Why do art museums show conceptual art? Certainly not because it has that density of visuality that requires the hand and eye of a master. Some of the works in this show, like the blown-glass vessels commissioned by Chen Zhen (1955-2000) are handsome and skillfully made, but we’ll never know who actually shaped them because that’s beside the point. The point is that it serves as the material residue of certain ideas that are arguably important. Perhaps words could have been used to express those ideas with greater clarity. Gallery signage is necessary to explicate them. But unusual stuff on the floor, especially in large quantities, grabs more immediate, even if puzzled, attention. And unlike a short string of words, it has been bought, sold and continues to proclaim the privileges of wealth, status and cultural authority. As the title of this two-venue exhibition puts it, it has “The Allure of Matter.”
There are only a few pieces in this exhibition of mainstream Chinese contemporary art that I found alluring—particularly the “Wave of Materials” at Wrightwood 659. Made by Zhu Jinshi (b. 1954), this oceanic eruption of hanging paper and taut string transforms its room into a soothing and stimulating space. No explanation was needed and none was offered. It’s like walking behind a waterfall, without the dampness. Zhu also uses more conventional materials, and not surprisingly, when he applies oil paint to canvas, his paintings online appear to offer more aesthetic satisfaction than conceptual confrontation. Unlike many other artists who lived through the Cultural Revolution, he left China for Europe, where his role models were Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. Many of the other older artists in this show, like Lin Tianmiao, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang and Ai Weiwei, headed for the New York of Andy Warhol.
Two of the other notable pieces in the Tadao Ando interior were set into a high atrium beside a grand stairway—I’m not sure how they would work in a less spectacular space. The “Floats” of Shi Hui (b. 1955), loom awkward and hopeful, lit from within like the paper bags of luminaria. Beneath them is Liu Wei’s carefully built structure of scrap wood and door frames. It points upward with the aspiration of a temple or church. Neither of these artworks require explanation.
At the Smart Museum, the only piece with remarkable visuality is “Mountain Range” by Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957). It was made by setting fire to gunpowder carefully dribbled across a floor-sized sheet of paper. The results are thrilling, as both a pyrotechnic performance, captured on film and played in the gallery, and as a traditional Chinese landscape painting. Cai, the subject of a recent Netflix documentary, obviously has exceptional mental powers, but so do most of the people who managed to get into Chinese art schools when they reopened in the late 1970s. They were a chosen few.
The rest of the exhibitions is more about ideas—ideas that now seem dated, shallow or obvious: scolding us for bad personal behavior like smoking cigarettes or reminding us of the importance of emptiness or nostalgia for a lost neighborhood. The elephants in the room of today’s China: censorship, electronic surveillance and the Uighur concentration camps, are all absent. Paradoxes are everywhere, except for the one paradox that most belongs in art museums: the stuff that continues to inspire a variety of people around the world despite having been made for a specific time and place. (Chris Miller)
“The Allure of Matter: Material Art From China” is on view at the Smart Museum, 5550 South Greenwood, and Wrightwood 659, 659 West Wrightwood, through May 3 and May 2, respectively.