By Kathleen Vanesian
By Amy Silverman
By Robrt L. Pela
By Jim Louvau
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Benjamin Leatherman
By New Times
By Becky Bartkowski
And in what category do I place Wang Zhiyuan's Underpants (2005) and Underpants #6, both crafted from fiberglass resin painted in soft hues of fleshy pearlescent pink? The wall sculptures, most probably inspired by either a Frederick of Hollywood's or trashy lingerie catalog, are in the form of hip-hugger bikini pants and a crotchless G-string, respectively. On the former, a peony surrounded by licking flames strategically decorates the pubic area, in the middle of which arises a tiny Scud missile aimed at a daisy; on the latter, "no war" adorns the lingerie, the peony again a focal point, so to speak. Look closely and, in the flower's center, you'll see a little couple humping. It's a postmodern tribute to the '60s cry of "make love, not war." Wang's artistic efforts were so officially frowned upon that the artist fled to Australia for 10 years, though he has returned to China and has returned to producing his signature underwear.
Cynical Realism — capturing the mood of deep disillusionment, betrayal, and pessimism that pervaded the country after the anti-democratic atrocities of Tiananmen Square — was pioneered by such artists as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, who paint highly unsettling self-portraits in the guise of interchangeable, frozen, close-eyed, grinning, or laughing men that border on the psychotic.
Walking in their steps is Zheng Li, who is known for strange, monochromatic gray paintings featuring brooding or maniacally grinning babies often engaged in obviously adult activities, like smoking cigarettes. In his enigmatic The King and the Little Bird (2008), Zheng has painted a cross-eyed, frowning baby with a folded paper origami bird pointing a gun to his temple; a close reading of the image reveals that the face is actually a mask. With its sunken chest and pained expression, this is less a chubby baby promising good fortune than an old man so existentially alienated by life that he wants to end his.
Some of the best work in "Eastern Promise" is in ceramic, by the youngest artists represented, and deftly commingles references to well-known Western art history with China's illustrious historical and political past. Direct homage is paid by Huang Binyan to French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's groundbreaking Fountain (1917) in Cover #2 (2007). Duchamp's urinal is transformed by being covered in florid famille rose patterns common in China's last dynastic period, the Qing Dynasty. Huang's Rabbit #5 (2007) is a thoroughly Sinofied version, in Ming Dynasty-inspired blue and white painted porcelain, of Jeff Koon's famous 1986 stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable rabbit.
And not to be missed is Digesting Mao (2007) by Li Mingzhu, a series of 10 porcelain plates filled with what appear to be plump dim sum dumplings nestled in edible garnish — all in the shape of Mao's head — that ultimately disappear from the last plate.
At this point, I'm forced to cherry-pick — there are so many more pieces just as engaging in "Eastern Promise," so take advantage of the fact that you can actually see this work right now without having to wing your way to Beijing or Shanghai, where you would probably need a respirator and oxygen tank because of the crappy air quality.