Certain characteristics of contemporary Chinese art have clung to the popular imagination more than others. Some might picture the political pop of Wang Guangyi, in which propaganda-style posters feature images like a comrade reading Mao’s Little Red Book in front of a Gucci sign. Others might imagine the cynical realism of Yue Minjun, his ironic self-portraits documenting frozen laughs and pained squints. These pieces are as recognizable as they are digestible, but as China’s capitalist Communism has matured and mutated, a crop of new works has begun supplanting these familiar images.
Take Xu Zhen’s kaleidoscopic oeuvre. The main room of his self-titled show at James Cohan contains three paintings from his “Under Heaven” series. There’s no revolutionary red here, only flirtatious pink. The canvasses have been covered by luxurious blobs of paint applied with icing nozzles, the countless twirls forming a cloyingly sweet surface. A vase titled Vault-of-Heaven is displayed in the corner; the delicate peach-blossom pattern on the porcelain is offset by a brutal bend in its neck. In Focus, an analog camera is pinned to the wall by a lance that’s seemingly been stabbed through its lens. There are no Party slogans here, but perhaps the capricious hold of the Communist regime becomes visible in the dangling lance? The “frosting” on the paintings look like they’d melt off on a hot summer day; can one read the fragility of the country’s economy in these supine blobs?
Xu Zhen was born in 1977, and came of age at a time when China was transitioning from an era marked by politics to one defined by economics. Zhen emerged in the Chinese art world in the Nineties, when money started flooding the country as if it were the Wild West, and his work has addressed this shift. For ShanghArt Supermarket (2014), for example, he re-created a Chinese convenience store in which empty packages of toothpaste and cereal could be bought at store price. His preoccupations bring to mind those of another Chinese artist, Cao Fei, born a year after Zhen; her recent solo show at MoMA PS1 included a work — RMB City — built entirely within Second Life and named after the Chinese currency.
For Zhen, money isn’t merely a token; he plays with the idea that, in contemporary China, economic structures have replaced political symbols, or even the figure of the artist. In 2009, the artist dissolved his personal identity, replacing it with the “MadeIn Company,” an “art creation company” outfitted with two dozen workers for whom Zhen became the CEO. Since then, his works have been credited to MadeIn. In 2013, the company launched “Xu Zhen” as a brand, as if to say that the artist is not the author, but a profitable product. Zhen doesn’t need political imagery in his works. Instead, it’s the structures by which these works are made that become charged; the fact that the “Under Heaven” series was produced by MadeIn assistants is more symbolic than the swirls themselves.
Zhen’s (or rather, MadeIn’s) latest work hangs in the back room, a Gothic sculpture constructed from leather-and-rubber objects that allude to bondage. The title of the work, Corporate-(Erected), invites associations with both the corporeal and corporate worlds. It’s as though the body of the sculpture, wrapped with whips and belts tied by MadeIn employees, has been incorporated. The show’s most interesting work, though, hangs across the room. Rainbow (1998) stems from the early days of Zhen’s career: In the four-minute-long video, which premiered at the 2001 Venice Biennale, we see a naked back being whipped repeatedly. The instigator here has been cut out, with only his or her output visible: Though we hear the whip crack, we don’t see the whip itself. It’s the only work in the show that’s still credited to Zhen, and the only piece that contains a human figure. The work was made on the cusp of China’s economic boom, and seems to offer a peek into an earlier world. We might not see the whip, but what remains visible is the skin turning brighter and brighter red, almost as if out of embarrassment.
James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street
Through October 8