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

Collecting on the quick with the Chaney family

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.

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.

Details

Through October 21. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

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.

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 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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