Sunday, November 25, 2007

'Las Vegas Diaspora' at the Las Vegas Art Museum, LATimes

If it did nothing else, "Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland" could claim the best title of any art museum exhibition this year. The show chronicles the scattering of 26 artists who graduated from the gambling capital's University of Nevada campus after studying in the 1990s with prominent art critic Dave Hickey. Now, 15 of those artists work in eight other regions, especially on the coasts. The remainder decided to stay in town, where the show is on view at the Las Vegas Art Museum through Dec. 30. They represent the vibrant kernel of a serious art scene in a city few would expect to have one. That's the other reason that "Diaspora" is not just a snappy name but also an apt term for this undertaking. As nomenclature, the word is usually applied to describe the fate of minorities reviled by the dominant culture. That means it fits Las Vegas art to a T. This metropolis is a distinctly American city, where modern art ideas originally forged in a European crucible often have the fit of a delicate glass slipper jammed onto the ungainly foot of an ugly stepsister. In that regard, Las Vegas is the new Los Angeles. Not so long ago L.A. was the place where culture was said to be mostly found in yogurt. Vegas, though, is still the kind of place where "Swan Lake" is assumed to be performed as a topless revue, save for the incongruous ostrich feathers. "Las Vegas Diaspora" takes that no-class, low-art slur and wisely runs with it, turning most every imaginable sow's ear into a startling silk purse. The aesthetic refinement is downright extreme. Hickey, who was guest curator for the show (his wife, Libby Lumpkin, is the museum's director), came to the forefront of American art criticism -- snagging a MacArthur prize in the process -- nearly 15 years ago, when he audaciously argued that, of all things, beauty would become the art-issue of the 1990s. It did. The topic assumes an unexpected tone of militancy in "Las Vegas Diaspora." Beauty isn't offered as some timid escape from society's crushing woes, but as a sharp rebuke: Not that; this! I surrender -- happily. The works Thomas Burke's 16-foot-long panel of undulating geometric color, "The Hots," crosses Sol LeWitt with a Navajo blanket, then turns on the neon. Jane Callister's "Cosmic Landslide" is a primordial ooze of sliding paint -- pigmented magma. It might have been the site for the Rev. Ethan Acres' "Miracle at La Brea," a digital photograph that shows the born-again preacher happily resurrecting a winged Tyrannosaurus rex from the tar pits and sending it heavenward. Shawn Hummel juxtaposes a panel enameled in cherry red automotive paint with big color photographs of a purple car hood and a late-night glimpse into an apartment building window, disturbingly illuminated by acrid yellow light. It's like a gorgeous Ellsworth Kelly abstraction that morphs into a vaguely predatory image. Nearby, lovingly described slabs of raw meat and entrails, gaily marbled with fat and painted in slick oils by Victoria Reynolds, seem right at home in their elaborate Rococo frames. No guts, no glory. Sleek, glamorous, sexy, sensational -- this art is also intellectually savvy. The artists are fluent in the complex language of contemporary art, and the best of them speak distinctive dialects. Bradley Corman's black, anodized aluminum wall relief starts with a sober, Donald Judd-style Minimalism. But the striated horizontal surface of the wide, rectangular relief is slightly bowed, almost imperceptibly engaging ambient light. Static Minimalist form careens into a speeding visual blur. Across the room, Gajin Fujita engineers a different yet related collision, pushing urban street graffiti into Japanese screen painting. With a tagger's skill he writes an angry "BURN" across the flight pattern of an up-from-the-ashes phoenix. Drawing you in Seduction is also a prominent leitmotif, with the art regularly offering come-hither glances. Philip Argent does it in luscious yet apocalyptic paintings that merge crystalline shapes with liquid color, negative space with hard-edge undulations. His paintings record the big-bang-birth of a thoroughly synthetic cosmos. In a hyper-stylized manner Sush Machida Gaikotsu paints bamboo sheltering exquisite white tigers -- an animal unknown in Japan, and thus as mythic a beast as those tamed locally by Siegfried & Roy. But the way he's packaged his nominal Asian scrolls in obsessively crafted, clear acrylic boxes turns high art into luscious consumer product. The tiger, sometimes a Nippon symbol for the West, suddenly assumes a new, ravening identity. Some of the work seems skillful but as yet unprocessed. David Reed, Josiah McElhenny and Jim Isermann were among two dozen distinguished guest faculty who taught at UNLV between 1990 and 2001, and their authority is easy to spot. Robert Acuna evinces technical mastery in painterly abstractions that read something like aestheticized consumer bar-codes stretched 7 feet wide, but the flourishes of paint echo Reed's work too strongly. McElhenny's hand-blown glass confections lurk in the background of Curtis Fairman's otherwise cheeky sculptures, assembled from discount-store candlesticks, bowls and vases and suggestive of glittery, potentially lethal erotic toys. Almond Zigmund's geometric decals on a gallery window-wall and Sherin Guirguis' jazzy, decorative wall-relief of Eames-like stacking chairs both recall Isermann's work. Guirguis manages to transform the influence into something uniquely her own, though, largely through an unexpected manipulation of materials. What looks like a raised, linear drawing is in fact painted Masonite. Sculpture, painting, drawing, relief and furniture tumble together into one marvelously polymorphic species. Odd yet effective Among the show's strangest, most unexpected works are two large, oil-on-linen "Crack" paintings by Jason Tomme. Ethereal golden-brown panels turn the show's volume way down, their shadowy hues recalling fragments of ancient wall behind the foreground action in a Caravaggio, like "The Calling of St. Matthew" or "Boy With a Basket of Fruit." Art's action lies in the breach, escaping through unexpected fissures, this canny work suggests, lurking in the illuminated void where flamboyant human dramas unfold.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?, NYTimes

