Visual Arts

Made in China

Most Americans don't think much about China. The nation that's home to 20 percent of the people on the planet is a murky place that hovers behind low price tags and bird flu. Few of us think of China as a producer of first-rate contemporary art that gazes out at the world and asks, "WTF?"

"Regeneration," a touring show of work by 26 Chinese artists on exhibit at Arizona State University Art Museum, reveals the country and the people behind those cheap consumer goods. There, in the paintings, photographs, video installations, performance pieces and sculpture, one can see a nation wrestling with the social, economic and cultural changes that have transformed the country in the nearly 30 years since Mao died.

Some of the work references traditional Chinese forms, like Hong Hao's gorgeous, ancient-looking silkscreen prints of world maps in which Hong has rearranged the continents to suit the Chinese worldview circa 2005 (China is at the center of the world instead of off on the distant eastern edge). But most of the artists charge boldly into new territory.

Zhang Dali, billed as China's first graffiti artist, paints on the ruins of traditional buildings as they're being razed to make room for high-rises. Photographs show his signature mark, a human profile with a gigantic nose, lurking on doomed walls like a ghost of China past -- or the bogeyman of its Westernized future. Liang Juhui's row of digitally collaged photos imitates what it's like standing in one of those canyons of concrete and steel springing up atop the old neighborhoods. And Chinese youth adrift between the old ways and the new ones peer out of Zhang Yajie's cranky, gray-toned paintings, looking as stupid and contagious as Americans.

It's powerful stuff.

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Leanne Potts