 110 pieces cited on the works list for the exhibition. That's essentially the whole collection. There seems to be a lot more shopping than collecting going on here. I know it's contemporary art, but how many collectors buy half their collection within a couple years of a major museum show?

Sonja Roesch of Gallery Sonja Roesch pointed to the MFAH's current show of works from the Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art. "Adolpho Leirner dedicated 40 or 50 years of his life to put a collection together for which he truly had a vision. You search and find things. I don't think a collection is put together in one or two years." With Teutonic frankness, Roesch adds, "How it is presented is so terrible, plus I think it's so terribly hung."

I asked Greene if Robert Chaney selected the work to be included in the exhibition. "We worked together on that," she replied, "but Robert was absolutely the primary curator in terms of selection." Chaney also helped hang the show, led tours, gave a lecture and moderated the panel discussion. These are typically things a curator does. As one artist quipped, "Gee, if I have a bunch of money and buy some art, can I be a curator at the MFA?"

There are all kinds of reasons behind all kinds of shows. As to the truth of rumors that the Chaneys plan to donate anywhere from $2 million to $10 million to the MFAH, Francis Carter Stephens, director of the MFAH's public relations department, laughed and said, "I haven't heard a thing about that." I want a better survey of contemporary Asian art, but at the end of the day, I'm glad to see most of the works in "RED HOT." I just wish it didn't feel like it was also a part of some art-market manipulation scam. Or, as Borden more tactfully puts it, "I get that the museum does need new trustees and money. I just wish it could be done with more grace and high-mindedness."

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