Your first reaction upon meeting Yue Minjun might be, yes, it is indeed he! The face with the enigmatic, jaw-breaking grin, perhaps the most recognizable image in contemporary Chinese painting, is a self-portrait.

“Yes, it’s me,” Mr. Yue said in a recent interview, and he smiled, though in a gentler, less face-splitting fashion than the man in his paintings — the one who drifts Zelig-like past various familiar backgrounds making a sardonic, or perhaps ironically despairing, comment on the passing scene.

Mr. Yue, 45, was in New York in October for the opening of an exhibition of his paintings and sculptures that continues through Jan. 6 at the Queens Museum of Art. The show, “Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile,” is the first American museum exhibition of Mr. Yue’s work and further evidence of his remarkable rise in the superheated field of Chinese contemporary art.

A few years ago, Mr. Yue was eking out a precarious existence in one of Beijing’s artist colonies, trying to figure out a way to weave China’s tumultuous experience into his works. Now, largely on the strength of that signature grin, he has achieved stardom internationally.

Most conspicuously, one of his paintings, “Execution” (1995), a satirical Pop Art-like version of Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” that was inspired by the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, sold for $5.9 million last month at an auction at Sotheby’s in London. It was a record sum for a contemporary Chinese painting. For Mr. Yue, the huge sums suddenly commanded by his works — “The Pope” (1997), depicting him as a prelate, went for $4.3 million in June — have involved a readjustment.

“I never thought about this in the past,” he said. “What was important to me was the creation part of painting. But it seems that something has changed. Maybe it’s the way money is becoming more important in society.”

He is not always comfortable with how his work is analyzed. The mesmerizing enigma of that reddish face painted over and over again, with the wide laugh and the eyes tightly shut from the hilarious strain, is subject to a multitude of interpretations. One Chinese art critic has identified the artist as a member of what he calls the school of “cynical realism,” though Mr. Yue doesn’t feel that he belongs to a school or movement and he doesn’t think he’s cynical.

“I’m actually trying to make sense of the world,” he said. “There’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do.”

Mr. Yue was born in 1962 in the far northern Heilongjiang Province of China and as a child moved to Beijing with his parents. He studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University and graduated in 1989, when China was rocked by student-led demonstrations and their suppression on Tiananmen Square in June of that year.

“My mood changed at that time,” he said. “I was very down. I realized the gap between reality and the ideal, and I wanted to create my own artistic definition, whereby there could be a meeting with social life and the social environment.”

“The first step,” he added, “was to create a style to express my feelings accurately, starting with something that I knew really well —myself.” That was the first step toward forging what has become the image that has now made him famous. The second step was to devise the laugh, which, he said, was inspired by a painting he saw by another Chinese artist, Geng Jianyi, in which a smile is deformed to mean the opposite of what it normally means.

“So I developed this painting where you see someone laughing,” he said. “At first you think he’s happy, but when you look more carefully, there’s something else there.”

“A smile,” Mr. Yue said, “doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”

The smile has been variously interpreted as a sort of joke at the absurdity of it all, or the illusion of happiness in lives inevitably heading toward extinction.

Karen Smith, a Beijing expert on Chinese art, suggests that Mr. Yue’s grin is a mask for real feelings of helplessness.

“In China there’s a long history of the smile,” Mr. Yue said. “There is the Maitreya Buddha who can tell the future and whose facial expression is a laugh. Normally there’s an inscription saying that you should be optimistic and laugh in the face of reality.”

“There were also paintings during the Cultural Revolution period, those Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing,” he continued. “But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.”

Mr. Yue said his smile was in a way a parody of those posters. But, since it’s a self-portrait, it’s also necessarily a parody of himself, he added.

“I’m not laughing at anybody else, because once you laugh at others, you’ll run into trouble, and can create obstacles,” he said. “This is the way to do it if you want to make a parody of the things that are behind the image.”

The real reason he paints himself is that it gives him a greater margin for freedom of expression, he explained.

The work at the Queens Museum ranges from a grouping of 20 life-size terra cotta soldiers, grinning versions of the famous statues unearthed years ago at the tomb of China’s first emperor, to a painting of a laughing version of himself holding another self-image aloft in front of the Statue of Liberty.

There is also a series called “Hats,” in which Mr. Yue has painted himself in all sorts of headgear, from an American football helmet to a peaked cap of a soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, with that unvarying laugh on his face.

“It’s not a denial of reality but a questioning of it,” Mr. Yue said of his work in general. “And that laugh — anybody who’s gone through Chinese recent experience would understand it.”