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Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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PU Art Exhibit “Outside In” Poses Questions About Contemporary, Chinese, American Art

Dilshanie Perera

“Outside In,” a new exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, aims to dismantle any preconceived notions of what a mixture of Chinese, American, and contemporary art might look like.

Featuring six artists, all of whom are American citizens whose work may be classified as Chinese, the exhibition is curated by Jerome Silbergeld, director of the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian art at the University, with Cary Liu, curator of Asian art at the art museum, and Dora Ching, associate director of the Tang Center.

“When people are crossing boundaries back and forth, they’re picking up things in a sophisticated way,” remarked Mr. Silbergeld of the fluidity of the characterizations of Chinese and American. “They’re producing something that’s not one or the other, but a third. Their work is a unique amalgamation of their experiences.”

One of the goals of the show is to broaden what people commonly think of as Chinese contemporary art, which is often classified as “avant-garde or experimental,” according to Mr. Silbergeld. “In fact, there is a wide range of styles and subject matter,” he said.

Suggesting that the featured artists draw upon sources from the past including artists and visual traditions, history, and philosophy, the second room of the exhibition showcases their artwork alongside work that may have served as inspiration. Mr. Silbergeld observed that the show also implicitly asks the questions, “What do the artists have in common? What is Chinese about their work? What is American?”

“America is the center of Chinese art production in the world today,” Mr. Silbergeld said, noting that all of the works present in the exhibition were made in the U.S., though photographs may have been taken, research may have been conducted, and some of the artists may currently reside in China.

One of the artists in the show, Arnold Chang, creates apparently traditional Chinese landscape paintings that are marked as contemporary in a very subtle, purposeful way. Mr. Silbergeld pointed out that the careful brushwork reveals how the painter holds his brush, and is an indelible indicator of Mr. Chang’s contemporary identity.

Born in New York, Mr. Chang became interested in the Chinese part of his heritage after college and subsequently began learning how to paint in a traditional style, which became one that was entirely his own.

Michael Cherney, another featured artist, uses a mixture of photography and book arts to explore his interest in the mechanical reproduction and transmission of images. A New York-born artist, Mr. Cherney lives in Beijing and showcases work under the name Qiu Mai, according to Mr. Silbergeld, who added that his work — as an Asian artist — is collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The grainy blow-ups of Mr. Cherney’s photographs refer to somewhat recognizable images, while simultaneously distancing the viewer from them. A striking example is an extreme close-up photo of a mountain top that visually mimics the brushstrokes of ancient scroll paintings depicting mountainous landscapes.

The Tiananmen Square massacre shifted the direction of Zhi Lin’s art. Two hanging scrolls from his series “Five Capital Punishments in China” depict members of the public from different historical periods in China alongside the victims of the punishment. The work deals with silent complicity, and the indirect involvement of the public in matters such as the universal problem of torture. Mr. Silbergeld mentioned that Mr. Lin’s style of painting and composition is influenced by Baroque art.

In another very different, almost minimalist painting, Mr. Lin tackles the history of the American railroad. Chinese laborers were largely written out of that industrial history, even though they contributed significantly to the construction of railroads in the western U.S. In the painting, Mr. Lin writes the names of all of the Chinese labor camps on the rocks that frame the bottom of the piece, while removing all people from the scene.

The other artists featured in “Outside In” are Liu Dan, Zhang Hongtu, and Vanessa Tran. The exhibition will be on view until June 7.

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